By Viktor Sundman

Etienne Tshisekedi was a giant – or as one of his former colleagues put it, a baobab tree – in Congolese politics. Between 1991 and 1997 he was named prime minister of Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was then called) no less than four times, but never lasted more than a few months in the post due to frequent clashes with then-president Mobutu Sese Seko. Since 1997, he has been the main leader of the civilian opposition to the current president, Joseph Kabila, to which he lost a fraudulent presidential election in 2011. On the 1st of February, 2017, the 84-year-old politician died while in Brussels for a medical check-up.

His death is mourned widely in the DRC, not just because of his past deeds, but because of the uncertainty his death brings. Tshisekedi played a key role in the current negotiations on the country’s presidential elections, and his death endangers the fragile political process.
Presidential elections were supposed to be held in November 2016, but the electoral commission announced earlier in the year that the elections would be postponed until 2018 because of delays in updating the voter rolls. This was seen by the opposition as an attempt by President Kabila to stay in office past the end of his second and constitutionally last term on the 19th of December.

Etienne Tshisekedi, London, 2011

President Kabila invited the opposition to a national dialogue in order to agree on the political process until elections could be held, but these were boycotted by the main oppositional bloc known as the Rassemblement, led by Tshisekedi. On the 19th of September, the Rassemblement organized protests in Kinshasa, demanding that President Kabila leave office within three months. Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the protesters, and 48 civilians were killed according to UN sources. This led the Catholic Church, an important actor in Congolese politics, to withdraw from the national dialogue, further depriving the process of legitimacy. When an agreement allowing Kabila to lead a transitional government with a prime minister from the opposition until elections could be held in April 2018 was announced in October, it was rejected by the Rassemblement.

In December, the Catholic Church initiated a new political dialogue to find a solution to the political crisis before the expiration of President Kabila’s mandate. This time, the Rassemblement joined the negotiations, but an agreement could not be reached before the end of Kabila’s mandate on the 19th of December. Once again, protests erupted in several major Congolese cities, and once again the security forces responded with excessive force, resulting in at least 40 people killed and hundreds arrested. A deal was finally reached on New Year’s Eve. The deal, like the October-deal, allows Kabila to lead a transitional government, but clarifies that he will not stand for a third term, which is not allowed by the constitution, and calls for elections before the end of 2017.

Negotiations over the implementation of the deal have continued in January, but progress has been slow, and the negotiations are now in jeopardy as the opposition struggles to replace its leader. Tshisekedi was appointed to head a national council to oversee the implementation of the agreement, and the government and opposition are in disagreement over how a successor is to be appointed. The government argues that the position is up for discussion between the parties, while the opposition insists on it being filled by the president of the Rassemblement’s Committee of Elders, which is yet to be appointed.

Étienne Tshisekedi presidential campaign in 2011.

Even if the opposition gets its way, it is unclear who would be able to take Tshisekedi’s place. A primary candidate is Moise Katumbi, a former governor and co-founder of the Rassemblement, who many believe to be the grouping’s future presidential candidate. However, his appointment could prove problematic, as he fled the DRC last year when a court sentenced him to three years imprisonment in a property misappropriation case and he also faces charges of recruiting mercenaries. He could face arrest upon his return to the DRC. Another likely candidate is Felix Tshisekedi, the son of late Etienne Tshisekedi. His name is certainly a powerful symbol, but he does not have the support of all opposition groups, raising the issue of whether his status in the opposition movement is strong enough to keep it united. The opposition is fragmented, and without a clear leader, it may fall apart over internal divisions and disagreements.

Until now, the political process has had a calming effect on the people of the DRC. If the negotiations fall apart, there is a great risk of violent protest against President Kabila’s rule. When Etienne Tshisekedi returned to the DRC in the summer of 2016, after two years of medical treatment in Brussels, he was greeted by gigantic crowds. His funeral procession is likely to attract even more people, and the procession may easily be turned into an enormous protest. Alternatively, lacking a strong, unified opposition, President Kabila may see a chance to tighten his grip on power and squeeze civil society further, quelling any protests that may erupt. The fact that Kabila’s budget minister, days after Tshisekedi’s death, claimed that the country did not have enough funds to organise elections in 2017, may be a hint that the government will take the opportunity to step away from the deal. Either way, the death of Etienne Tshisekedi is a grievous event, both for his family and friends and for the hopes of democracy in the DRC.

By Viktor Sundman

Photos from Wikipedia Commons

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