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What Does Opposition Leader Tshisekedi’s Death Mean for DR Congo’s Road to Elections?
What Does Opposition Leader Tshisekedi’s Death Mean for DR Congo’s Road to Elections?
Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results
Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results
Op-Ed / Africa

What Does Opposition Leader Tshisekedi’s Death Mean for DR Congo’s Road to Elections?

Originally published in African Arguments

The death of the veteran politician deprives the opposition of a well-known rallying figure. Without him, uncertainty and growing popular anger are likely to lead to more instability.

The death of prominent opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has deprived the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) of a unique political figure who was at the forefront of the fight for democracy for over three decades.

His loss is a major blow to the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, which he led alongside the relative newcomer, ex-Katanga Governor Moïse Katumbi. It also undermines the DRC’s faltering transition and may play into the hands of the ruling majority that has consistently sought to delay elections.

As popular anger mounts, the opposition will have to work hard to rebuild a credible leadership

Coming just a month after the signing of a political agreement, which would have put him at the head of an important follow-up committee, his departure robs the opposition of a leader able to combine genuine street-level popularity with an ability to squeeze out political deals. As popular anger mounts, the opposition will have to work hard to rebuild a credible leadership, capable of concluding a deal with the majority.

A fragmented opposition loses its figurehead

The 84-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi launched the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party in 1982 and built a strong following in his native Kasai region and in the capital Kinshasa. He symbolised the struggle for democracy in the waning days of the President Mobutu Sese Seko regime. He also opposed President Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu in 1997, and his son Joseph Kabila, the current president.

Unable to resist the populist option, he made a strategic error when he boycotted the relatively credible 2006 elections. In 2011, he ended up coming second in a hard-fought but less credible election, and did not accept the result, proclaiming himself president in a parallel swearing in ceremony.

In more recent years, despite living abroad, he again became the symbolic figurehead of the struggle for democracy

In more recent years, despite living abroad, he again became the symbolic figurehead of the struggle for democracy, this time over the defence of the constitution, and particularly its two-term limit for the president, and the need to organise elections on time in December 2016. They have since been delayed.

This position allowed him to improve cooperation with his fellow opposition leaders, and in June 2016 he was a driving force behind the creation of the Rassemblement, combining the forces of several parties and high-profile figures, including Moïse Katumbi and those in the “G7” (an umbrella group of opposition parties that left the ruling majority in 2016), giving the opposition renewed cohesion and strength.

When Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa on 27 July 2016 after years of self-imposed exile, he was greeted by massive crowds, demonstrating his unique credibility and ability to get people out onto the street. These were seemingly undamaged by simultaneously being in direct and secretive talks with Kabila’s governing majority.

As president of the Rassemblement’s “governing council” (Conseil des sages), Tshisekedi provided legitimacy and political credibility to the other parties and individuals, most of whom had been part of the ruling majority or held positions in government. These actors needed Tshisekedi’s street credibility and popularity as they tried to build a more pragmatic negotiation strategy. At several moments, tension within the Rassemblement was palpable as the G7 tried to manage the unpredictability of the platform’s leader.

After the elections were pushed back by 18 months, a combination of mounting popular tension and pressure by the international community led to the signing of the 31 December 2016 global and inclusive agreement mediated by the Congolese Catholic Church. It called for a transitional government, a promise that President Kabila will not run for another term, and elections to be held in 2017. Tshisekedi no longer had the physical strength to participate in the talks, but his symbolic importance was underlined when he was appointed as the president of the critical follow-up committee, the Conseil National de suivi de l’accord et du processus électoral (CNSA).

The transition process stalls

Tshisekedi left Kinshasa on 24 January as negotiations on the implementation of the 31 December agreement stalled over several issues, including the procedure to appoint a new prime minister and the division of ministerial positions. The lack of progress, in the context of deepening economic malaise and insecurity in several provinces, including Tshisekedi’s native Kasai Central, will increase popular frustrations and tensions.

Those now taking over the mantle of political opposition will find it hard to channel the frustrations of the population

Tshisekedi had symbolic importance for the population; despite his at times vainglorious or inflammatory approach, he represented hope of a better political future. Those now taking over the mantle of political opposition will find it hard to channel the frustrations of the population, already deeply sceptical about politicians, into constructive political engagement. The only moral authority and beacon of hope at this stage remains the Catholic Church, currently attempting to resuscitate the agreement it mediated in December.

Before his demise, Tshisekedi’s party had already been struggling with the succession question. And while some have been pushing for Tshisekedi’s son Felix to take over, others refuse moves that make the party seem like a hereditary monarchy, whatever the strength of the name Tshisekedi. This struggle played out in the broader political negotiations and disputes over who should become prime minister, with some pushing for Felix to take that role in the name of the Rassemblement.

Charles Mwando Nsimba, the G7’s president and Rassemblement’s vice-president, who died in December. Moïse Katumbi would be an obvious choice to take on a more prominent leadership role. But he is still in a form of exile abroad, pending an eventual agreement on his judicial prosecution (a sensitive case, that is now, per the December agreement, managed by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo [CENCO]). Moreover, while Katumbi has a certain national popularity, he does not have the political party, political weight or legitimacy as an opposition leader that Tshisekedi could command.

Talks that had been extended for a week by CENCO after the failure to meet the 28 January deadline are likely to be halted for a while during the funeral and mourning period. After that, there is an opportunity for political leaders to work in good faith to implement the 31 December agreement and to open up political space. But renewed popular anger will be an increasing challenge as people’s faith in the political process plumbs new depths.

Read the PDF version here.

Contributors

Project Director, Central Africa
richmoncrieff
Senior Analyst, DR Congo
An Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) agent seals a ballot box in front of observers in the Lubumbashi's Mapala district on December 30, 2018, following the close of polls in DR Congo’s presidential, provincial and national elections. CAROLINE THIRION/AFP
Statement / Africa

Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results

The Democratic Republic of Congo awaits the official results of 30 December 2018 elections, amid hints that unofficial numbers show an opposition presidential candidate winning. Conflicting tallies could spark violence. Outside powers should stand together in urging calm and careful verification of the electoral outcome.

The Independent Electoral Commission in the Democratic Republic of Congo will likely declare results of the 30 December elections this week. Already there are worrying signs of divisions among international actors, after a statement by the Catholic Church, which fielded the largest election observation mission, indicating an opposition victory. Failure to respect the electoral result would risk throwing the country into a major political crisis. If there are indications the electoral commission has attempted to manipulate results, international actors, starting with the UN Security Council which plans to meet on Friday, should call for thorough and credible investigation before those results are accepted as definitive. They must remain united in their response and, led by African powers, encourage the Congolese to undertake delicate negotiations to ensure a peaceful outcome that reflects the will of the people.

On Sunday 30 December, millions of Congolese voted to elect a new president and provincial and national lawmakers. Despite growing tensions over repeated delays and the unwarranted exclusion of around 4 per cent of the electorate, mainly in North Kivu province, the vote passed off in relative calm. Both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who fielded the biggest international observation missions, concluded the poll was adequately run despite some unrest and technical problems.

On 3 January, the Episcopal Council of the Congolese Catholic Church, known as CENCO, issued a statement based on information gathered by its forty thousand observers, present in many of the 75,500 polling stations, and on its parallel vote tabulation. The CENCO is widely regarded as credible in the DRC and has observed many previous elections. It stated that the irregularities and problems it had observed had not prevented the Congolese people making a democratic choice and that a single candidate had emerged as clear winner. CENCO is barred by law from naming a victor before official results are proclaimed, but in urging the largely government-controlled Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) to respect the vote’s outcome, it strongly hinted that the incumbent President Joseph Kabila’s preferred candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, had not won. Subsequent sources briefed by CENCO point to opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as the winner.

The split between CENCO and the ruling majority has left diplomats struggling to reach consensus.

CENCO’s calculation, if correct, could have far reaching consequences. Fayulu, a long-time opposition figure and former businessman, is backed by two exiled opposition heavyweights, Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba. The government’s successful moves to exclude those two men from the presidential contest added to their already bad relations with those in power in Kinshasa, many of whom would expect a Fayulu presidency to look into their alleged past crimes and corruption. Indeed, for President Kabila and his close allies a Fayulu victory is the worst possible outcome; they regard the other main opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi as more conciliatory. There is a real danger they push the election commission to engineer a result more to their liking.

The split between CENCO and the ruling majority (which has strongly criticised CENCO’s declaration) has left diplomats struggling to reach consensus. It threatens the international cohesion of the past twelve months which led to increased pressure on President Kabila and partly explains his August 2018 decision not to stand for a third term in office. Worryingly, the CENCO position is being portrayed by some in private as a “western” position, potentially playing into an unhelpful Africa versus the West narrative. The UN Security Council has been unable to agree upon a position. Its members and other international actors all concur that Congolese politicians should respect the election results. But they disagree over whether to put immediate pressure on the electoral commission, and by extension the government, by urging the commission to rapidly publish results and warning that it must respect the voters’ choice, or to give it the benefit of the doubt and allow it time to publish official results, thereby avoiding giving too much weight to the CENCO’s tallies. An important Security Council meeting has been pushed back to Friday in the expectation that the electoral commission will have declared results by then. It is foreseen that the council will be briefed by outside experts, including the CENCO and possibly regional actors – the AU and SADC – that observed the vote.

It is vital that the electoral commission declares the result of the election transparently.

The situation is tense. Internet communications are mainly suspended in-country and the Congolese rumour mill is generating unhelpful and polarising conjecture that feeds into the international debate. Many Congolese are caught between hope for change and uncertainty as to what will happen next. To encourage calm, all three candidates and their entourages must pass constructive messages of reassurance, urge supporters to remain calm, call for patience and avoid inflammatory statements.

It is vital that the electoral commission declares the result of the election transparently, and in enough detail for their conclusions to be verified, and if necessary challenged in the courts. Any attempt to manipulate results would likely generate enormous anger and potentially spark violence countrywide. On the other hand, many of those currently in power have much to lose in what could be a dramatic shift of fortunes. If Fayulu has won, it is important they receive assurances about their future to the extent possible so as to improve prospects of a peaceful transition.

International actors must remain steadfast in calling for the result to be respected. They should, however, resist drawing hasty conclusions that could widen international divides. Foreign powers must avoid splitting along pro-Kabila, pro-opposition lines, which would likely embolden each side just as delicate negotiations and signs of inclusivity and accommodation are needed. In this light, the Security Council meeting on Friday provides a crucial occasion for a display of unity. The council should call for calm and for all parties to respect the outcome of the vote. If the electoral commission declares a result significantly at odds with figures collected by the CENCO and other observers, including those of political parties, the council will have to call for a thorough and credible investigation before results are accepted as definitive. As they did in persuading Kabila to step down, African powers should again take the lead to help Congolese actors negotiate a peaceful outcome that respects the will of the people.