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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?
From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street
From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street
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, Congo
Philippe Kadima Cintu crosses the River Congo in a "pirogue" motorised canoe while doing field research in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. CRISIS GROUP
Impact Note / Africa

From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Here we interview Philippe Kadima Cintu, who is focusing on his own country, DR Congo.

Philippe Kadima Cintu used to be busy with diplomatic niceties as part of one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main embassies in Africa. Now he is rediscovering his native country as a Giustra Fellow with International Crisis Group – meeting and interviewing everybody as he crisscrosses the country by plane, bus and motorised canoe.

“In my old job, I dealt with high-level politicians, VIPs. I didn’t have time to go to the field or speak to people on the ground”, Philippe said. “Now I speak with everyone, humanitarians, soldiers, civilians, local leaders, refugees. It changed my perspective on how the country is being managed, how to end poverty, how to bring peace, how to bring the country together. I’ve experienced the grassroots. I see things differently”.

Philippe is one of three Giustra Fellows who joined International Crisis Group six months ago and now support all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on how conflict causes crises of refugees and migration. The program, made possible by a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, aims to give first-hand experience to young experts in the countries where Crisis Group works and to build capacity through training and mentorship of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis.

DR Congo’s past and present conflicts mean this vast country of 70 million people has at least three million refugees and IDPs, and Philippe is certain that understanding their problems is vital to have a full picture of domestic politics. With elections due to be held before the end of 2017, what happens to them is a constant worry as displaced people may have trouble accessing their voting stations, armed groups prevent the displaced from returning home and state protection is often weak.

We speak to more people than in other jobs, whether it’s for fifteen minutes or two hours... I realised how much work lay behind Crisis Group reports, and also how they change people’s minds.

Based in the Africa Program’s eastern hub in Nairobi, Philippe has now been on three research trips to DR Congo in his new role, each for more than two weeks. He began by working with the senior analyst covering the country, meeting contacts in the capital. Then they went together to the troubled, resource-rich region of Katanga.

“I learned how to do interviews. You don’t go with a questionnaire, you just have a conversation with people, you allow them to express themselves. That way you get the necessary information you need to make an analysis. It was very useful”, Philippe said. “Sometimes you make notes in front of them, when they are very comfortable. Sometimes I just listen and make notes later”.

On his last trip he travelled alone to Kisingani to study the work of the Electoral Commission. He quickly found himself meeting many more people than just the head of the commission in the province. In the end, the list included the provincial government, ministers, members of parliament, political parties, civil society activists working on elections, NGOs, the UN, security people, the police and the army.

“It seems to me that we speak to more people than in other jobs, whether it’s for fifteen minutes or two hours. You quickly learn who is interesting and who isn’t. I realised how much work lay behind Crisis Group reports, and also how they change people’s minds”, Philippe said. “For instance, I felt different when I spoke to the governor. When you share your knowledge, when you think through what should be done together, you really are part of an exchange. People are more accepting when you share your point of view like that”.

We got feedback about our articles from politicians saying what we were doing was helping avoid violence.

For instance, when he was meeting another leading Kisingani official, he realised that his interviewee was only meeting officials from far-away powers like the U.S., the UN, Belgium and others. “I said, didn’t you ever think of speaking to Africans from the African Union?” Philippe remembered. “They said, no, we never thought of that. We should. Now you see them talking to Africans”.

Philippe’s persuasion is not all talking, as he has contributed to more than ten reports, commentaries and op-eds published by Crisis Group on DR Congo in the past six months. He has also enriched the Central Africa team, helping with internal training on international policy formulation and post-field trip debriefs. He believes that one article in particular, Course contre la montre (A Race Against Time) published on the prominent website Jeune Afrique, was influential in promoting dialogue and persuading the Congolese not to take their anger onto the streets where events could run out of control.

“We got feedback about our articles from politicians saying what we were doing was helping avoid violence”, Philippe said. “And after the Jeune Afrique article, I got a call from the assistant of the police commissioner, telling me: ‘The points you make are really right’”.

Philippe believes his experiences so far are improving his capacity for analysis, partly because his former government work was mainly about getting people to do things as quickly as possible from a list of instructions.

“I am learning how to create a message. I’ll be a better adviser in future”, he said. “Sometimes a lot of people can’t do much, but a small organisation like Crisis Group, with just 110 people all told, can be seen as a big organisation by the people I deal with. I couldn’t believe that a small group can do such big stuff”.

Philippe Kadima Cintu, a Congolese national, is proficient in French, English, Portuguese, Lingala and Swahili. He previously worked at the DR Congo’s Embassy in South Africa and in Burundi as part of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Philippe received his degree in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and his post-graduate diploma in Humanitarian and Development Management from the University of Wits at Johannesburg.