Congo Opposition Leader’s Death Jeopardizes Political Deal

  • Tshisekedi’s death comes at critical point in power transfer
  • December deal to ease Kabila out of presidency mired in delays

The death of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, puts in jeopardy a political deal aimed at getting President Joseph Kabila to leave office.

Tshisekedi, president of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress and one of the country’s longest-serving political leaders, died Wednesday in a hospital in Brussels, party spokesman Augustin Kabuya said, after struggling with illness for many years. He was 84.

Tshisekedi’s death comes four weeks after opposition parties organized around Tshisekedi agreed in December that Kabila, in power since 2001, would step down after delayed elections this year. Efforts to implement the accord have stalled.

"His death is a huge blow to the opposition and to the chances of success for this political deal," Jason Stearns, a director of the Congo Research Group, said by phone from New York.

Kabila, who was due to step down on Dec. 19 after two terms as president, refused to leave office when elections were delayed.

Tshisekedi, who founded the UDPS in 1982, has been at the forefront of opposition politics in Congo for more than three decades. He finished runner-up to Kabila, with 32 percent of the vote, in a 2011 election, which he then disputed. 

Symbolic Leadership

After two years abroad for medical treatment, he was welcomed home by tens of thousands of supporters when he returned to Kinshasa in July and has since provided symbolic leadership for the opposition platform.

Following December’s political agreement, ruling-party and opposition leaders have fought over the structure of a new administration to manage the country until the delayed election, which may be held in December. Opposition members, including Tshisekedi’s son Felix, are vying for the position of interim prime minister. 

Opposition unity will suffer after Tshisekedi’s death, Stearns said. 

‘Fierce Test’

“The coming months will provide a fierce test for the opposition to overcome their individual egos in order to rally against Kabila,” he said.

In the past six months, Tshisekedi’s symbolic leadership succeeded in bringing together past ruling party members, such as former Katangan Governor Moise Katumbi, and opposition stalwarts in a broad-based coalition against Kabila’s rule. The same political actors may not be willing to coalesce around Katumbi or any other single opposition leader following Tshisekedi’s death.

Katumbi, who is currently in self-imposed exile in Europe, is popular across large parts of the country, but still treated with suspicion by some members of the UDPS. A drawn out battle for control of opposition politics in Congo would complicate the enforcement of the December political agreement and further reduce the likelihood of a transfer of power this year.

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