What does opposition leader Tshisekedi’s death mean for DR Congo’s road to elections?

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.

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, 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.

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By Hans Hoebeke and Richard Moncrieff

Hans Hoebeke and Richard Moncrieff are respectively Senior Analyst for Congo and Central Africa Project Director of International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.

Credit picture: Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

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