Will Felix Tshisekedi bring an end to turmoil in Democratic Republic of Congo?

Screenshot of a TV5Monde anchor (right) discussing 2018 general election contestants Felix Tshisekedi (center) and Joseph Kabila (left). Via YouTube.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s constitutional court announced last month Felix Tshisekedi as the country's newly elected president, rejecting a legal challenge filed by runner-up Martin Fayulu who claims the vote was fraudulent.

The DR Congo held fiercely contested general elections in late December 2018 after the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, who ruled for 18 years, was constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

The election was anticipated to be the DR Congo’s first “democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence, but has been mired in controversy since the December 30 vote.”

Frontrunner Martin Fayulu of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party.filed a court challenge claiming the votes to be rigged against him. He and others believe a deal was made by Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, or UDSP, and President Kabila of the ruling Common Front for Congo party, or FCC. 

On January 19, 2019, the court rejected Fayulu’s request for failure to prove his assertions beyond a reasonable doubt. 

According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, Tshisekedi received 38.5 percent of the vote while Martin Fayulu, of the Lamuka opposition alliance, obtained 34.7 percent and “loyal hardliner” Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary garnered 23.8 percent.  Voter participation was less than half at around 47.6 percent.

Following the announcement, celebrations commenced at party headquarters in Kinshasa, the capital. Among several heads of state in Africa, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa congratulated Tshisekedi and the United Republic of Tanzania's President John Magufuli also tweeted his congratulations.

Despite initial disagreement among African Union members about the election outcome, the AU has welcomed Tshisekedi, who gave his maiden speech to the union on February 10 to warm reception.

But two months after the disputed elections, many fear that this transition of power was staged carefully to ensure that Kabila holds onto power through backstage agreements with Tshisekedi.

Who is Tshisekedi?

Félix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi was born in Léopoldville on June 13, 1963. His father, Etienne Tshisekedi, dominated Congolese politics as the founder of UDPS — the largest opposition party.

Due to his father’s opposition politics, the family was exiled internally to their home town, Kasai, and in the 1980s, Tshisekedi traveled with his father to Belgium, where he earned a diploma in accounting in 1987. He earned several other degrees between 1991-2001 and worked in marketing.

While in Belgium, Tshisekedi turned to politics, like his father, and became the national secretary for external relations of the UDPS in 2008. In November 2011, he planned to represent the city of Mbuji Mayi in Kasai but did not take his seat, citing a deceitful election.

His father was supposed to take on a leadership role as Kabila transitioned out of power, but upon his father’s death on February 1, 2017, son Felix Tshisekedi was elected to lead the UDPS, thrusting into him a powerful leadership role. 

‘The people's soldier’ — opposition woes linger

Tshisekedi’s victory may bring peace to the DRC or explode into turmoil, depending on whether or not Fayulu, who firmly rejected the election results, can accept this transition of power.

Fayulu called the election results “a constitutional coup d’etat” and “electoral swindle.” In a January 14 statement from the Roman Catholic Church, one of the few trusted institutions in DR Congo, they said:

The results of the presidential election published by [the electoral commission] do not match those collected by our observer mission.

“It is no secret that you have elected me president,” Fayulu announced to the public, considering himself the only legitimate president of DR Congo. Fayulu has been involved in campaigns for multi-party democracy and organized protests to this effect in 2016 and 2017.  

Francesca Bomboko, director of Berci International, a research and consulting group in DR Congo, told the BBC that Fayulu has often shown up at protests to oppose Kabila. Fayulu has reportedly said that the “Congolese call him [the] people's soldier.”

When Fayulu was nominated as the joint opposition candidate for 2019,  Albert Moleka, Etienne Tshisekedi's former chief of staff, told the BBC that Fayulu could “become the new Etienne Tshisekedi,” saying “he’s the one who embodies the real opposition.”

With the support of former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, the former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, Fayulu seems to be rising in influence and power in DR Congo politics.

With no full support from party ranks, Tshisekedi’s victory came as a surprise. According to the International Crisis Group, the UDSP split into several factions, some of which rejected the transfer of leadership to Etienne's son Tshisekedi.

Felix Tshisekedi is also somewhat of a novice in the political arena. Tshisekedi has been criticized for his lack of charisma and political experience in high office, drawing his political legitimacy from his father, according to Simon Allison of the Mail & Guardian.

On the other hand, Tshisekedi is “more diplomatic, conciliatory and attentive to people,” a member of the Congolese opposition said.

He has promised to build a nation of unity, peace and security.

Tshisekedi said on January 20 that the court's confirmation of his win was a victory for the entire country.  

It is Congo that won. I am engaged in a campaign to reconcile all Congolese. Congo won’t be of division, hatred or tribalism. It will be a reconciled Congo, a strong Congo focusing on development, peace and security.

Patrick Litanga, a Ph.D. student at American University in Washington DC., speaking to Al Jazeera, observed that Tshiesekedi’s win may be the beginning of a new political landscape:

Felix Tshisekedi will be the first president in the Congolese political history since the time of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba to face a serious countervailing power. We may be witnessing the genesis of political checks and balances.

DR Congo’s future hinged on difficult past

DR Congo gained independence in 1960. Since then, citizens have been subjected to numerous human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings; torture, sexual and gender-based violence including rapes and abductions.  

Uppsala Conflict Data Project concluded that Laurent Kabila’s government saw the next three highest conflict death rates respectively, with 13,884 in 1998, 8,019 in 1999, and 7,537 in 2000.

Will the new epoch of Felix Tshisekedi government end the turmoil or stir up it? Let’s wait. 

1 comment

  • As DRC’s president Félix Tshisekedi marked one month in office on Sunday, 24 February 2019, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo called on him to take swift action to address the country’s abysmal human rights record.

    “As the new president of Democratic Republic of Congo, you have the unique responsibility and opportunity to ensure that your government moves swiftly to reverse the deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” he said, in an open letter, accompanied by a 10-point proposal for addressing the most pressing human rights issues in the central African country.

    “Serious human rights violations and crimes under international law have been committed in the DRC over the last 25 years, claiming the lives of millions of Congolese people over this period, mostly with impunity,” he added.

    Amnesty International’s 10-point proposal includes: lifting the ban on peaceful protests; ending internet and media restrictions; ending child labour practices and championing the rights of women.

    It also recommends that President Félix Tshisekedi provides the leadership required to ensure that his government takes concrete measures to improve respect for people’s human rights including their safety and security, by among others investigating allegations of human rights violations by the security forces and ensuring protection of civilians in conflict-torn areas.

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