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The Man Who Would Be King of Congo

KINSHASA, Congo — On Oct. 4, 2016, Etienne Tshisekedi made his final address to a crowd gathered in the courtyard of his party’s headquarters. The longtime leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s opposition was visibly frail, and the speech, slow and hesitant, lasted only three minutes. But the old man still managed to rev up his followers, many of whom strained to hear from the road outside.

Not long after Tshisekedi’s farewell speech, his son Felix led the opposition into talks with President Joseph Kabila’s ruling alliance that were supposed to resolve the thorny question of Congo’s democratic future. Kabila’s second and final term was due to expire on Dec. 20, but the government had no plan to hold elections. A constitutional crisis loomed on the horizon that many feared would lead to violence. It would have been difficult for Felix to fill his father’s shoes at any time, but Etienne’s myriad ailments could hardly have picked a more inopportune moment to overwhelm him.

Tshisekedi, who died in Brussels on Feb. 1, was a totemic figure in Congo. In 1982, he founded the oldest and largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), in a country that had been a dictatorship since Mobutu Sese Seko seized power 17 years earlier. Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by Kabila’s father, Laurent, but Congo has still yet to see a democratic transition. Tshisekedi spent several stints in prison in the 1980s, and although he never achieved his goal of the presidency, his courage in resisting first Mobutu and then Kabila, père et fils, gave him a moral standing and devoted following that is unmatched among the Congolese opposition. Up until his death, he led both the UDPS and the Rassemblement, a large opposition coalition set up last year.

Tshisekedi lived just long enough to watch his son and presumptive heir as opposition leader strike a deal that appeared to pull the country back from the brink of political crisis. On New Year’s Eve, both sides pledged not to alter the constitution — many fear that Kabila wishes to purge it of term limits in order to remain in power — and agreed to form a national unity government led by a prime minister from the Rassemblement that will organize elections in December 2017.

But the accord did not confirm Felix’s ascent as opposition leader. Instead, it named his father as head of the committee tasked with applying and monitoring its terms. So when the elder Tshisekedi died in February, it threw into question not just the future of his party and the wider opposition but the grand bargain that might ease Kabila out of power by the end of the year.

Now, after months of stalled negotiations over how to implement it, the Dec. 31 accord is hanging by a thread. Congo’s powerful conference of Catholic bishops withdrew from its mediating role last week, and the Rassemblement has called for mass protests on April 10. Can the deal survive in the absence of its most important guarantor? Or will Kabila succeed in exploiting Tshisekedi’s death to divide the opposition and cling to power?

The answer to both of those questions will depend in large part on Felix Tshisekedi, who is now Congo’s most important opposition leader — for the time being at least.

That puts a lot of responsibility in startlingly inexperienced hands. At 53, the younger Tshisekedi has spent most of his life in Belgium. He has never held public office (though he was elected to parliament in 2011 and boycotted his seat at the direction of his father) and only moved into a leadership role in the UDPS as its national secretary for external relations in 2008. For most of his professional life, he toiled in relative obscurity within the party’s European diaspora organizations. In recent years, he has made Kinshasa his permanent home and steadily and effectively inserted himself into the byzantine world of Congolese politics.

But if Tshisekedi still has his doubters, he also has a loyal stable of supporters and the most famous political name in Congo that isn’t Kabila. Even those who aren’t sold on his leadership admit that the opposition would be foolish to jettison him.

“The whole of the Rassemblement should understand that it’s useful to present Felix as his father’s successor, even though we all know the costume is too big for him,” said Albert Moleka, who served as chief of staff to the elder Tshisekedi from 2008 to 2014.

“His name and heritage provide continuity and recognition among voters who have traditionally supported the UDPS,” said Stephanie Wolters, the head of conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

That is what the Rassemblement is betting, having named him the coalition’s new president and its candidate for prime minister in the proposed unity government. Tshisekedi is also expected to seek to succeed his father as the head of the UDPS — whether personally or by anointing a member of his entourage — but he faces internal challenges in both the party and the coalition. Even if he proves a unifying figure in the short term, there is a chance his personal ambition could throw the opposition into disarray before long. A run for president by Tshisekedi — something he has refused to rule out — would likely cause the Rassemblement to crumble.

“It’s too early to say,” Tshisekedi said of his intention to run in the 2017 elections, should they be held as expected. “I like to climb the ladder, not to burn it,” he said, adding, “If one day I’m called to run, and I have a capable mind, I’ll do it.”

Part of Tshisekedi’s vulnerability within the Rassemblement stems from the fact that it unites his party with another powerful force in Congo’s opposition: Moise Katumbi, an exiled popular former governor, and the so-called “G7” group of seven parties that back him for the presidency. In fact, Tshisekedi’s ascent to the Rassemblement’s presidency came at the price of a rejiggering of power within the coalition. In early March, the leaders of its nine platforms created a second presidency; one is occupied by Tshisekedi, and one is controlled by Pierre Lumbi, the president of the G7.

Tshisekedi brushes off the restructuring as “wanting to share the responsibilities with our other friends,” but some of his father’s oldest comrades blame him for too easily giving up power. They fear that Katumbi is commandeering the opposition from afar through the G7. Some of them have defected and backed Joseph Olengankoy, a longtime opposition politician, as the president of an alternative Rassemblement faction.

“Lumbi is becoming Etienne Tshisekedi’s successor, which is pushing the UDPS into the shadows,” said Jean Omasombo, a Congo expert at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

If a power struggle within the ranks of the opposition poses one threat to Tshisekedi’s prime ministerial prize — and to the accord that is supposed to ease Congo’s dangerous political impasse — the dogged procrastination of Kabila’s negotiators poses another, more formidable one. Among other demands, they continue to insist that the Rassemblement submit a list of three nominees for prime minister and leave the final appointment to the president. Kabila could then delight in defying the Rassemblement’s will — not to mention introduce new splits into the opposition.

Tshisekedi condemned what he calls the efforts of Kabila’s alliance to “kill the accord” and said the president would be ill-advised to spoil the agreement since it’s the sole basis of his legitimacy. “The president is only considered such because there’s an accord signed on Dec. 31, 2016, which allows him to continue for one year pending elections,” he said.

Kabila’s allies insist that the president is authorized to stay in office as long as it takes for an elected successor to replace him, and they don’t appear to be in any hurry to implement the agreement — much less hold the national elections now tentatively scheduled for December. Without a significant breakthrough, Tshisekedi won’t be moving into the prime minister’s office anytime soon, and nor will the Congolese people be queuing up to vote.

If the deal falls apart on the back of the bishops’ departure, Tshisekedi and other opposition leaders will be back to square one. Faced with a recalcitrant president, they will have to decide whether to permanently trade negotiations for the kinds of mass demonstrations now slated for April 10.

Even if the talks are revived, the opposition has a long and perilous road ahead. Some worry that Kabila could actually be strengthened by a Tshisekedi premiership. The transitional government will be faced with the monumental task of organizing elections before the end of this year at a time when large parts of the country are becoming less stable. Should a Tshisekedi administration fail to shepherd the country to the polls on time, Kabila could heap blame on the opposition while claiming to have kept his side of the deal.

“Delivering credible, transparent, and timely elections will be the government’s main mandate, and putting an inexperienced person like Felix in that post would be a sign that the Rassemblement does not have the vision and maturity to put the country first,” Wolters said. A senior European diplomat echoed this concern.

Tshisekedi is facing strong headwinds as he attempts to live up to his illustrious name. But if and when the elections happen — whether in 2017 or years from now — he will be forced to reveal the extent of his ambitions. If he does covet the presidency, he will first need to sever his alliance with Katumbi and the G7, which will clearly be wary of empowering him. Kabila is surely rooting for such a rupture and for Tshisekedi and Katumbi to become their own worst enemies.

Image credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

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