Etienne Tshisekedi, who has been a fixture in politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since the days when it was called the Belgian Congo, has died. Mr Tshisekedi passed away on Wednesday, February 1, in Brussels, a day after travelling there from Kinshasa for treatment for an unspecified illness.
The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. He was 84.
On news of his death dozens of Congolese expatriates in Brussels came to pay their respects in front of the hospital where he died, and in Kinshasa mourners gathered in front of his house in Limete neighbourhood.
Unsympathetic police dispersed the mourners with tear gas, but later in the evening Communications Minister Lambert Mende struck a more graceful tone, presenting his condolences to the family of the deceased, honouring the role he had played in his country, and promising an official funeral.
Mr Tshisekedi’s health had been known to be poor – he spent two years in Brussels receiving treatment for his condition before he returned home in July 2016 to play a leading role in the political opposition to President Joseph Kabila.
The role he played in Congolese politics is huge: the first Congolese to obtain a doctorate in law, in 1961; he advised the legendary Patrice Lumumba after independence, but then joined Kasai secessionists and took part in Joseph Mobutu’s coup in 1965.
He served in Mobutu’s early cabinets until the early 1980s, when the consequences of Mobutu’s kleptocratic rule had become disastrous. That is when he formed the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) to challenge Mobutu’s party, for which he was jailed several times in the 1980s.
In the 1990s Mobutu named him prime minister as part of power-sharing efforts to keep favour with the West, but kept him away from real power.
When Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997, he banned Mr Tshisekedi from politics, and he remained in the political cold for the next 14 years; he boycotted the 2006 election and only returned to active politics in 2011 to challenge Joseph Kabila in the presidential race.
He lost that election, which was obviously rigged.
His supporters saw him as the real winner, and continued to address him as ‘President Tshisekedi’. He was kept under house arrest after the election. He refused to let the UDPS participate in politics, something that resulted in a split in the party when some of its more opportunistic members made peace with Mr Kabila in exchange for lucrative parliamentary seats.
He went to Belgium in 2014 for medical treatment but continued to comment on political affairs, and when he returned home last year he immediately became the effective opposition leader, and mass actions he called forced concessions out of Mr Kabila.
Now his passing means that the status of these concessions has become more uncertain.
The deal signed on December 31 stated that a prime minister and head of a Transition Council would be chosen from the opposition and that elections would be held before the end of 2017.
Since then, however, Mr Kabila has dragged his feet on naming anyone at all, and we think his plan is to get out of having elections this year, just like he managed to avoid holding them in December 2016 as he had been constitutionally obliged to.
The opposition had problems of its own agreeing on who to put forward as prime minister, or even on whether they should present more than one name to Mr Kabila for him to pick from.
Many in the opposition thought that Mr Tshisekedi should head the Transition Council, but at the same time his son Felix was being put forward as a probable prime minister, and it looked untenable for one family to hold both offices.
Moise Katumbi, who will challenge Mr Kabila in the presidential race when it is held, does not look keen to get involved in the transition or even to come home – he is in exile, facing arrest on his return, and his status is something that the transition authorities are supposed to negotiate with the government.
Mr Tshisekedi’s passing is certainly a serious blow for the UDPS – Felix Tshisekedi has never had his father’s gravitas or political capital and will struggle to keep the party together.
He may even struggle to retain former allies’ support for his bid to become prime minister.
The same is true of the broader opposition: no one in the opposition has the late Mr Tshisekedi’s stature. It is unlikely anyone now can call for mass action that poses the risk of becoming destabilising, so we do not foresee serious unrest in the next few weeks (some localised action can be expected at his funeral, though).
In the medium term the situation remains unchanged: Mr Kabila is playing for time, and at some point the opposition will become more forceful.
Mr Tshisekedi’s death may have pushed that point back, but we still think it will arrive.