Patience Kabamba (PhD), Utah Valley University, Orem, Utah
Each country has its icons and heroes. They are figures of history who are the symbols of the nations. Generally, countries build monuments to celebrate their memories and their accomplishments. Etienne Tshisekedi was a human being who symbolized one of these rare historical trajectories of his country since the first state coup in 1964 by Mobutu Sésé Seko, Congo’s former president who reigned from 1965 to 1997. Soon after his law studies at the University of Lovanium on the outskirt of Kinshasa, Tshisekedi was appointed “commissary” (minister) of Justice by then General Mobutu during his first coup d’Etat in 1964. Tshisekedi was therefore part of the first government of Mobutu who, a few years earlier, had organized the assassination of the former premier minister Patrick Lumumba in 1961. Thsisekedi worked as Mobutu’s Minister of Justice, Minister of Interior, an Ambassador to Morocco, and was part of many governments since the Mobutu’s second coup d’état in 1965. Tshisekedi was part of the political life of Kinshasa until he passed away at the age of 84. First, I will talk about Tshisekedi, the man. Second, I will lay out the ideology Tshisekedi has been fighting for during his entire political life. In the introduction as well as the conclusion I will give a brief understanding of the current situation of the Congo and the direction the country is heading.
The Democratic Republic of Congo got its independence on June 30, 1960, from the Kingdom of Belgium. However, this independence remained nominal, in the sense that Belgium was not ready to give up the Congo and engineered secession movements that put the country in turmoil as soon as it declared independence. Belgians helped Katanga and Kasai to secede from the central government led by Lumumba. Since its independence, the Congo went through crises. In the 1960s, right after independence, the Congo started political in-fighting. This led to a coup d’Etat that brought Mobutu to power for thirty-two years. In the 1970s, the country had to fight many wars, mainly in the Shaba Province against Congolese soldiers who were part of the Angolan army and called, “les gendarmes Katangais.” The 1980s was characterized by the drop in price of raw material, mostly copper, on which the Zairian state relied. The economic crisis prompted social unrest, especially following the World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme. In the 1990s, Mobutu resigned from the state party (MPR). The so-called multi-party system was, in fact, a way to distract the population for Mobutu to stay above the fray. The president of Zaire spent more time in his luxurious boat on the Congo River and his village in Gbadolite than in his office. By the end of the 1990s, precisely in 1996, a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila and staffed by Rwandan and Ugandan armies and generals, invaded the Congo and after six months, was able to chase Mobutu out and occupy the entire country. On May 16, 1997, Laurent Kabila replaced Mobutu as the new president of the Congo. In 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguard and was replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. His term in power ended unwillingly on December 19, 2016, leaving the country in limbo.
Tshisekedi, the Man
Tshisekedi was one of the first students in Lovanium, the Congolese version of the Belgium University of Louvain. Tshisekedi was among the few Congolese who did tertiary education outside the seminarians who were prepared for priesthood. So, soon after his studies, he was hired by Mobutu to be part of the transitional government put in place after Mobutu’s first coup d’Etat in 1964.
Since then, Tshisekedi had been a part of Congo political life until his death in February 2, 2017. At 84, he was still the leading figure of Congolese opposition. Tshitsekedi worked with the then President Mubutu as his Minister of Justice in the 1970s, the Minister of Interior, Ambassador, etc…He was part of the Political Bureau of the State party, MPR (Popular Movement of Revolution) in the 1980s. He became the main opponent to Mobutu later in the1980s when, with other opposition leaders such as Kibasa Maliba and Kyungu Wa Kumwanza, they started the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, known under its French acronym as UDPS.
Tshisekedi was often arrested and beaten up by the Mobutu policemen. He became popular in the capital city of Kinshasa and all over the country. According to one of Mobutu’s former chiefs of staff, M. Vundwawe, Tshisekedi was part of the political ecology of Mobutu’s dictatorship. According to Vundwawe, Mobutu’s image was well received as Tshitsekedi’s popularity went up. The world can then see that, in Zaire, opposition had a voice. It was not a total dictatorship as some news media were portraying the Zairian regime. M. Vundwawe acknowledged that, as Mobutu’s chief of staff, he was in charge of sending a stipend to Tshisekedi every month, because Tshisekedi was part of their strategy to clean up the image of Zaire abroad.
During the National Sovereign Conference (CNS) in 1993, Tshisekedi was unanimously chosen as premier minister of the transitional government He lasted in that position only a few hours because when he was sworn in, he refused to promise fidelity and obedience to the then President Mobutu. Even though he was fired the day after, Tshisekedi became very popular and was dragging the masses behind him. UDPS became the leading opposition party. The end of Mobutu’s regime in 1996, and the advent of Kabila to power in Kinshasa, found Tshisekedi at his highest popularity.
Laurent Kabila did not get along with Tshisekedi, who was asking him to send his Rwandan backers home. To silence the leader of the opposition, Laurent Kabila sent him to his native village in Central Kasai. Tshisekedi was eventually brought back to Kinshasa when the Rwandans turned against Kabila and started another war in 1998. Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, by one of his bodyguards and was replaced by his 29-year-old son, Joseph Kabila. In 2003, all Congolese political parties gathered in Sun City, South Africa, around then South African president Thabo Mbeki, to discuss settlements and to end the rebellions. During the South African meeting, other political parties managed to sidestep Tshisekedi. Instead, they chose Zaidi Ngoma to represent the non-armed opposition in a government known as 1+4, meaning one president and four vice-presidents, all representing either the government or the armed and non-armed oppositions. The government of 1+4 had the mission of organizing elections after six months. The elections took place in 2006, and Tshisekedi missed these first democratic elections since the Mobutu dictatorship. He first asked his followers not to register to vote and later on, under western pressures, changed his position. He ultimately called for an extension of the registration period, so that his followers could vote, but it was too late for UDPS militants to register. Tshisekedi was not on the ballot at the time of the election.
The second round opposed Jean-Pierre Bemba and Joseph Kabila. The latter won and became president, democratically elected in 2006. Five years later, in 2011, elections were also organized, and this time Tshisekedi made sure that his followers registered to vote. His presence in the ballot box created panic in Kabila’s camp to the point that the government changed the elections form from two to one round. The 2011, elections according to all observers were rigged and below normal African democratic standards, according to the Carter Institute based in Atlanta, USA. Tshisekedi claimed victory despite the fact that the electoral commission, run by one of the Kabila’s followers, Ngoy Mulunda, proclaimed Joseph Kabila as the winner of the elections. Tshisekedi sworn himself in from his house in Limete, Kinshasa. But, as he put it himself, he lacked the impetus. In other words, he lacked the capacity to command the police and the military.
Tshisekedi then left the country for a long health recovery in Belgium. It is from Belgium that he came back in early April 2016, after a meeting in Genval, a township in the outskirt of Brussels, where he succeeded to gather all the opposition forces and formed what is now known as Rally of the Forces for Change (Rassemblement des forces acquises au Changement). It is popularly known as “Le Rassemblement”. Tshisekedi was appointed as the president of the committee of wise people of Le Rassemblement. It is with this hat that he came back to Kinshasa and received one of the most popular welcome homes a political leader has ever received in the country. From April 2016, all eyes were looking at the date of December 19, 2016 when Kabila’s term was supposed to officially end.
Le Rassemblement refused to participate to a dialogue initiated by president Kabila in order to extend his term after December 19. The former Togolese prime minister, M. Edem Kodjo, who mediated this dialogue, failed to persuade Tshisekedi to be part of it despite previous arrangements. Without the presence of Le Rassemblement, the Kodjo dialogue was doomed to fail for lack of inclusivity. Then, Joseph Kabila asked the Association of Catholic Bishops known as CENCO to mediate so that they could make the dialogue more inclusive. Even the bishop’s efforts failed because Kabila was not ready to leave power, even if his term limits as fixed by the constitution had passed in December 2016. On February 2, 2017, in the midst of negotiations to sign the agreement mediated by the Catholic bishops, Etienne Tshisekedi passed away, leaving the Congo in a sort of unfinished negotiation.
Ideology and legacy
In all his successful or failed political endeavors, Etienne Tshisekedi was fighting for a state of law (Etat de Droit) obtained through nonviolent means. He believed that persuasion through an argument or the force of the argument were better than the argument of force. Tshisekedi would never start a rebellion and his followers knew what he wanted. The painting on the walls of UDPS building is: the reverse pyramid. It means that people are on top and leaders at the bottom. This was at least the ideology Tshisekedi was fighting for.
However, in practice, the daily running of the party was different. That is why the legacy of Tshisekedi would be a sort of ethnicization (lubaization of a party which had a national basis). His son started getting more and more power in the party. After Tshisekedi’s death, his son replaced him as if the party was a dynasty. The Lubaisation of the UDPS leadership was a weakness rather than a strength for the party.
Moreover, one of the biggest Tshisekedi’s political mistakes was the desire to remain in command despite his old age. He could not pass over the flame to the younger generation. The second mistake was to serve as the legitimizer of the 2011 elections, which he knew were already cooked. No election would have been legitimate in the DRC without the participation of UDPS. Tshisekedi was aware of that and was always persuaded by westerners to be part of these consultations, which were already rigged.
Tshisekedi’s greatest legacy is his regularity in fighting dictatorship, be it Mobutu’s dictatorship, Laurent Kabila’s or Joseph Kabila’s dictatorship. He fought for the advent of a state of law, and people listened to him and followed him in numbers. Although never becoming president, e will be remembered as a great political leader who prioritized nonviolent means over rebellion. This might explain why he never took power because all the changes in the Congo were done through violent coup d’etat.
Tshisekedi’s after death
His body is not buried yet because of the disagreement between the Kabila government on the one hand, and the political, as well as, the biological family of Tshisekedi on the other hand. His political family is asking for a special burial while the government would only agree on a normal burial. As of the time of this paper, the body of the Congolese father of the opposition is still in mortuary in Brussels, waiting to be repatriated to the Congo if an agreement is reached.
Conclusion by Way Forward
As for the DRC today, the country is going through a difficult turning point imposed on it by president Joseph Kabila, whose term in office ended constitutionally on December 19, 2016. President Kabila did not organize presidential elections in 2016 so that people from the Congo could elect his successor. However, President Kabila is still in power under constitutional clause which states that the president remains in power until the president elect is sworn in. In the absence of a president elect an in the presence of Kabila’s allies who are manifestly ill-intentioned and for whom politics is akin to simple cynicism, the country is in a situation where no election is organized and no real dates are scheduled for the next election. It means that president Kabila could remain in power as long as he wants without an electoral legitimacy, only with a constitutional legality ties to the fact that he refused to organize the elections. In face of this situation, the Catholic Bishop Association (CENCO) agreements raised hope because the Congolese had seen a willingness to bring the country out of its impasse by setting up a kind of political cohabitation in order to organize transparent elections. But the possibility of cohabitation was perceived as a danger by the people around president Kabila, who feared not having a free hand to impose a constitutional referendum that would see the current president running for a third term. The U.S. and European pressures have forced the representatives of the President to sign the CENCO agreement. There were some people around Kabila who signed the agreement with reservation, as it was unacceptable for them to have a third mandate blocked by the CENCO agreement. The peculiar arrangements, which were to conclude the CENCO agreement, have stumbled on the intransigence of each side.
Through the demand of submitting three names of people who want to be prime minister to Kabila the Kabila people wanted to choose a person who could be flexible (figurehead) during any cohabitation. The refusal of Le Ressemblement to submit to President Kabila three names, instead of one, as stipulated by the CENCO agreement, was justified. However, it lacked realism in the sense that it jeopardized the guarantees obtained by this agreement, as it regards the prohibition of a third mandate and a referendum. The opposition made a bad analysis in refusing to compromise on the list of three names. Le Rassemblement did not measure the willingness of the Kabila people to use every opening to sabotage the agreement. The current sequence of the events was built around the opportunity offered by the death of Etienne Tshisekedi which allowed the Kabila people to start mastering a destabilization of Le Rassemblement by buying off the boiling Olenga Nkoy and other dissidents of Le Rassemblement, including the current premier minister, Bruno Tsibala.
By terminating their mediation without reaching a consensus, the Catholic bishops indirectly handed to Kabila the possibility of avoiding any cohabitation. This could continue on the path of maintaining power, until a forthcoming legitimizaation by a referendum is imposed on the Congolese. Today, election commission’s enrollment efforts will become a way of legitimizing a referendum on legal electoral lists. The purpose of the referendum will be to break the lock of the two constitutional mandates, and to put the pendulum back to zero to allow Kabila to run again and be re-elected.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is at a turning point, and events happening there should not leave anyone indifferent, as it is the announcement of something terrible for the country’s future. Those who say nothing today will only have to blame themselves. Today, indifference to the political problems in the DRC is simply a complicity for the hobbling of millions of Congolese.
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