DR Congo's Tshisekedi: son, heir and unexpected president

Thursday January 24 2019

Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) waves to his supporters during a campaign rally in Kinshasa, on December 21, 2018. He was declared winner of the presidential race by DR Congo's top court on January 20, 2019. PHOTO | AFP


Felix Tshisekedi, who takes over as DR Congo's new president on Thursday, is the son and heir of the country's veteran opposition leader but has never himself held high office.

Barely two years at the helm of the country's oldest and largest opposition party, Tshisekedi has been propelled to power following a long-running political crisis that culminated in last month's bitterly disputed election.

Known to his friends as "Fatshi", the portly 55-year-old has secured the prize long denied his late father Etienne, who spent 35 years in opposition but never reached the top.

It was his death in February 2017 that triggered his son's unexpected path to the presidency.

Taking over as head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Tshisekedi steered the party his father founded through a period of growing unrest over President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down despite his term ending in 2016.

Unexpected victory


Although Tshisekedi has never enjoyed the same degree of popularity as his father, he was one of three frontrunners in the December 30 election.

Polls, however, predicted a win by his opposition rival Martin Fayulu — and many observers expected a result rigged in favour of Kabila's handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

But provisional results named Tshisekedi the winner in an unexpected victory which was confirmed by the courts, though tainted by cries of fraud, with Fayulu declaring it an "electoral coup" masterminded by Kabila.

Back in 2017, Tshisekedi told AFP that if he won the presidency, he would set up a "truth and reconciliation commission" to call Kabila to account for his iron-fisted rule since taking office in 2001.

But days before the results were announced, rumours began swirling of a rapprochement after Tshisekedi spoke warmly of Kabila in an interview with Belgium's Le Soir newspaper.

"It is clear that he will be able to live peacefully in his own country and carry out his business, he has nothing to fear," he said.

"One day we might even think of paying him tribute for agreeing to stand down," he said, suggesting Kabila could even be named a special ambassador.

And immediately after he was declared winner, his first words were a tribute to Kabila.

"Today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather as a partner in the democratic change in our country," he told crowds of triumphant supporters.

'Backroom deal

Analysts said the delay in announcing the results had raised suspicions of some kind of "backroom deal" which would benefit Kabila and enable him to influence the new president.

"A Tshisekedi presidency would be the least bad alternative... for the regime as it would put a veil of legitimacy on the electoral process and would be more manageable than a Fayulu presidency," said Adeline VanHoutte of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

For a while, it looked like Tshisekedi's name would not even be on the ballot.

In November, he had joined six other opposition leaders to rally behind Fayulu as the single unity candidate.

But days later, following a furious response from his supporters, he and fellow opposition leader Vital Kamerhe abandoned the deal and said they would run on a joint ticket, splitting the opposition.

Since its founding in 1982, the UDPS has served as an opposition mainstay in the former Belgian colony — first under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then under Kabila's father Laurent-Desire Kabila, who ruled from 1997 until his death in 2001.

Over the years, Tshisekedi rose steadily through the ranks of the party which was fashioned and directed by his father.

In 2008, he became the party's national secretary for external relations and then in 2011 he was elected to parliament as the MP for Mbuji-Mayi, the country's third city.

But he never took up his seat after refusing to recognise his father's 2011 election defeat by Kabila.

"Etienne was stubborn and proud," said one keen observer of the country's opposition.

"Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others."

A father of five, Tshisekedi goes to the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa, the capital.

Although he holds a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication, he has had little political or managerial experience, with some detractors even suggesting his diploma is not valid.