Death of DRC Opposition Leader Threatens Peaceful Transition


The death of longtime opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi on February 2 jeopardizes a deal that would have resulted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) first peaceful transition of power.

The president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, reached his term limit on December 19, although he has extended his time in office through 2018 to allow for time to organize elections. Since then, state-wide protests have erupted, sparked by widespread concern that Kabila would change the constitution to allow himself more time in office. Such a move would not be unprecedented; Kabila’s wins in the previous two elections came under suspicious circumstances.

Tshisekedi consistently opposed Kabila, who has been the head of state since 2001. As the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, Tshisekedi was slated to broker an agreement for Kabila’s resignation.

Tshisekedi was admired across the country.

“He was our icon. This man was an icon for Africa. He was great. We lost a great man,” said one of his mourners shortly following his death.

Tshisekedi began his career as an adviser to the DRC’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, soon taking the title himself under the government of Mobutu Sese Seko, although he clashed frequently with the regime. Over his 50-year career, he attained a reputation as an incorruptible force for democratic change. He was seen by many as the country’s best hope for ousting Kabila and ensuring a peaceful transition of power. He died in Brussels, where he was visiting for a check-up and treatment for his diabetes.

Catholic church leaders and government members still expect Kabila’s resignation deal to be signed and hope the DRC will organize elections by the end of 2017. But some worry that the slow pace of negotiations bodes poorly for the future of the country. An estimated 5 million people died in the six years following Mobutu Sese Seko’s departure from power, and some leaders believe Kabila’s transition could result in similar bloodshed.

The director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center summed up the conflict in an interview given in late 2016: “Joseph Kabila has pushed us to this precipice. Let's be very clear, he either does the right thing and surrenders power now or he will be removed in some other way.”

The next few months will tell how violent this removal may become.