Democratic Republic of Congo

What now for DR Congo's Felix Tshisekedi?

Felix Tshisekedi holds up the constitution during the inauguration ceremony whereby he was sworn into office as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, January 24, 2019.
Felix Tshisekedi holds up the constitution during the inauguration ceremony whereby he was sworn into office as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

The Democratic Republic of Congo's new president was sworn in on Thursday in the first peaceful handover of power since independence, despite a chaotic and bitterly disputed election. But, all did not go well for Felix Tshisekedi - he briefly fell ill during his inaugural address.

Advertising

"The campaign we had to run... got the better of me," Tshisekedi told reporters, as a way of apology for briefly falling ill during his inauguration ceremony.

State television had interrupted its live broadcast of the historic event after Tshisekedi said, "I don't feel well", and sat down as family members came to his side.

Twelve minutes later, the 55-year old, clad in a blue suit and dark glasses was back on his feet, cheered on by thousands of supporters, government officials and foreign ambassadors.

Tshisekedi vowed to act on human rights, promising to "draw up a country-wide registry of political prisoners (...) with a view to releasing them soon."

Thursday's ceremony, attended by Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta--the only foreign head of state present--caps more than two years of turmoil and a tortuous electoral saga, wracked by nagging doubts over last month's presidential election.

Tshisekedi was declared the winner of those polls with 38.5 percent of the vote, which was delayed three times. But his opposition rival Martin Fayulu, who was credited with 34.8 percent insists that he was the rightful winner.

Lingering doubts

Congo's powerful Bishops' National Conference, the CENCO, too cast doubt on the presidential election, saying its unofficial tallies from more than 40,000 observers did not match the official results.

Kabila and Tshisekedi’s camps deny there was any foul.

"Martin Fayulu and his entire group have never been able to prove that they won the elections," challenges Toto Mabiku, a presidential advisor to Tshisekedi.

Fayulu's supporters allege that the former opposition leader cut a backroom deal with outgoing President Joseph Kabila to rig the vote in his favour after the ruling party's candidate did so badly.

"These suspicions are totally unfounded," Mabiku told RFI.

"It was important for candidates to reassure the outgoing government on a certain number of issues, which is what the international community asked for," he says, referring to calls by former US Ambassador Nikki Hayley for Kabila to hold long-delayed elections, in return for his security and other guarantees.

"Because we have given him guarantees, people think we have a struck a deal with him. There was no deal," Mabku insists.

Battle for legitimacy

The United States on Wednesday recognised Tshisekedi as the country's fifth president, following in the footsteps of the African Union and the European Union.

Still, anger over the results has nonetheless cast a cloud over what was meant to be DR Congo’s first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence.

"Some Congolese people are very angry because the leader who they chose did not win the elections," comments Espoir Ngalukiye, a member of LUCHA, a movement of young middle-class activists that started in Goma and has now spread across the country.

"Many people are waiting to see what his first steps will be and the change he will make in DRC (...) Tshisekedi must show he has power. Right now all the power is with Kabila," he told RFI.

The challenges awaiting the new president are vast, the foremost of which will be to prove his legitimacy.

"Felix was not seen in the same light as [former vice-president] Jean-Pierre Bemba and [former governor of Katanga] Moise Katumbi, people with real political heft and weight in Congo," explains Ben Shepherd, a Consulting Fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

"He has always lived under the shadow of his father [Etienne] until his father's death and the UDPS party that he leads has split multiple times," he tells RFI.

Building coalitions

It does not bode well for the power-sharing government Tshisekedi will have to put together with the outgoing president's bloc.

Although, he won the presidency, the pro-Kabila Common Front for Congo (FCC) took the majority of seats in Congo's national assembly.

Unless Tshisekedi builds a coalition with the FCC, he faces the prospect of being no more than a lame duck president.

The task is easier said than done.

"Congo is a very difficult place to govern, it's notoriously big," says Shepherd of the central African country which is the size of Western Europe.

"The population is very fractured and scattered. The infrastructure is very badly degraded. The capacity of the Congolese state to reach and control much of the territory is low," he adds.

There is some hope. "Because the presidency once the dust settles will be weaker than it has been before, the provincial layer will be empowered," explains Shepherd.

Shifting the centre of gravity

That could bring with it new opportunities. "There will be leaders at a lower level who have more of a connection to populations who in theory they are supposed to represent," he says.

Yet this redistribution of power from the centre to the periphery could mean the ball remains firmly in the hands of Kabila, whose supporters now overwhelmingly control parliament.

According to a "political coalition agreement" seen by AFP, the position of prime minister is likely to go to a pro-Kabila lawmaker, while the defence, foreign affairs and interior portfolios will go to Kabila's family. As for the outgoing president himself, he will become a senator for life.

"There is a glimmer of optimism I think in the medium to long term; but there are a huge number of hurdles to get there," concludes Shepherd.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning