On 1st February 2017, long-term opposition leader – Etienne Tshisekedi – passed away while receiving medical treatment in Belgium. Three-time former Prime Minister and founder of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Tshisekedi was the leading opposition figure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the last 30 years. His death would have been highly significant for Congolese politics at any time during this period but, given the recent unrest and Tshisekedi’s vital role in negotiations between the government and the opposition, the timing of his passing may have extremely important repercussions for politics and security in the DRC.
Although, as an octogenarian, Tshisekedi had begun to take on a largely figurehead role in the opposition, he was a respected and unifying figure amongst the DRC’s different opposition groups. On 31st December 2016, Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) brokered a deal between the government and a nine-party opposition coalition – Rassemblement – on a peaceful political transition. The two parties agreed that President Joseph Kabila would not seek an unconstitutional third term but would remain in office until elections in December 2017, while sharing power with a transitional government consisting of opposition politicians. Rassemblement’s leader -Tshisekedi – was chosen to lead the transitional council, which would negotiate with the Kabila administration ahead of the formation of the transitional government, and would have been the opposition’s choice for Prime Minister (PM). However, his death created a power vacuum in the opposition and the negotiations with the Kabila administration have stalled.
There was no clear successor to Tshisekedi in Rassemblement so the majority of the coalition decided to change the organisation’s structure and create two positions: Political President; and Strategic President. In addition to this, three Vice President roles were created. This was a compromise in order to prevent competition between the UDPS and the G7 – a coalition centred around seven party leaders who were expelled from government after calling for Kabila to step down in 2016. Tshisekedi’s son, Felix Tshisekedi, was chosen as the group’s Political President and Pierre Lumbi, a former special advisor to President Kabila, was selected as the Strategic President. Although the majority of the coalition supported these appointments, including key figures such as Moise Katumbi, there was opposition from certain sections of Rassemblement, particularly regarding the appointment of Tshisekedi’s son.
Three of the nine parties that make up Rassemblement opposed the selection of Felix Tshisekedi and the Deputy Secretary General of UDPS – Bruno Tshibala – publicly criticised his appointment citing his lack of experience. In an interview with the BBC, he stated “where else in the World would someone be put in charge of such an important process…who has only been in the opposition for seven months?” Tshibala was subsequently dismissed from UDPS for voicing his opposition. Although Felix Tshisekedi was elected as an MP in 2011, he respected his father’s call for a parliamentary boycott and did not serve in this position, and has not held any other political office. It appears that he was primarily selected because of his family’s name, which seemingly contradicts with Rassemblement’s democratic principles and opposition to political family dynasties. Nevertheless, as Political President, Felix Tshisekedi has taken over from his father as leader of the transitional council and is likely to be Rassemblement’s choice for PM. It remains to be seen if Felix Tshisekedi can overcome this initial opposition within Rassemblement and effectively manage the coalition in its negotiations with the government.
Felix Tshisekedi has not begun negotiations with the Kabila administration due to an ongoing dispute over his father’s burial. The government agreed to provide Tshisekedi with a state funeral and build a mausoleum but his family and the opposition are not happy with the proposed burial site in Kinshasa, and the UDPS has insisted that the funeral will only take place once a transitional government has been formed. Thus, even after his death, Tshisekedi is at the heart of negotiations to resolve the political crisis in the DRC. Tshisekedi’s body is due to be repatriated on 11th March but it is still not clear when his funeral will take place.
The delay in negotiations caused by this could affect Rassemblement’s credibility amongst the people of the DRC. If negotiations continue to be stalled, Rassemblement may no longer be viewed as an effective mouthpiece for the popular discontent in the country. If this is the case, it is likely that protestors will return to the streets and civil unrest will increase. Moreover, given the apparent divisions in the opposition over Felix Tshisekedi’s appointment, it is likely that Kabila will try to take advantage of the situation to sow discontent and discredit the opposition. The Kabila administration has not signed the CENCO deal and there is no guarantee that it will. There are a number of unresolved issues between the government and the opposition, such as the selection of the PM, and the government has indicated that it will not be ready to hold elections in 2017 as previously agreed. In February 2017, the Budget Minister stated that it will be “difficult to gather” the necessary funds for an election this year and the Electoral Commission has maintained that a census should be conducted before elections take place.
Nonetheless, international pressure is mounting. On 16th February 2017, the UN, EU, African Union (AU) and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) issued a joint statement calling on the government and the opposition to re-enter negotiations. The statement said that the organisations are “increasingly concerned by the continuing impasse in dialogue among political stakeholders” and that it has the “potential to undermine the political goodwill” that led to the CENCO deal. Additionally, on 6th March 2017, the EU warned the government that it will face further sanctions if it blocks a deal with the opposition. This indicates that there is a growing concern amongst the international community of a breakdown in negotiations and an inevitable increase in civil unrest and political violence.
Furthermore, alongside this continuation of political instability, it appears that there has been a resurgence in rebel activity in eastern DRC. After attacks in January and February 2017, there are indications that the M23 militia group has returned to DRC territory. The UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) stated in February that it has “launched aerial surveillance against a probable presence of elements of the former M23”. Although it is not clear how significant a threat this group now poses, the recent attacks have reportedly led to large numbers of people fleeing the region and crossing the border into neighbouring countries. It has been reported that over 30 people a day are entering Uganda and 10 to 15 are entering Rwanda. If attacks in the region persist, which seems likely, the number of people fleeing will increase affecting not only the DRC but the wider Central African region.
The death of Etienne Tshisekedi has increased the likelihood of continued political instability and deterioration of security in the DRC. Divisions have emerged amongst the opposition and although Felix Tshisekedi may be able to maintain unity in the short term, his lack of experience could prove costly in negotiations with the Kabila administration and the formation of a transitional government. It is likely that Kabila will want to take advantage of these apparent divisions, which will therefore make negotiations increasingly difficult. Moreover, the stalling of negotiations is likely to affect Rassemblement’s credibility, which has the potential to lead to a loss of faith in negotiations amongst the wider population, increasing the likelihood of further protests and political violence. As Tshisekedi’s funeral is going to draw large crowds, there is potential that it could evolve into a mass protest, particularly if the police adopt a heavy-handed approach to the gathering. Although a date has not been set for the funeral, Tshisekedi’s body is due to arrive in Kinshasa on 11th March and from this date onwards, there is potential for such a protest to emerge.
As the country is faced with the resurgence of rebel activity in eastern DRC, continued political instability and unrest elsewhere, will hamper the government’s ability to deal with this problem and therefore lead to a deterioration of security in this region. Thus, despite international pressure, it seems that the DRC is heading towards further political instability and insecurity, which will send ripples across the wider Central African region.