Tens of thousands of mourners have gathered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo‘s capital, Kinshasa, to pay tribute to Etienne Tshisekedi, a late iconic opposition leader and father of the country’s current president.
The body of Tshisekedi, who died in Belgium in February 2017 at the age of 84, lay in state on Friday in the 80,000 capacity Martyrs’ Stadium after being repatriated the evening before.
The ceremony was hosted by Tshisekedi’s son, Felix, who was elected to the DRC’s presidency in a December ballot and had long vowed to bury his father’s remains at home. Among those in attendance were Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Angolan and Republic of Congo counterparts, Joao Lourenco and Denis Sassou Nguesso.
The return of Tshisekedi’s body, which will be buried on Saturday, was consistently blocked by his son’s predecessor and former longtime leader, Joseph Kabila.
Supporters of Tshisekedi said he was so potent a threat to the former president, of whom he was a vociferous critic, that even his corpse had to remain abroad.
— Présidence RDC 🇨🇩 (@Presidence_RDC) May 31, 2019
TRANSLATION: The remains of the late Etienne Tshisekedi have arrived at the Stadium of Martyrs.
A seven-hour procession to downtown Kinshasa followed the arrival of his body on Thursday night at the capital’s airport. Pallbearers wearing ties representing the DRC’s flag carried his coffin, on top of which was placed the flat cap Tshisekedi always wore, into the stadium on Friday.
Jannot Nlandu, a 28-year-old student, said the outpouring of emotion showed just how popular the former opposition figurehead was, despite never winning his country’s top office.
“Even in death he can draw huge crowds,” Nlandu told The Associated Press news agency, adding: “He is the king of Kinshasa.”
Prior to his death, Tshisekedi was the face of the DRC’s opposition for decades, including during Kabila’s tenure in office from 2001-2019 and, prior to that, in the latter years of Mobutu Sese Seko’s more than 30-year rule.
Both Kabila and Mobutu headed administrations marred by rampant corruption and dysfunctional administration of the vast, resource-rich central African nation.
Tshisekedi served as interior minister under Mobutu before joining the opposition, where he was a persistent thorn in the latter’s side.
He cofounded the opposition UDPS party in 1982 after a stint in prison and in the 1990s was appointed prime minister several times, each time falling out with Mobutu after a matter of months or even days.
In later years, he boycotted elections in 2006 alleging they would be fraudulent and was beaten in a 2011 ballot tainted by massive irregularities. Both votes were won by Kabila, whose final two years in charge saw him stay beyond the maximum term limit permitted by the DRC’s constitution and instead oversee a crackdown on protesters calling for him to quit.
In life, Tshisekedi was at times put under house arrest, while his supporters were jailed and beaten.
In death, praise for his legacy of opposition came from across the political spectrum.
Kabila’s ruling Kabila’s Common Front for Congo coalition, which won 342 of the 485 seats in parliament during concurrent legislative elections in December, acknowledged his role as a “hyperactive fighter” and “man of dialogue”.
“Etienne Tshisekedi was undoubtedly one of the major political actors of our country,” the FCC coalition said in a statement on Friday.
Fellow opposition figure Martin Fayulu, meanwhile, praised Tshisekedi’s “fight for justice and democracy”.
Fayulu came in a close second in the recent presidential poll but rejected the result and accused Felix Tshisekedi of making a secret deal with Kabila to deprive him of victory. Tshisekedi and Kabila denied that there was a deal.
On May 20, the president named Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba as the DRC’s new prime minister under the terms of a political agreement between the 55-year-old and Kabila.
#RDC Le Dr Sylvestre ILUNGA ILUNKAMBA, est nommé Premier Ministre par ord. n 19/056. Cet ancien Directeur Général de la Société Nationale des Chemins de fer du Congo (SNCC SA) va être à la tête du nouveau Gouvernement dont la structure est en cours d’élaboration. pic.twitter.com/rPZgAkWrVa
— Présidence RDC 🇨🇩 (@Presidence_RDC) May 20, 2019
The appointment of Ilukamba, a career politician and Kabila ally, came after the pair issued a joint statement in March confirming “their common will to govern together as part of a coalition government”. The DRC’s constitution dictates that the prime minister must come from the majority bloc in parliament, while the president traditionally makes the final decision on who will fill the post.
Since coming to power, Tshisekedi has pardoned hundreds of prisoners, including several political opponents of Kabila. His supporters have claimed the moves point to a new era of political openness in the DRC after years of suppression of opposition figures.