As Kabila wraps presidential sash around successor, doubts linger about vote’s credibility
The new president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has called for national reconciliation after being sworn in as successor to Joseph Kabila in the country’s first transfer of power via an election in 59 years of independence.
Felix Tshisekedi said to cheers from thousands of supporters on the lawn of the presidential palace in Kinshasa: “We want to build a strong Congo, turned toward its development in peace and security. A Congo for all, in which everyone has a place.”
The pageantry of the ceremony was briefly interrupted when Tshisekedi was taken ill during his inaugural address and had to sit down. But he returned to the podium after a brief pause, saying he was exhausted by the election and the emotion of the moment. His spokesman later said his bulletproof vest had been too tight.
Tshisekedi’s victory in the much-delayed election on 30 December was marred by accusations he had struck a backroom deal with the outgoing president to deny victory to another opposition candidate. Kabila and Tshisekedi‘s camps reject those allegations.
Tshisekedi, wearing a blue suit and dark glasses, took the oath of office before his supporters, government officials and foreign ambassadors. However, in a sign of lingering doubts about the vote’s credibility, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta was the only foreign head of state present.
Still, the imagery of one leader handing over the presidency to another as Kabila wrapped the presidential sash around his successor was striking in a country where previous power transfers have resulted only from coups, assassination or rebellion.
In his address, Tshisekedi called for “a reconciled Congo” following a contentious election in which he narrowly defeated another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, and Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Fayulu said he had won the election by a landslide, a claim backed by tallies from Congo’s Catholic church, which deployed 40,000 observers to the polls.
He told Reuters on Thursday that he would never work with Tshisekedi. “Felix has to start by telling the truth,” Fayulu said. “He’s not the president-elect. He is the president appointed by Kabila.”
Many African and western countries, wary that a dispute could reignite unrest in the volatile central African country, have recognised Tshisekedi after Congo’s highest court dismissed Fayulu’s fraud complaints.
Tshisekedi’s late father, Etienne, was one of Kabila’s fiercest political rivals, losing to him in the 2011 presidential election. Supporters of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party were among the dozens killed by security forces in protests in response to Kabila’s refusal to step down on time.
At Thursday’s ceremony, UDPS supporters dressed all in white cheered soldiers as they marched along the palace lawn, and longtime political foes sat together in the tribune.
Tshisekedi faces widespread suspicion outside the UDPS that his election win came through a deal that will see Kabila continue to pull the strings. Congolese sources in contact with senior government officials told Reuters that Fayulu won the election decisively but that top officials ordered the electoral commission to award the vote to Tshisekedi after he struck a deal with Kabila.
Tshisekedi and Kabila’s camps deny that, but Tshisekedi will find it difficult to shake Kabila’s influence regardless. During his 18 years in power, Kabila installed loyalists throughout the federal bureaucracy, and his ruling coalition won a resounding majority in legislative elections, meaning Tshisekedi’s prime minister will come from its ranks.
Kabila has refused to rule out a fresh run for president in 2023, when he will no longer be constrained by term limits. That has left many Congolese wondering whether Tshisekedi’s presidency will mark a meaningful break with the Kabila years, during which the economy grew at a healthy clip on the back of surging copper and cobalt production but failed to significantly dent endemic poverty.