The priority, says the leader of the opposition UDPS (the French acronym for Union for Democracy and Social Progress) is to get rid of the “dictator” President Joseph Kabila or his anointed successor, the as-yet unnamed person whom Congolese call the “dauphin”, the crown prince.
Kabila is still keeping his country and the world guessing by not announcing that he will not run again in the elections. He was supposed to retire at the end of 2016 when his constitutionally-limited two terms ended. He provoked violent protests by staying on.
But European diplomats say they have been told that Kabila recently announced to his aides that he would not offer himself as a candidate when nominations close – which is soon.
“We don’t have to worry about Kabila running again because the constitution has already solved the problem,” Tshisekedi, 55, told journalists in Johannesburg, with more confidence in the DRC’s constitutionalism than most.
He was visiting South Africa to drum up investment, to meet government officials and probably also to raise funds for his campaign.
The presidential election on December 23, which will take place at the same time as parliamentary and local elections, is wide open because of all the uncertain candidates. Apart from whether it will be Kabila himself or his “dauphin,” the other big unknowns are whether two strong opposition candidates, former Katanga governor Moise Katumbi and former deputy president Jean-Pierre Bemba, will be in the race.
Katumbi is living abroad because he faces legal charges – which most independent observers believe are trumped up – if he returns and because of questions about his nationality.
Bemba has just been released by the International Criminal Court which convicted and sentenced him to 18 years in jail in 2016 for war crimes committed by his troops in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002.
Earlier this month, June 2018, the ICC acquitted him on appeal because it said his link to the crimes committed by his subordinates could not be proved. An appeal against a conviction and one-year sentence for witness tampering is pending but he is unlikely to return to jail as he has almost served all of that sentence.
The DRC government has said he is free to return to DRC but has not said if he will face charges there. So his participation in the December election remains uncertain. Both Bemba and Katumbi are considered stronger candidates than Tshisekedi and well-informed European diplomats believe that the opposition will have to unite behind a single candidate if it is to have any hope of defeating the governing party’s candidate.
Tshisekedi was ambivalent about this suggestion. At first he indicated it would not be necessary as the moment Kabila chose his “dauphin” there would be chaos in the ruling party.
“On top of that when you look at his 17 years of disastrous management of Kabila, there is no serious Congolese who can trust and vote for Kabila’s dauphin.” This would guarantee victory for the opposition if the election were free and fair.
Tshisekedi was sure he and the UDPS would defeat Bemba in a fair election. His position on Katumbi was different, he said, because the two of them “have a good understanding of the need to come together in terms of a strong team to run for election…. It will be one of us who will run for the elections. But all will depend on the situation at the moment. It will depend on some of the factors that we will analyse, both of us. And we will decide who will be the best candidate, at that time.”
So he might stand back for Katumbi?
“For Katumbi or another one if it will serve the Congo, I’m prepared to do this.”
Even Bemba, then? “As I said, if I can serve the Congo, but I can also be the saviour of the Congo myself.”
Tshisekedi took over the UDPS last year after his father Etienne Tshisekedi, the founder of the party and veteran opposition leader, died.
Some commentators say he only got the job because he is the son of the founder but he said he believed he was up to the job and understood what was expected of him. He said he had been 19 when the party was founded in 1982 and had become a militant of the party, suffering victimisation by the Mobutu government as a result. He had also worked his way up through the ranks of the party, starting as the head of a small local cell in 1993. “So I know everything about the party.”
Asked why he was in South Africa, he said it was because Pretoria had a lot of influence in the region – including through its chairing of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – and so could help find a political solution to prevent a DRC crisis.
This crisis was not yet visible, he said. “But very soon if the electoral process is not well administered and implemented, then the crisis will come to the surface.”
Tshisekedi praised South Africa for its active role in ending the war, which sucked in several regional countries, to topple Mobutu in 1997 and then flared up again in 1998 after his successor Laurent Kabilia – father of the current president – expelled his Rwandese supporters.
But Tshisekedi added that because of its long commitment to the DRC – including the many troops it still has in the country as part of the UN peacekeeping mission – “South Africa should be more attentive about the situation and crisis in our country.”
If the election were rigged, as many suspect it will be, that would bring a biased result “that would cause the crisis to explode. So South Africa should be more involved in the electoral process of the DRC.”
However Tshisekedi also said the change in leadership in South Africa – the replacement of Jacob Zuma by Cyril Ramaphosa as president – was “a step in the right direction and we call for this good way of doing things to continue”.
Zuma was widely believed to be backing Kabila regardless – possibly because of his nephew’s oil interests in DRC – but some commentators believe that Ramaphosa’s government has advised Kabila to retire in December 2018.
Tshisekedi said he also met South African investors who he hoped would come to the DRC if he won. If so, he would root out corruption, restore the rule of law and good governance and restructure the army and the police. DM