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DRC Opposition at Crucial Impasse as Leader Dies

Congo opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi died, Feb. 02, 2017, in Brussels, Belgium, of an undisclosed illness.

Leading Congolese opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi died Wednesday in Brussels of an undisclosed illness, bringing to an end a political career which spanned six tumultuous decades. His passing comes at a crucial time for the opposition as it fights to dislodge President Joseph Kabila.

Etienne Tshisekedi founded the UDPS, the DRC’s oldest and largest opposition party, in 1982 to fight the dictatorial regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. He had broken with his former boss and would remain the country's most prominent opposition politician for the rest of his life.

He battled Mobutu’s successors – first Laurent Kabila and then his son Joseph, despite Tshisekedi's poor health later in life. He boycotted the DRC's first multi-party elections in four decades in 2006, and then ran and lost in 2011, although he said the polls were rigged and declared himself the rightful winner.

On October 4, Etienne Tshisekedi addressed his supporters in person for the final time. The 84-year-old was visibly frail. His speech lasted only several minutes, yet was received rapturously.

Tshisekedi told his supporters that they would soon show President Kabila a red card and remove him from power.

Tshisekedi had returned to the country from Brussels in July of last year to lead the charge against Joseph Kabila who, having served his constitutional limit of two terms in office, was due to step down in December; but, elections were delayed.

Tshisekedi’s passing leaves the opposition at a crucial impasse.

Albert Moleka, Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, said to VOA, "…who said that no other individual can match Tshisekedi’s charisma or capacity to mobilize the Congolese population for a struggle. Moleka believes, however, that the Rassemblement coalition and the UDPS have people capable of coordinating the different trends and ambitions within the movements. If they fail, Moleka says, the danger of breaking up is always there.”

Last year saw violent, deadly protests against Kabila. On New Year's Eve, the Rassemblement signed a deal with the ruling alliance to hold elections this year. The agreement leaves Kabila in office for the interim.

Tshisekedi, as president of the Rassemblement, was to lead the monitoring committee tasked with applying the deal.

His former chief of staff Moleka said for some in the president’s alliance, Tshisekedi’s death will be like a weight lifted from their backs since he was the central element of the agreement and the person who frightened them.

Talking to local media, a government spokesman offered his condolences to Tshisekedi’s family and party.

Late Wednesday and early Thursday, as news of Tshisekedi’s death spread, police fired tear gas to disperse supporters trying to gather outside his home in the Limete district of the capital.