Supporters of Congolese President elect Felix Tshisekedi gather at the Palais de la Nation for his inauguration in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019.
Supporters of Congolese President elect Felix Tshisekedi gather at the Palais de la Nation for his inauguration in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019.

KINSHASA - Congo on Thursday was poised to inaugurate an opposition leader as its unexpected new president in the Central African country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence nearly 60 years ago.

The 55-year-old Felix Tshisekedi , son of the late opposition icon Etienne, will be sworn into office at the Peoples’ Palace, the seat of the national legislature in the capital, Kinshasa. Supporters who for decades backed the elder Tshisekedi’s pursuit of power streamed into the venue with Congolese flags tucked into their hair or wearing leopard-print caps and cravats.

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila displays ink on his hand after casting his vote at a polling station in Kinshasa,  Dec. 30, 2018.
Congo's Kabila, on Eve of Leaving Presidency, Urges Unity
With less than 24 hours left in his rule, Congo's President Joseph Kabila urged the nation to “massively” support incoming leader Felix Tshisekedi after a disputed election that surprised the world by bringing an opposition leader to power.Kabila is stepping aside after more than two turbulent years of delayed elections as many Congolese feared he was seeking a way to stay in office.

Just one African head of state, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, was seen at the ceremony after the international community expressed reservations over alleged election fraud that brought Tshisekedi to power. The United States and others this week have said they will work with the new leader but did not offer congratulations.

Many Congolese hope that Tshisekedi will bring change after 18 years of rule by President Joseph Kabila, who in a final address on Wednesday night urged the country to unite in support of the incoming leader. He said he was stepping aside with no regrets.

Tshisekedi now must work with a legislature dominated by members of Kabila’s ruling coalition.

Few had expected an opposition victory in Congo, where Kabila has ruled since 2001 and hung on for more than two years of turbulent election delays.

Declared runner-up Martin Fayulu had mounted a court challenge to Tshisekedi’s win, alleging massive rigging and demanding a recount. The Constitutional Court on Sunday rejected it.

Protesters construct a burning roadblock in Kinshasa, Congo, Monday Jan. 21, 2019. Congo's police dispersed a gathering Monday of supporters waiting to hear a speech by presidential runner-up Martin Fayulu, his spokeswoman said.
Eager for Peace, Some Congolese Voters Accept Election Results
Congolese voters hungry for peace are ready to welcome President-elect Felix Tshisekedi to power, even if alleged election rigging may have led to his victory.“I am very happy with his designation as our democratically elected President-elect Felix Tshisekedi,” Hervé, a 30-year-old unemployed resident of Kinshasa, the capital, told VOA. “Since I was born, I have never witnessed a peaceful handover of power,” he added. …

Outside court, Fayulu accused Kabila of making a backroom deal with Tshisekedi as it became clear the ruling party’s candidate did poorly at the polls. Observers have said Fayulu, an opposition lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo’s sprawling corruption, was seen as a bigger threat to Kabila and his allies in the country of sprawling mineral wealth.

Few Congolese have taken up Fayulu’s call for peaceful protest, appearing instead to accept Tshisekedi’s win as long as Kabila is on the way out and there is peace.