The casket containing the remains of former Congolese Prime Minister and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi is unloaded from a plane after its arrival in Kinshasa from Belgium, May 30, 2019.
The casket containing the remains of former Congolese Prime Minister and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi is unloaded from a plane after its arrival in Kinshasa from Belgium, May 30, 2019.

KINSHASA - The remains of Etienne Tshisekedi, the Democratic Republic of Congo's revered opposition leader, arrived in Kinshasa on Thursday, in an emotion-laden moment for the country after his son Felix became president this year.

An opponent of authoritarianism in DRC, Tshisekedi died in Belgium in February 2017 at the age of 84, and he was unable to witness his son's victory in a bitterly contested election at the end of last year.

Felix Tshisekedi had vowed to repatriate his father's remains and bury them in his home country — a goal that faced multiple obstacles under his predecessor Joseph Kabila.

After a last-minute delay to a scheduled Wednesday departure, a jet carrying the body arrived from Brussels in Kinshasa airport on Thursday evening, according to AFP reporters there.

His son Felix led a delegation that met the jet at the airport where a hearse decorated in the national colors waited for the former opposition leader's remains, journalists at the scene said.

Several thousand supporters and well-wishers were waiting outside the airport.

The program of mourning includes a display of the body, a mass and rally on Friday at an 80,000-seat stadium in Kinshasa.

It will be followed by a funeral on Saturday in Nsele, on the eastern outskirts of the capital. Six African heads of state are expected, including the presidents of Angola, the neighboring Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Togo, according to the DRC presidency.

APTOPIX Belgium Congo Tshisekedi
FILE - A security man stands behind the coffin of Congo's opposition icon Etienne Tshisekedi during a service, in Brussels, Feb. 5, 2017.

?Mourners stranded

Late Wednesday, an official in Brussels said the late-night departure had been "cancelled for the day due to issues over the organization of the flight."

Two hundred and fifty people planning to accompany the body were left stranded at the Melsbroek military airport near the Belgian capital.

Belgium had planned a military ceremony for the departure of the funeral party at the airport in the presence of Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.

Details about the reason for the postponement were sketchy. 

The Belgian news agency Belga said the organizers' initial plan was to rent an Airbus A330, with the capacity to take 270 passengers as well as the coffin. The passengers included veteran members of the Tshisekedis party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). 

In the end, a smaller private jet, which sources said had been lent by President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo, left with the body onboard.

It carried about 10 members of the family, according to a video clip posted on social media. 

An aerial view shows a crowd gathered outside the
An aerial view shows a crowd gathered outside the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) headquarters in the Limete neighborhood of Kinshasa, May 30, 2019, as party supporters await the return of the remains of former Congolese Prime Minister and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

?Thorn in dictator's side

Etienne Tshisekedi spent decades in politics but never reached the top job.

He served as interior minister in the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, before joining the opposition, where he was a persistent thorn in the dictator's side. 

He co-founded the UDPS 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 1997, Mobutu was ousted in a rebellion led by Joseph Kabila's father Laurent. Tshisekedi quickly became an opponent of the new regime — a stance that continued after Laurent Kabila's assassination in 2001 and the rise of his son Joseph.

Tshisekedi refused to recognize Kabila's legitimacy to the very last. He boycotted the country's elections in 2006 on the grounds of fraud, and was beaten in the 2011 ballot, which was tainted by massive irregularities. 

Almost two years after his death, on Jan. 24, Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as president after elections that saw Kabila step down after 18 years in power.

It was the first peaceful transition of power since the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

The handover, however, was marred by allegations of election rigging and by Kabila's continued domination of politics after amassing extensive clout during his years in office.