The first Congolese to earn a doctoral degree in law from the University of Kinshasa, Tshisekedi is considered the most important leader in the central African nation after the iconic nationalist Patrice Lumumba. He was a very principled man; an incorruptible politician whose single interest was the wellbeing of the Congolese people.
Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a professor of African, African American, and diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University. He is a past president of the African Studies Association and the author of "The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People's History. Here he speaks about Congolese politician Etienne Tshisekedi who died on 1 February 2017.
Q: Hello Dr. Nzongola. Thank you for giving us the time to speak a bit about Étienne Tshisekedi who just passed away this February 1, 2017. He was considered the father of the democracy movement in the Congo. I would like to know a bit more about who Étienne Tshisekedi was, what are your personal thoughts and personal sentiments about his passing?
A: Well, I’ve known Mr. Tshisekedi for a long time and had personal contact with him since 1987 when he came to the United States at the invitation of the Rainbow Lobby and I worked for him as a diplomatic adviser when he was elected Prime Minister at the National Conference in 1992. Until October 1993, I was working for him. I have a great deal of respect for him and I consider him very fair. It’s a great loss for the country, especially at a time when we were hopeful that he might help us get rid of the Kabila regime according to the agreement they reached on December 31 of last year. So, I think that it is a great loss for the country.
Q: What should people get to know about Étienne Tshisekedi and what was his impact on Congo’s political landscape?
A: He has had a huge impact. He is basically the most important leader we’ve had in the country since Patrice Lumumba, a person who although he started his political career working with Mobutu, but since 1980, he broke with Mobutu and started fighting for the restoration of multiparty democracy in the Congo.
He was a man of principles, totally different from most of our politicians in the Congo who were opportunists who were looking for political posts and money, all of this didn’t matter to Tshisekedi. His main concern was to make sure that the country was run according to the rule of law.
He was the first Congolese to earn a doctorate degree in law at the Lovanium University, now the University of Kinshasa, in 1961. He has been very, very much a law-abiding person, very, very committed to the rule of law and democratic processes. As you can see, we have seen the mourners gathered outside of his son's house in Kinshasa two days ago showed that people really adored him. People looked at him as, not only a father figure, but as a leader.
In the 1990s when we were fighting against Mobutu at the National Conference, he was called “Moses” and people saw him as the Moses who was going to deliver them from the Pharaoh who was oppressing and basically mistreating the people of the Congo. So, he was a man of great stature, widely acclaimed by the people. We also saw during the electoral campaign of 2011, everywhere you went, in all corners of the country, he was received by massive crowds of people welcoming him and really giving him their support.
Q: It’s definitely a great loss. It’s news that came to all of us as a shock, but we want also to think about what his legacy will be. What do you think should be his legacy to be remembered, not just for the Congo, but for the entire African continent?
A: Well, I think he’s a man of strong principles, one of which is nonviolence, a commitment to non-violent struggles for democracy. He never advocated violence and he wanted people to demonstrate peacefully, not to resort to looting or anything of that nature and to be able to express their views for freedom and democracy and social progress. His legacy is of a man who spent about 36 years fighting for democracy and freedom - a man who wanted people to take responsibility for their own future, for their own country. Some of his slogans were people first, le peuple d'abord, in French and also that the people should take responsibility for their own future, for their own country. He is a person who has very, very important democratic principles. He was not a saint, but a person who tried his best to live an upright life. He is not known for any corruption throughout all his political career beginning in 1960 until his dying days. He is a person of great moral and political principles.
Q: With his passing, it is quite clear that there will be a huge political vacuum in the opposition.
Q: What do you think the implication of his death will be for the UDPS, for the opposition as well as the accord that you mentioned earlier done on December 31?
A: Yes, well UDPS is a bit disorganized, mostly because of Tshisekedi’s long illness and long absences from the Congo and also the fact that the party has not been able to put together a very stable administration and a financial mechanism for raising money and paying its functionaries. You’ve had, as a result, the regime has been able to bribe some of the UDPS officers into deserting Tshisekedi and going out to form their own parties or something like that. At present, we have two very strong leaders at the UDPS; Jean-Marc Kabunda, the Secretary General, and Valentin Mubake, the political advisor. It seems that these are two people who can claim leadership of the party. Kabunda is actually the acting president according to UDPS statutes. As the Secretary General, he can act for up to 30 days in absence of the president and hopefully, the party will organize the Congress to choose the new leadership. Given the lack of funding, I don’t really know whether they would be able to do that.
Valentin Mbake has been on the side of Tshisekedi for years. I remember I met him in 1991, the first time I returned home after being in exile and I have had tremendous respect for him. He is a man of great integrity. He is a trained engineer who has an independent financial business because he gets a lot of consulting with international organizations in foreign countries. He is not a person who can be tempted to accept bribes from the regime, so he has been a very, very good advisor to Tshisekedi, so I’m hoping the two of them and Felix Tshisekedi, his son, would be able to work together, to keep the party together and try to reorganize it in such a way that they can function as a regular party and not something that belongs to a family or as some press refer to it as a Kasaian (region of Congo where Tshisekedi comes from) party. The UDPS is not a party of one group or one province; it’s a party of the entire country. It has branches all over the country and certainly can claim to be the first and most important political party in the Congo. I just hope that it does not disintegrate.
As for the Rassemblement (coalition of opposition parties that Tshisekedi headed), according to the organization right now, Pierre Lumbia is the acting president, but unfortunately he is the former security advisor to Kabila and belongs to the G7 group of former Kabila allies who deserted him a year ago to form this grouping which supports Moise Katumbi, the former governor of the Province of Katanga and presidential candidate of the next elections, so I’m not sure to what extent he can be trusted. He will have to live up to the ideals that Tshisekedi defended, but my hope is that the Rassemblement, a large grouping of different groups including the Dynamique led by Fayulu and others, but they will be able to find a way to elect a new president who can be a person of integrity and a person who can defend the rule of law and democracy.
As for the December 31, 2016 accord, I am a bit pessimistic because my thinking is that Mr. Kabila has, for a long time, been hoping for this day to see Tshisekedi disappear from the scene so that he could stay in power as long as he wants because Tshisekedi was the only person who scared him. Certainly there are two others, Moise Katumbi whom he has now forced into exile and Diomi Ndongola whom he is keeping in jail unjustly, but I think that the accord does not have much chance if the opposition is split, if there is division of the opposition, there is no chance of this accord succeeding. This is my hope, that the opposition should use Tshisekedi’s passing away as an opportunity to unite and to stick together and put the country ahead of personal ambitions.
Q: With the uncertain immediate political future of the country, what do you think in general that the Congolese youth should be doing right now given a figure, a political figure, a well-respected political figure such as Étienne Tshisekedi has died, has gone and that his legacy is at risk, the future of the Congo is uncertain? What would you recommend that the Congolese youth today do to transform the country moving forward?
A: They should continue to put pressure on the political leaders, especially the Rassemblement to live up to the Genval agreement in Brussels in terms of moving forward and put pressure on them to defend the rule of law and to make sure that Kabila does not go beyond the one additional year which has been granted to him.
Now, some people claim that with Tshisekedi’s disappearance, nothing will happen, but we should remember in January 2015 there were three days; January 19, 20 and 21 where Kinshasa and some other towns in the country were in uproar because young people were demonstrating against Kabila’s attempt to stay in power longer by passing through parliament a law that would require that the census be taken before national elections. Since the experts have indicated that the census in a country like the Congo is huge, three times Nigeria, five times France, the whole of U.S. east of the Mississippi River and without roads, weak infrastructure, the census could take up to three to five years, Kabila was simply trying to find a way to cling onto power for a bit longer.
I think that that demonstration of youth power in 2015 where so many were killed, we don’t even know how many were killed, the UN said about 40 to 50, but then we discovered in Kinshasa mass graves of over 400 bodies and we don’t even know where those came from. I think that the youth of the Congo, especially through LUCHA, FILIMBI and other youth organizations should continue the struggle for democracy and struggle for better lives for our people and certainly they will find in people like Valentin Mubaki of UDPS, Martin Fayulu of the Dynamique and other leaders that can work to continue the struggle.
Q: As we bring this interview to a close, do you have any final remarks around your time with Tshisekedi, any anecdotes that you would like to share with our listeners?
A: Well, Tshisekedi was a very interesting person. I remember the last time I saw him, which was September, 2014. I went to see him. He basically wanted to know about mutual friends, people we know, people like Nancy Ross of the Rainbow Coalition in the United States and so on and I looked at my watch, we had talked for about an hour and said, “Mr. President, I don’t want to take up a lot of your time.” He said, “Sit down!” He said, “I’m not finished talking with you. I want to hear more about what’s going on. We talked again for another one hour and we wound up spending two hours. He can be a very charming person.
He is also a person who was able to lose his temper, mostly when things were not to his liking, but he was a person who was very fair. He treated people very, very fairly. He was not in any way divisive. He was not a person who tended to have prejudice about people. He treated everyone equally and had respect for people no matter what station of life they came from. He was a very, very great leader and one who leaves, I think, a very good example for our country.