“The baobab has fallen!”

“The baobab has fallen!”

Obituary on the Congolese  politician Etienne Tshisekedi

In Etienne-Tshisekedi the Congolese lose a symbolic figure of the unarmed struggle for a democratic Congo.
“The baobab tumbled down” – so or similar, well-known exponents of the democratic resistance described the sudden death of Etienne Tshisekedi, a death many face deeply affected. The Baobab, the African monkey-bread tree, is considered a particularly strong, resistant tree.
The former opposition politician of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre), founder of the Union-Populaire pour la Démocratie et le Progrès social (UDPS), for a long time the only opposition party alongside Mobutu’s compulsory party Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), surprisingly died on 1 February 2017 in Brussels of the consequences of a pulmonary embolism. Tshisekedi had recently been in Brussels for two years, also for health reasons. He had returned to Kinshasa to take a key role in an agreement between government and opposition in the turmoil surrounding Joseph Kabila’s unconstitutional persistence in his further presidential mandate. At the end of January, he had to return to the Belgian capital for a health check-up, where he died two days before last Wednesday.

Lumumba’s ally

Tshisekedi, born in the Kasai in 1934, was a Congolese politician from the very beginning. As the first Congolese graduate student in jurisprudence, Etienne Tshisekedi belonged to the patriotic young intellectuals around Patrice Lumumba. After his coup, Mobutu made Tshisekedi, then Director of the State Civil Service College, ENDA (1961–1965), Minister of Interior, who was instrumental in formulating the Congolese constitution. It was also Tshisekedi, who in 1967 formulated the statutes of the mobutist movement “Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution” (MPR), a movement which at that time permitted the existence of an opposition party. It was only later that Mobutu made the movement a totalitarian unitary party and himself a dictator for life. Tshisekedi became increasingly marginalised by this “betrayal” of Mobutu, and was consequently removed by Mobutu from all responsible government operations. In 1980, when Mobutu’s omnipotence and misrule became more evident, Tshisekedi with 13 courageous co-signers addressed an open letter to Mobutu in which he openly criticised the totalitarian features of his regime. This letter caused the emergence of the UDPS, even today the most respected oppositional party in the Congo.

Estranged from Mobutu

The letter is the first striking document of a critical movement against Mobutu’s dictatorship that has since emerged in Zaïre. The movement showed with impressive figures how Mobutu systematically abused the confidence–originally acquired from the Congolese–for his striving for power and enrichment. The 13 signatories were immediately arrested and persecuted as state enemies. Some were subjected to Mobutus arbitrary justice, ill-treatment, even torture, for a time even Tshisekedi himself. However, since the discontent about Mobutu among the people was not to dislodge, Tshisekedi enjoyed a certain room to move. In the final phase of Mobutu’s staggering regime, Tshisekedi was repeatedly  appointed as the prime minister next to Mobutu, but often only for a few weeks or even days. The two bloody Congo wars in the wake of Mobutu’s dismissal, brought the country once again plague and devastation and the remote-controlled domination of Uganda and Rwanda backed by  the protection power USA. Tshisekedi stayed away from political intrigues.  He also measured the two Kabila governments (Laurent Désiré Kabila, 1997–2001, and Joseph Kabila) against the principles of a genuine democratic state. Both Laurent Désiré’s takeover and the elections – defying any legitimacy – of the Rwandan pawn Joseph Kabila, could not withstand these criteria, as not only Etienne Tshisekedi pointed out. Consistently, he did not accept the rule of Laurent Désiré Kabila as  legitimate, or even that of his successor, Joseph Kabila. On the contrary: he considered himself as the legitimate president of the state by pointing out manipulated elections, since he had achieved the second best result in the presidential elections, also documented by official figures.

Incorruptible committed to democracy

Etienne Tshisekedi, however, did not win his prestige due to these facts, but in recognition of the fact that since the seventies the Congolese politician had always courageously stated, the Congolese were ready for democracy and would not deserve to be deprived by a camarilla from the fruits of their efforts. Thus the fear in the present nomenclature in Kinshasa is great that the death of “Papa Tshisekedi,” as he was called by many supporters, could lead to further unrest in the vast, turmoil stricken empire.
However, the politicians and the population can only come to rest when a real peace based on understanding and reconciliation is finally achieved in the Congo: also in its resource-rich East, where government-sponsored and protected bandits have illegally exploited the natural treasures and treated the civilian population as a hostage. And when political leadership of the Congo would emerge from general, secret and internationally controlled democratic elections. Every day of waiting thereupon makes the Congolese tragedy even more intolerable.

Peter Küpfer

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