He was only 19. For several years he was to live the life of a refugee, dependent on welfare and roaming the streets of Matonge, the Belgian capital’s African quarter. His father, Étienne, had stayed in Zaire where, for a decade, he fought almost single-handedly against President Mobutu Sese Seke, the man he had once served before courageously breaking with him. During these years he was repeatedly imprisoned by the dictator.
Thirty-six years later, the man who is now treading the red carpet, inspecting guards of honour and having tea with the Belgian monarch is at the heart of one of the most incredible political cohabitations in Africa.
A kind of peaceful (and transitional) co-management of state affairs has been established between the outgoing president, Joseph Kabila – to whom credit should be given for not trying to impose his dauphin – and his successor. Little by little, Félix Tshisekedi is making a name for himself after surfing to power on his illustrious father’s surname.
Few observers dared to believe in this president eight months ago. The victor in what many considered a flawed election, he was seen as impressionable and lacking in experience, leaning heavily on his omnipresent chief of staff, the veteran politician Vital Kamerhe. If this was true, full marks to the student for learning so quickly.
Félix Tshisekedi has gradually filled the serious legitimacy gap he faced after his election.
Through his frequent gestures of political appeasement and on basic freedoms, by patiently negotiating with Kabila, inch by inch, to form of a coalition government, by announcing that his flagship project (costing $37m a month!) will be free primary education, Tshisekedi has gradually filled the serious legitimacy gap he faced immediately after the presidential election. As a result, instead of crumbling once the honeymoon period was over, his popularity has increased. (Granted, there was no honeymoon period.)
The international stance that Tshisekedi is adopting is a major factor. The bland and hesitant president seen at March’s One Planet Summit in Nairobi has, in just over six months, become a calm and fluent orator enjoying his status.
The Congolese people appreciate this metamorphosis – all they want to regain their pride in living in a great country with whom people want to do business.
Just as you have to walk to move forward, he has acquired confidence by governing. Today, all those who publicly doubted the validity of his election – from Washington to Kigali, via Paris, Brussels, Luanda or Lusaka – treat him as a guest star. The Congolese appreciate this metamorphosis, for all they want is to regain their pride in living in a great country with whom people want to do business. Since independence they have dreamed of what they could be if the riches of their soil and subsoil finally went from potential to reality.
The danger, as always, is hubris. As the Congolese by nature are attracted to nationalist sentiment and inclined to live life in exhilarating expectation of the future, all heads of state, from Mobutu to Joseph Kabila, have played the prodigal son with a “Congo is back” mantra – before, inevitably, disappointing. “A patient, humble and listening force” is how Félix Tshisekedi described himself in a recent interview with Le Soir. Long may he remain so.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.
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