Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, one of the country’s most important advocates of democracy, has died in Brussels aged 84, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.
Tshisekedi stood up to Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country then known as Zaire, for decades before being overthrown by Rwanda, Uganda and other forces. He was also the main civilian opponent of Laurent Kabila, who took power in 1997, and his son, President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since 2001.
DR Congo: Main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, dies in Brussels aged 84
As such, he was a pivotal figure in Congo, whose history has been marked by foreign intervention, civil war, coups and authoritarian rule. His stalwart activism meant he could draw huge crowds.
His death comes at another inflection point in the country’s history following Joseph Kabila’s failure to step down when his constitutional mandate expired in December.
Dozens have died since 2015 in anti-government protests over alleged efforts by Kabila to cling to power and international powers fear tensions could spark a resurgence of civil wars that lead to the deaths of millions between 1996 and 2003.
Tshisekedi was set to take the top post in a transitional council agreed in December under a deal to pave the way for Kabila to leave power in 2017 and refrain from running for a third term as president.
His death deprives the opposition of its principal figurehead as talks over implementation of the December accord falter. His son, Felix, is tipped to be named prime minister in a forthcoming power-sharing government.
Tshisekedi served as a minister under Mobutu before helping found the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party (UDPS), the first organized opposition platform in Zaire, in 1982.
He was named prime minister four times in the 1990s as Mobutu contended with pro-democratic currents in the country, but Tshisekedi never lasted more than a few months as he repeatedly clashed with the charismatic autocrat.
He finished runner-up to Kabila in the 2011 presidential election. International observers said the vote was marred by fraud and Tshisekedi’s supporters have referred to him ever since as the "elected president".
Tshisekedi returned to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, last July to a hero’s welcome after two years in Brussels for medical treatment. The UDPS said he returned there last week for a check up. A UDPS spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday.