Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi called for national reconciliation as he became Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, succeeding Joseph Kabila in Congo’s first transfer of power via an election in 59 years of independence.
“We want to build a strong Congo, turned toward development in peace and security,” he said to cheers from thousands of supporters on the lawn of the presidential palace. “A Congo for all, in which everyone has a place.”
The pageantry was briefly interrupted when Tshisekedi was taken ill during his inaugural address and had to sit down. He returned to the podium after a brief pause, saying he was exhausted by the emotion of the moment.
His spokesman later told Reuters his bulletproof vest was too tight.
Tshisekedi’s victory in the December 30 election was marred by accusations of a backroom deal with the outgoing president to deny victory to another opposition candidate. Kabila and Tshisekedi’s camps reject those allegations.
A sign of lingering doubt about the vote’s credibility saw Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta the only foreign head of state present.
The imagery of one leader handing the presidency to another as Kabila wrapped the presidential sash around his successor was striking in a country where previous power transfers have come only from coups, assassination or rebellion.
In his address, Tshisekedi called for “a reconciled Congo” following a contentious election that saw him narrowly defeat another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, and Kabila’s hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Fayulu said he won the election by a landslide, a claim backed by tallies from Congo’s Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 observers to polls.
He told Reuters he would never work with Tshisekedi. “Felix has to start by telling the truth,” Fayulu said. “He’s not the president-elect. He is the president appointed by Kabila.”
Many African and Western countries, wary a dispute could reignite unrest in the volatile central African country, recognised Tshisekedi after Congo’s highest court dismissed Fayulu’s fraud complaints.
Tshisekedi’s late father, Etienne, was one of Kabila’s fiercest political rivals, losing to him in the 2011 presidential election. Supporters of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party were among dozens killed by security forces in protests in response to Kabila’s refusal to step down on time.
At Thursday’s ceremony UDPS supporters dressed in white cheered soldiers as they marched along the palace law and long-time political foes sat together.
“I am happy today because Felix will change the country. He will give children free education and people food,” said Nsangaa Tshibula (39).
Tshisekedi faces widespread suspicion outside the UDPS that his election win came through a secret deal with Kabila and will see the outgoing president continue to pull the strings behind the scenes.
BREAK WITH THE KABILA YEARS?
Congolese sources in contact with senior government officials told Reuters Fayulu won the election decisively, but top officials ordered the electoral commission to award the vote to Tshisekedi after he struck a deal with Kabila.
The Tshisekedi and Kabila camps deny that, but Tshisekedi will find it difficult to shake Kabila’s influence.
During his 18 years in power, Kabila installed loyalists throughout the federal bureaucracy and his ruling coalition won a resounding majority in legislative elections, meaning Tshisekedi’s prime minister will come from its ranks.
Kabila refuses to rule out a fresh run for president in 2023, when he will no longer be constrained by term limits.
That left many Congolese wondering whether Tshisekedi’s presidency will see a meaningful break with the Kabila years, during which the economy grew at a healthy clip on the back of surging copper and cobalt production but failed to significantly dent endemic poverty.
Congo remains unstable years after the official end of a 1998-2003 regional war in the eastern borderlands with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi that led to millions of deaths, most from hunger and disease.
Dozens of militia continue to ravage those areas. Three days of ethnic violence last month in the normally peaceful west killed nearly 900 people, according to the United Nations.
During the election campaign, Tshisekedi vowed to move government for at least three months to Goma, on the border with Rwanda, in a bid to reassert state control over that part of the country.
Analysts say his perceived lack of legitimacy in some quarters after the disputed election could embolden armed challenges to his government.