New Congo president marks first peaceful transfer of power

For the first time since independence 60 years ago, Congo's presidency has changed hands with no bloodshed. President Felix Tshisekedi has promised to curb corruption, but his critics question the legitimacy of his surprise victory.

Jerome Delay/AP
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, right, receives the presidential sash from outgoing president Joseph Kabila at the election ceremony in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Jan. 24, 2019.

Congo's new President Felix Tshisekedi made news as soon as he was sworn into office on Thursday by announcing he would release all political prisoners and by praising his father, the late opposition icon Etienne, calling him "president" to cheers from the crowd.

Mr. Tshisekedi's inauguration marked the Central African nation's first peaceful transfer of power since independence nearly 60 years ago.

He takes over from Joseph Kabila, who led the country since 2001. Mr. Kabila quietly watched from behind his mirrored sunglasses the extraordinary scene of an opposition leader becoming president. When Kabila left the dais, some in the crowd booed.

Tshisekedi appealed for tolerance as questions remained about the disputed Dec. 30 election, calling national reconciliation "one of our priorities." Congolese largely have accepted his win in the interest of peace.

Despite the concerns, the new leader has inherited much goodwill with the legacy of his father, who pursued the presidency for decades but never achieved the post his son has won. The reference to Etienne Tshisekedi as "president" was a nod to the late opposition leader's defiant declaration after losing the disputed election in 2011 to Kabila.

Tshisekedi's father had posed such a charismatic challenge that after he died in Belgium in 2017, Congo's government did not allow his body to be brought home. His son's spokesman has said that will be corrected soon.

Supporters of the new president stormed the Palais de la Nation for a glimpse of the inauguration.

Just one African head of state, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, was seen at Thursday's ceremony after the African Union and others in the international community expressed reservations over alleged election fraud. The United States and others this week said they will work with the new leader but did not offer congratulations.

Many Congolese hope that Tshisekedi will bring change after Kabila, who in a final address on Wednesday night urged the country to unite and support the incoming leader. He said he was stepping aside with no regrets.

Tshisekedi now faces the challenge of working with a legislature dominated by members of Kabila's ruling coalition, likely restricting the chances of dramatic reforms in a country that remains largely impoverished and plagued by dozens of rebel groups.

Few had expected an opposition victory in Congo, where Kabila had hung on for more than two years of turbulent election delays.

Declared runner-up Martin Fayulu mounted a court challenge to Tshisekedi's win, alleging massive rigging and demanding a recount. The Constitutional Court on Sunday rejected it. Outside court, Mr. Fayulu accused Kabila of making a backroom deal with Tshisekedi as it became clear the ruling party's candidate did poorly at the polls.

The new president saluted Fayulu in his speech as a "veritable soldier of the people" and acknowledged the Catholic Church, whose large electoral observer mission found that Fayulu had won.

Observers have said Fayulu, an opposition lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo's sprawling corruption, was seen as a bigger threat to Kabila and his allies.

Few Congolese have taken up Fayulu's call for peaceful protest, appearing instead to accept Tshisekedi's win as long as Kabila is on the way out.

Congo will not be a nation of "division, hate or tribalism," the new president declared.

Tshisekedi also vowed to take on widespread corruption, asserting that billions of dollars are lost per year. He called the revenue brought in "the weakest in the world."

Congo has trillions of dollars' worth of mineral wealth but the country remains badly underdeveloped, to the frustration of the population of its 80 million people.

Congo's new president caused a few minutes of confusion by pausing his inauguration speech, surrounded by worried supporters, before resuming and asking the crowd for its understanding for the "small moment of weakness."

His bulletproof vest had been too tight.

A number of people in the crowd earlier had fainted in the heat.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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