Opposition leader’s body returns home to Congo for funeral

International
Etienne Tshisekedi

FILE – In this file photo taken on, Wednesday, July 31, 2016, Congo opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi speaks during a political rally in Kinshasa, Congo. The body of longtime Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi is headed home more than two years after his death now that his son is president. Family members had accused the former government of Joseph Kabila of blocking a funeral for Tshisekedi because it feared demonstrations around the country’s most popular opposition figure. His body has been in Belgium since his death in early 2017. (AP Photo/John Bompengo,File)

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The body of late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi arrived home in Congo on Thuresday more than 2 years after his death.

Tshisekedi’s son Felix, who is now president of Congo, was at the airport Thursday evening to meet the plane coming from Brussels.

Etienne Tshisekedi died at a hospital in Belgium in February 2017 of a pulmonary embolism. Family members said they were blocked by then-President Joseph Kabila from bringing his body home for burial.

The regime feared that any outpouring of support for the late opposition figure would lead to more demonstrations against the president.

Etienne Tshisekedi spoke out against Kabila until the very end. Felix Tshisekedi won the January presidential vote, ushering in change and plans for a funeral for his father.

Supporters say Tshisekedi was so potent a threat to former president Joseph Kabila that his corpse had to remain in Belgium, where he died at age 84.

The surprise declaration of Tshisekedi’s son Felix as Congo’s presidential election winner in January opened the way for the body’s return. Bringing his father home would be one of his first acts in office, he declared.

A funeral is scheduled for Friday at the 80,000-seat Martyrs Stadium in the capital, Kinshasa. Six heads of state are expected to attend, from the Republic of Congo, Angola, Zambia, Togo, Guinea and Rwanda. Burial is set for Saturday at a family plot on the city’s outskirts.

Etienne Tshisekedi, known for his fiery criticism of Kabila and his trademark flat cap, died in February 2017 of a pulmonary embolism at a Brussels hospital, not living long enough to see his political nemesis Kabila leave power. At the time, tensions were at an all-time high over Kabila’s political future as critics feared he would not cede power in the mineral-rich nation.

Family members and Tshisekedi’s UDPS party were unable to reach an agreement with Kabila’s government for the repatriation of his body, as the regime feared a funeral could lead to a resurgence of opposition demonstrations calling for Kabila’s ouster.

“Even in death Tshisekedi makes Kabila afraid,” Jean-Marc Kabund said in 2017 when he was the UDPS party’s secretary-general.

Tshisekedi was one of the party’s founders in 1982 as opposition grew to then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Congo for decades. Two years after the country allowed multiple political parties in 1990, Tshisekedi became prime minister in an uneasy on-again, off-again partnership with Mobutu.

Tshisekedi’s international prominence grew in 2011 when he ran against Kabila for president. He later declared himself president after an election marred by allegations of vote-rigging by the ruling party. He was then placed under de facto house arrest.

Tshisekedi kept up his criticism until the end, at one point accusing Kabila of treason for not stepping down at the end of his mandate in late 2016. A court ruled that Kabila could stay on until the next election was held, but Tshisekedi called it a “coup d’état that was carried out with the blessing of the constitutional court.”

Kabila’s government, under international pressure, eventually cleared the way for an election and Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner, although another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, maintains he was the victor. Critics suggested that Tshisekedi had reached a backroom deal with Kabila as the most palatable candidate after Kabila’s chosen candidate fared poorly.

Those fears were exacerbated when Kabila’s party won a majority in legislative elections, earning the right to choose Congo’s prime minister. Concerns remain that Kabila aims to run for the presidency again in the next election.

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Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

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