A plane carrying the body of longtime Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi headed home Thursday two years after his death, ending a political standoff that eased when his son became president earlier this year.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to welcome the return of his remains Thursday evening, with the burial on the outskirts of the capital, Kinshasa, this weekend. 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.
The communications director for the Congolese president, Lydie Omanga, confirmed the flight left Brussels on Thursday. The flight originally was scheduled to leave Wednesday night but was delayed due to unspecified logistical reasons.
A funeral is scheduled for Friday at the 80,000-seat Martyrs Stadium in the capital. 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.
Etienne Tshisekedi 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.
His international prominence grew in 2011 when he ran against Kabila for president and later declared himself the winner despite official results confirming the incumbent’s victory. Tshisekedi was placed under house arrest.
His son Felix was declared president in January though another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, said he was the rightful winner. Critics suggested that Felix Tshisekedi had reached a backroom deal with Kabila as the most palatable candidate to the regime 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.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.