Congolese finally pay tribute to late opposition leader

International

The coffin carrying the remains of longtime Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi arrives at Kinshasa airport Thursday, May 30, 2019. The body of Tshisekedi, father of the current Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, died in Brussels in February 2017, was returned to home soil Thursday night for burial more than two years after his death, after a political standoff ended. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Tens of thousands of mourners, some of whom camped outside overnight, gathered on Friday to finally say farewell to Etienne Tshisekedi, the Congolese opposition icon whose son was declared president earlier this year.

The stadium ceremony came more than two years after the elder Tshisekedi died abroad at age 84. His rift with then-president Joseph Kabila was so entrenched that his remains were not allowed to return after his death in Belgium of a pulmonary embolism in 2017.

After Kabila gave way to pressure for a new presidential election in January, Tshisekedi’s son Felix was declared the winner. He vowed that his father’s remains would come home to Congo, where he was the face of the political opposition for decades.

“I haven’t slept in two days. I will only sleep once they have buried him,” said Lisette Kapinga, 32, who was among the crowd gathered at Martyrs Stadium in Kinshasa where many wore dresses made of fabric with Tshisekedi’s image.

In life, Etienne Tshisekedi was at times put under house arrest, his supporters jailed and beaten.

But after the seismic shift in Congo’s political climate, he is being given a farewell befitting a senior statesman, with some African presidents in attendance including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

Kabila’s FCC coalition released a statement Friday acknowledging the role Tshisekedi had played over the years.

“Etienne Tshisekedi was undoubtedly one of the major political actors of our country — a hyperactive fighter, but also a man of dialogue,” it said.

A seven-hour procession to downtown Kinshasa followed the arrival of his casket Thursday night at Kinshasa’s airport.

Pallbearers wearing ties representing the Congolese flag carried the casket into the stadium on Friday. The flat cap that Tshisekedi always wore was placed atop the casket.

Jannot Nlandu, a 28-year-old student, said Friday’s outpouring showed just how popular Tshisekedi was even though he never got the chance to serve as president.

“Even in death he can draw huge crowds” Nlandu said. “He is the king of Kinshasa.”

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Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

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