New Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi vows to release all political prisoners

OPPOSITION LEADER Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as Congo’s president Thursday, marking the country’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium nearly 60 years ago, and immediately announced plans for the release of all political prisoners.

The 55-year-old Tshisekedi succeeds Joseph Kabila, the strongman who governed the largely impoverished and corruption-riddled Central African country for 18 years before stepping down under pressure.

“We are committed to building a modern, peaceful, democratic and caring state for every citizen,” the new president said, “a state that will guarantee the happiness of all.”

He called on the troubled nation to engage in a new battle, one for “the well-bring for each citizen of this beautiful country.” Kabila watched from behind mirrored sunglasses as the extraordinary scene of an opposition figure becoming president unfolded. When Kabila left the dais, some in the crowd booed.

Tshisekedi also called for national reconciliation in the wake of the disputed Dec. 30 election. The balloting was marked by allegations of large-scale fraud and suspicions of a backroom deal by Kabila to install Tshisekedi over another opposition candidate who, according to leaked electoral data, was the real winner.

But many Congolese appeared satisfied just to see Kabila go and relieved to witness a peaceful change of power in a politically repressive country with a history of violent coups. Supporters of Tshisekedi stormed the People’s Palace, which houses the legislature, for a glimpse of the inauguration.

The new president declared that Congo will not be a nation of “division, hate or tribalism” and spoke of “fundamental rights.” He vowed to take on corruption, asserting that $16 billion to $20 billion is lost each year to graft, and rid the country of its dozens of rebel groups. And he surprised observers by announcing his government will free all political prisoners.

It is unclear how many political prisoners are held in Congo “simply because they keep changing — they arrest people in Congo every day for nothing and release some hours later,” said Jean-Mobert Senga, a researcher with Amnesty International. More than 100 were arrested in post-election violence, some arbitrarily, he said.

“I have no reason to doubt” the release will happen, Senga said. “It is in his interest to do what he promised to do. Otherwise, people will quickly lose trust.”

The largely untested Tshisekedi has inherited much goodwill from his father, the late opposition icon Etienne Tshisekedi, who pursued the presidency for decades. In his inaugural address, Tshisekedi referred to his father as “president” to wild cheers.

Tshisekedi’s charismatic father had posed such a challenge to Kabila 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.