Felix Tshisekedi sworn in as Congo president; first peaceful transfer of power in Central African country's history

Kinshasa (Congo): Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as Congo's president on Thursday, marking the country's first peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium nearly 60 years ago, and immediately pledged tolerance and announced the imminent release of all political prisoners.

The 55-year-old takes over from Joseph Kabila, who led the vast Central African country since 2001.

Kabila quietly watched from behind mirrored sunglasses the extraordinary scene of an opposition leader becoming president. When Kabila left the dais, some in the crowd booed.

Felix Tshisekedi sworn in as Congo president; first peaceful transfer of power in Central African countrys history

Félix Tshisekedi won December's disputed presidential election. AP

Tshisekedi called national reconciliation "one of our priorities" as questions remained about the disputed 30 December election. Congolese largely appeared relieved to witness a peaceful change of power in a country with a history of violent overthrows.

Congo's first leader, Patrice Lumumba, was removed in a military coup and assassinated in 1961. Mobutu Sese Seko ruled for more than three decades but was overthrown in 1997 by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. Kabila's son, Joseph, took over at age 29.

Tshisekedi has inherited much goodwill with the legacy of his own father, the late opposition icon Etienne, who pursued the presidency for decades. Tshisekedi in his speech called him "president," to wild cheers, acknowledging his defiant declaration after losing the disputed 2011 election 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 People's Palace, which houses the national legislature, for a glimpse of the inauguration.

Just one African head of state, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, was seen at the ceremony after the African Union and others in the international community expressed reservations over alleged election fraud. The United States and others now say they will work with the new leader but have not offered 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, 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 40,000-strong 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, posed a bigger threat to Kabila and his allies.

Few Congolese have taken up Fayulu's call for peaceful protest, instead accepting 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 and calling the country's revenue collection "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.

The 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.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 00:13:41 IST

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