Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as Congo’s president on Thursday, marking the DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium nearly 60 years ago, and immediately announced plans for the release of all political prisoners.
Tshisekedi aged 55 succeeds Joseph Kabila, the strongman who governed the 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 nation to engage in a new battle, one for “the well-bring for each citizen of this beautiful country.”
Kabila watched 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.
However, 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 still remains unknown 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.”