Opposition chiefs who declared themselves ‘president’

In recent African history, Nigeria’s Moshod Abiola, Democratic Republic of Congo’s Etienne Tshisekedi, Uganda’s Kiza Besigye and Gabon’s Jean Ping are among political titans who have tried to declare themselves president when there is a sitting head of state.

On December 12, Mr Raila Odinga might as well join the list if he lives to his promise – despite calls, including from the international community and religious leaders, to drop the plans.

Mr Odinga is defiant, nay incensed: “Constitution, my foot!” he thundered on Thursday as families of his supporters thronged Nairobi’s City Mortuary to pick bodies of victims killed during the recent confrontations with police.


How Mr Odinga’s political fortunes will metamorphose after his date with destiny on Tuesday remains to be seen.

His radical supporters would want him sworn-in. But later-day moderates — like Koigi Wamwere — are asking him to be cautious.

“Before you take the grave matter of being sworn in, listen to as many voices as you can. It can help,” Mr Wamwere wrote in the Nation on Thursday.

There are also various parallels in African politics that make for interesting reading.

The late Etienne Tshisekedi who was in many ways like Mr Odinga. He never tired in his determination to rule Congo. FILE PHOTO


Before Mr Tshisekedi died in Brussels in February 2017— a frustrated soul — he was the face of the opposition in President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire that was later renamed DRC under Laurent Kabila then Joseph Kabila.

Mr Tshisekedi was in many ways like Mr Odinga. First, he never tired in his determination to rule Congo.

Secondly, both are totemic figures leading a huge coalition of opposition, and draw massive crowds to their rallies. Unfortunately, both have been frustrated at the ballot box.

Another similarity is that both had been prime minister and both had boycotted presidential elections.

Also, both had been detained without trial before co-operating with the same regime that detained them.

Nasa leader Raila Odinga. How his political fortunes will metamorphose after his date with destiny on Tuesday remains to be seen. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


While Mr Tshisekedi was appointed by President Mobutu to become Zaire’s Prime Minister to quieten his persistent opposition, Mr Odinga would surprise everyone when he started a similar co-operation with President Daniel arap Moi.

He would later, be Prime Minister in the Grand Coalition government with President Mwai Kibaki following the 2007 post-election violence.

Mr Tshisekedi was forced to inaugurate himself as “president” due to the political frustrations he had faced.

He had also made political goofs that cost him leadership. When President Mobutu was being pushed by a fragile opposition to open the democratic space in this nation endowed with vast mineral deposits, he started a secret negotiation with Mr Tshisekedi in July 1991 – hoping to stop the slide towards multi-party democracy.


It came as a surprise when Mr Tshisekedi announced that he would take the post of prime minister – a move that threw the opposition into confusion. While Kinshasa erupted in anger and thousands of demonstrators (his supporters) headed to his Limete residence – protesting his dalliance “with the devil”, as they called the president, the damage done would take years before the opposition found its feat again.

When Mr Mobutu appointed Mr Tshisekedi Prime Minister, the President refused to relinquish control of defence, foreign affairs, finance and mining – the same way Mr Kibaki frustrated Mr Odinga by refusing to relinquish key ministries.

Although Mr Tshisekedi was then the darling of Western governments, he only lasted for six days before he was fired for attempting to take control of the Central Bank.


It was after he was fired that Mr Tshisekedi, for the first time, attempted to establish a rival government at the time that President Mobutu had appointed Nguza Karl-i-Bond as the Prime Minister.

But following riots in Kinshasa and pressure from France and Belgium, a transition government was created and for the second time, Mr Mobutu appointed Mr Tshisekedi as the Prime Minister.

But Mr Tshisekedi’s attempt to charge the President with treason, after he (Mobutu) reconvened Parliament to draft a new Constitution, saw violence erupt in a military camp as soldiers took to the streets to loot and rape!


In the confusion, French Ambassador Phillipe Bernard was killed and President Mobutu named Faustin Birindwa as the new Prime Minister. As a result, Zaire had two governments – one led by Mr Tshisekedi and another by Mr Birindwa.

While the world tried to rally behind Mr Tshisekedi and isolate Mr Mobutu, it was not until July 1994 when the President replaced Mr Birindwa with Kengo wa Dondo, the Congolese politician born of a Polish Jewish father and a Rwandan mother.

Sabotaged because of his Tutsi roots, at a time a Rwanda-backed rebellion was heading to Kinshasa and led by Laurent Kabila, Mr Wa Dondo resigned and Mr Tshisekedi was re-appointed as Prime minister for the third time.

He only lasted a week before Mr Mobutu’s regime fell in 1997 with the Kabila-led rebel forces taking over.


When an election was called in 2006, Mr Tshisekedi boycotted the polls claiming that it was pre-rigged but went ahead to declare himself “president”.

In 2011, Mr Tshisekedi vied against the younger Mr Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila who was assassinated in 2001, and came second in the November 28 race. It was after this that he decided to organise his own “inauguration” at the Martyr Stadium in Kinshasa.

President Kabila sent police to disrupt the ceremony forcing Mr Tshisekedi to retreat to his home where he was sworn-in as president by his Chief of Staff, Albert Moleka – the man who stood by his side all the years.

He was then put under house arrest and many of his supporters arrested.


And like Mr Odinga who says that he would be sworn in as “people’s president”, Mr Tshisekedi had told the media that he would be sworn-in “by the people” after the Supreme Court confirmed President Kabila’s win, closing doors on Mr Tshisekedi’s final bid for the presidency.

In Uganda Mr Besigye, a perennial rival of President Yoweri Museveni, conducted a similar ceremony – which was only available in a video shot from a secret location. Although Dr Besigye had been barred from organising protest rallies, ahead of President Museveni’s swearing-in, he evaded police and stormed Kampala where he was arrested in mid May 2016.


Shortly after his arrest, a video started circulating on social media sites showing Dr Besigye swearing in at an unidentified location.

In the video Dr Besigye is flanked by Forum for Democratic Change chairman Wasswa Biriggwa and then Leader of Opposition in Parliament Wafula Oguttu.

Dr Besigye, a four-time presidential contestant, had lost to President Museveni in the February 2016 election, but the party rejected those official results.

Unlike Mr Tshisekedi, he had opted to be sworn-in before President Museveni took his oath.


For the last one year, Dr Besigye has been attending mentions of his treason trial.

He is accused of “inciting people to overthrow the Government” and declaring himself as “President of Uganda”.

Last year in Gabon, Mr Ping, the opposition leader, declared himself the rightful president and called for a vote recount, days after incumbent Ali Bongo was declared the winner of an election which sparked deadly violence.

“I am the president,” Mr Ping told a press conference. But after a recount was carried, the Constitutional Court confirmed Mr Bongo’s win.

By then angry opposition supporters had burnt down the country’s parliament. Mr Ping’s headquarters was also bombed and two people killed.

Gabon’s opposition leader Jean Ping speaks to journalists on September 9, 2016. Last year in Gabon, Mr Ping, the opposition leader, declared himself the rightful president and called for a vote recount. PHOTO | STEVE JORDAN | AFP


“The whole world knows who is president of the Republic, it’s me Jean Ping,” he was quoted saying.

In Nigeria, Mr Moshood Abiola dared the military regime of Gen Sani Abacha and declared himself the president after a whirlwind tour of Western countries where he had sought support against the regime which had overturned his election victory.

Mr Abiola then rallied support to claim the presidency, but he was arrested for treason by the military regime and sent to prison for four years.

On the day that he was set to be released from prison, Mr Abiola met with a US delegation consisting of Assistant Secretary Susan Rice, Under Secretary Thomas Pickering and Ambassador Bill Twaddell.


Tea was served and Mr Abiola collapsed after taking his cup.

Autopsy results said he died of “massive heart failure” while his supporters – and the family — claimed he was poisoned.

“Abiola’s wife and daughter … were very vehement once they heard that we (the Americans) were involved that we were responsible for his death.

“They felt that we had somehow played a role in his death… I don’t know the source of their views — they were prejudiced — but we did our best to deal with that…” wrote Mr Pickering some years later while recounting the story.

The big question that faces Mr Odinga is whether history will be on his side. Time will tell.

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