Congo president allows senators to take office, ending feud with predecessor's camp

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi has lifted a ban on the installation of new senators, walking back a decision that had put him at odds with his predecessor Joseph Kabila, whose allies won an overwhelming majority of seats.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic Republic of Congo's Felix Tshisekedi swears into office during an inauguration ceremony as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 24, 2019. REUTERS/ Olivia Acland/File Photo

Tshisekedi blocked the newly elected senators from taking office earlier this month, citing allegations that provincial assembly members, who elect senators, had demanded bribes of tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for their votes.

That move was seen by many Congolese as an effort by Tshisekedi, who took power in January, to assert his independence from Kabila, whose parliamentary majorities and grip on the security services after 18 years in power raise questions about Tshisekedi’s ability to govern freely.

In a brief announcement read on state television late on Thursday, Tshisekedi’s office said it was lifting the suspension on new senators after preliminary findings by prosecutors found there was no evidence of corruption in the senate elections.

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) won more than 80 out of 100 senate seats in the March 15 election, compared to just three for Tshisekedi’s UDPS party and its allies.

It also obtained about 70 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament and a clear majority of provincial assembly seats in elections held the same day as the presidential vote in December.

About 20 candidates from across the political spectrum withdrew from their senate races because they said they were asked for bribes, but Kabila’s camp decried Tshisekedi’s decision to suspend the new senators’ installation as unconstitutional.

Tshisekedi’s own victory, which led to Congo’s first transfer of power via the ballot box, was marred by widespread accusations of fraud. Runner-up Martin Fayulu accused Tshisekedi, who had long been an opponent of Kabila, and Kabila of striking a backroom deal to fix the result.

Kabila was barred by term limits from standing for re-election, and his chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, finished a distant third.

Congolese sources in contact with senior government officials told Reuters that the vote was rigged to deny Fayulu the win.

Tshisekedi and Kabila’s camps deny that the vote was rigged or that they struck a deal.

Reporting By Stanis Bujakera; Additional reporting and writing by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Aaron Ross and Frances Kerry