Felix Tshisekedi called for national reconciliation on Thursday as he became Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, succeeding Joseph Kabila in Congo’s first transfer of power via an election in 59 years of independence.
“We want to build a strong Congo, turned toward its development in peace and security,” he said to cheers from thousands of supporters on the lawn of the presidential palace. “A Congo for all, in which everyone has a place.”
The pageantry of the ceremony was briefly interrupted when Tshisekedi was taken ill during his inaugural address and had to sit down.
But he returned to the podium moments after a brief pause, saying he was exhausted by the election and the emotion of the moment.
His spokesman later told Reuters that his bulletproof vest had been too tight.
Tshisekedi’s victory in the Dec. 30 election was marred by accusations he struck a backroom deal with the outgoing president to deny victory to another opposition candidate.
Kabila and Tshisekedi’s camps reject those allegations.
Tshisekedi, wearing a blue suit and dark glasses, took the oath of office before his supporters, government officials and foreign ambassadors.
However, in a sign of lingering doubts about the vote’s credibility, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta was the only foreign head of state present.
Still, the imagery of one leader handing off the presidency to another as Kabila wrapped the presidential sash around his successor was striking in a country where previous power transfers have resulted only from coups, assassination or rebellion.
In his address, Tshisekedi called for “a reconciled Congo” following a contentious election that saw him narrowly defeat another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, and Kabila’s hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Fayulu said he won the election by a landslide, a claim backed by tallies from Congo’s Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 observers to the polls.
He told Reuters on Thursday that he would never work with Tshisekedi. “Felix has to start by telling the truth,” Fayulu said. “He’s not the president-elect. He is the president appointed by Kabila.”
Many African and Western countries, wary that a dispute could reignite unrest in the volatile central African country, have recognised Tshisekedi after Congo’s highest court dismissed Fayulu’s fraud complaints.
Tshisekedi’s late father, Etienne, was one of Kabila’s fiercest political rivals, losing to him in the 2011 presidential election.
Supporters of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party were among the dozens killed by security forces in protests in response to Kabila’s refusal to step down on time.
At Thursday’s ceremony, UDPS supporters dressed all in white cheered soldiers as they marched along the palace lawn, and longtime political foes sat together in the tribune.
“I am happy today because Felix will change the country. He will give children free education and people food,” said Nsangaa Tshibula, 39, whose white gown was decked in glittery beads.
But Tshisekedi faces widespread suspicion outside the UDPS that his election win came through a secret deal with Kabila that will see the outgoing president continue to pull the strings behind the scenes.