By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The death on Wednesday of Congo's opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi leaves opponents of President Joseph Kabila seriously weakened in their bid to force Kabila to quit power after he defied constitutional term limits to stay on last year.
Democratic Republic of Congo has never experienced a peaceful transition of power and Kabila's refusal to stand down when his final term expired in December has raised fears the chronically unstable country could slide back into civil war.
Despite his 84 years and failing health, Tshisekedi known as "the Sphinx" for his sparse but profound statements, remained the undisputed leader of the opposition to Kabila. He was expected to head a transitional council to oversee Kabila's exit by the end of this year under a deal struck on Dec. 31.
As hundreds of mourners congregated in front of a hastily-erected, candlelit shrine at his house in the Limete district of the capital, Kinshasa, on Thursday, many said they had little faith that anyone else could carry on his legacy.
Nearby, police fired tear gas at more than a hundred Tshisekedi supporters from his Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (UDSP) as a nearby vehicle burned, a Reuters witness said.
Tshisekedi founded the party in 1982, creating the first organized opposition party under former leader Mobotu Sese Seko's single-party rule. Many admired him for remaining outside the folds of power in a country where many opponents have cycled in and out of government over the decades.
"He never betrayed the nation," said Rejeton Tshawuke, 35, his eyes misty, speaking over the loud wails of female mourners. "We can't invest hope in just anyone. Many opposition leaders are only interested in money."
In an interview on Thursday, Okello Oryem, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in neighboring Uganda, told Reuters that the instability almost certain to follow Tshisekedi's death meant there should be no rush to push Kabila out of office in accordance with the December deal.
"There might be a need to examine the whole time agreement," he said.
"(Tshisekedi's death) might cause some ripples and a shaking of the system, hence the need for Kabila to continue holding the country together until such time as things stabilize."
Tshisekedi's credibility with an impoverished and frustrated population enabled him to mobilize the masses like no other figure in the country. Tens of thousands lined the streets of Kinshasa last July for his return from two years abroad for medical treatment.
But his critics say he failed to leave in place political structures that could survive him. His absence from Congo touched off bitter infighting within the UDPS.
His son Felix's rapid ascent within the UDPS ranks has led to criticism that the party had become a private family patrimony. He is now tipped to become the next prime minister in a forthcoming power-sharing government.
There are few obvious opposition leaders to assume Tshisekedi's leadership role.
The former governor of Congo's copper-mining region, Moise Katumbi, has consolidated support from several prominent opposition groupings for a planned presidential bid.
However, Katumbi has been in self-imposed exile since May after the government accused him of plotting against the state - charges he denies.
Meanwhile, negotiations on implementing the December deal had already stalled amid wrangling over the composition of the power-sharing government, rendering the prospect of an election by the end the year increasingly remote.
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Kampala; editing by Ralph Boulton)