Tensions that had been rising as the end of President Kabila’s final term drew close exploded after the government failed to announce elections on 19 September. Now Kabila and a small group from the opposition are trying to manage the transition but other oppositionists are putting up a fight.
Lines are being drawn in the succession to replace President Joseph Kabila, whose second and final mandate was due to end on 19 December, but has now been delayed.
Before 7am on 19 September – the day the government failed to announce that elections would be held this year – the Kinshasa air swirled with skinny plumes of smoke: black and grey from burning tyres and cars, bright and colourful from teargas canisters.
By lunchtime, blue-uniformed policemen, underpaid and undertrained, had been reinforced by khaki-clad soldiers clasping automatic rifles and sealing off swathes of the city. About 50 people – both protesters and police – were killed on 19 and 20 September.
On one side of the struggle for the country’s political future is President Kabila and his allies. They want him to stay in power: some for as long as possible, and others until he can be sure that he will be replaced by a successor of his choosing.
The constitutional court ruled earlier this year that Kabila must remain in office until a new president is ready to be sworn in. The electoral authorities say it will take at least 504 days to organise a vote.
Kabila himself has not said much about his plans. However, the government organised a political dialogue in September to plot a way forward for the period before and after 19 December.
A non-exhaustive coalition of opposition parties took part in the talks, which reached an accord on 17 October. They agreed that new elections should be held in April 2018, and that a government of national unity should be established by 7 November, with an oppositionist who had taken part in the talks as prime minister. The most popular leader to participate in the dialogue was Vital Kamerhe.
Juvenal Munubo, who is a member of parliament in Kamerhe’s Union pour la Nation Congolaise, says the party is not being naïve: “Even if we are honouring an accord, even if we are in a coalition government, we must be careful. We need to always keep alert. Why? Because the powers that be have proved on several occasions that they did not intend to hand over power.”
On the other side of the political divide is a large opposition umbrella grouping called Le Rassemblement, which is led by the likes of former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi and long-time oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi.
They refused to take part in the talks after several conditions that they insisted upon were not met, including the freeing of political prisoners and the replacement of the African Union’s mediator, Edem Kodjo.
The influential Catholic Church suspended its participation in the dialogue in solidarity with the victims of the September violence. Tshisekedi and his allies planned to organise a new round of protests on 19 October and to ramp up pressure until the supposed endpoint of Kabila’s final term on 19 December.
Members of Le Rassemblement suggested that during the delays ahead of the vote, Kabila might try to hold a referendum on whether the two-term presidential limit should be removed. Barnabé Kikaya Karubi, Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser, tells The Africa Report: “The President has never said that he will seek a third mandate. Never.”
However, oppositionists point out that Kabila should not benefit from his own mistakes, as the government had since 2011 to prepare for the 2016 vote.
The DRC’s international partners are taking an increasingly adversarial position with the government. The United States has imposed targeted sanctions on officials involved in the September violence and the European Union followed suit on 17 October.
Kikaya says the measures are counterproductive: “Sanctions don’t accomplish anything. If anything, they just serve to widen the gap between two friendly nations because you paint yourself as […] I wouldn’t say an enemy […] but a very strong adversary to the country. When the US sanctions some of our army generals, then it loses its bargaining power as a superpower in the world.”
Dismissing Kamerhe as a lightweight and a sell-out, the oppositionists of Le Rassemblement are preparing themselves for a showdown with the authorities.
Félix Tshisekedi, son of veteran politician Etienne and the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social’s deputy secretary general in charge of political, legal, diplomatic and communication matters, tells The Africa Report that the government is not to be trusted: “Kabila, who clearly doesn’t want to leave power, absolutely does not want the opposition to organise itself […].
We have all been threatened. I myself heard that I was placed on the blacklist [of people] to be arrested. I am waiting for them. I’m not afraid.”
He offers a chilling warning to the government: If there is a not a dialogue that includes Le Rassemblement and Kabila shows no signs of stepping down on 19 December, “there will be chaos. Chaos because the people are determined to make Kabila leave, to ensure the constitution is respected […]. We are going to ask the people to take charge.”
He and his allies point to the constitution’s Article 64, which makes it legal for people to act if someone is a threat to the constitutional order.
Widening the struggle
Kinshasa has been the locus of the struggle between opposition parties and the security forces thus far, but opposition leaders are mobilising in the country’s other major cities, including Lubumbashi, Kisangani, Goma, Bukavu and Mbuji-Mayi, in a bid to ensure that when 20 December comes, the government will be unable to concentrate its security forces in any one place, thereby weakening its capacity.
Well aware of the opposition’s strategy, the security forces, and particularly the intelligence agency Agence Nationale des Renseignements, are arresting and detaining without charge hundreds, if not thousands, of people they suspect of activism against the regime.
All this is taking place in a country with the largest United Nations (UN) deployment in the world, with some 20,000 troops. A prolonged and bloody confrontation between the government’s security forces and opposition activists under its watch would constitute a monumental failure for the mission and the UN.
In the meantime, the atmosphere in Kinshasa remains electric, as the population waits to see if a resolution will come from the streets or the conference hall.
From the November 2016 print edition.