Uncertainty over whether incumbent President Kabila will step down before the next presidential election has plunged the Democratic Republic of Congo into chaos.
T he headquarters of five opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo were torched on Tuesday as tension escalated in one of Africa’s most resource-rich countries in the second day of protests against President Joseph Kabila that have left dozens dead.
The US and France said they were considering imposing targeted sanctions on senior DRC officials in response to recent repression. This has included the arrest of hundreds of protesters, politicians and activists opposed to Mr Kabila’s apparent bid to cling to power once his second term — the last permitted under the constitution — ends on December 19.
Mr Kabila has given no indication of whether he will step down. But his silence, and a decision by the constitutional court to let him stay in office until elections are held — without giving a date for the polls — have prompted accusations that he wants to hold on to power in Africa’s largest copper producer for as long as possible.
Moïse Katumbi, the DRC presidential candidate, told the New York Times that Mr. Kabila’s reason for delaying the upcoming elections may not necessarily be about maintaining power. “He is widely seen as a dictator, but an ambivalent one. People close to him say that he does not have a burning desire to stay in power but is concerned about his personal safety and his wealth if he leaves office.
The country’s electoral commission has said it will take up to 18 months to revise the voter list in the country, which is four times larger than France and has a population of about 80m, before elections can be held.
The uncertainty threatens to plunge the country, which was ravaged by internal conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s, into a new bout of prolonged civil strife.
It also echoes moves by leaders in neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, who all used the courts or held referendums to extend their time in office beyond the two-term constitutional limit.
Two people were killed on Tuesday when the Kinshasa offices of five opposition parties, including the biggest, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, were attacked and set on fire, the UN’s human rights agency said. Opposition parties have called for daily protests against Mr Kabila.
There was some rioting in the capital in the morning, according to the agency. However, the streets were far quieter than on Monday, when thousands of people took to the streets in towns and cities across the country to put pressure on Mr Kabila to step down. Offices of politicians loyal to Mr Kabila were set on fire and giant posters of the president were torn down, with protesters chanting “it’s over for you”, Reuters reported.
Evariste Boshab, the DRC interior minister, said 17 people had been killed in Monday’s protests, which he described as an “attempted uprising”. Three police officers were reportedly among the dead, scores of protesters were injured and hundreds arrested. Opposition politicians put the death toll as high as 53 while Human Rights Watch, a US-based group, said security forces had killed 37 since Monday and protesters had killed six.
The death toll continues to climb and claims over how many people have been killed during the demonstrations is under dispute. Opposition groups allege that at least 100 people have died as a result of the violence, while official government statements claim it was 32.
“This latest round of violence highlights the urgent need for a meaningful and inclusive dialogue on the electoral process,” the UN human rights agency said.
Mr Kabila’s government earlier this month started a dialogue with opposition parties and civil society groups but the leading parties have boycotted the meetings and more than a dozen activists preparing for the talks were arrested on Friday.
I can’t believe how stupid you have to be to go out and shoot protesters when you’re trying to sell the world on the credibility of your political dialogue.” - Stephanie Wolters, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said in New York that the situation was “extremely worrying and very dangerous”. European governments would discuss imposing sanctions on Mr Kabila’s regime over growing repression and violence, he said. Air France cancelled its morning flight to Kinshasa because of the “deteriorating local security situation”.
It is our hope that a consensus can be reached soon to set a date for elections.”
Thomas Perriello, the US government’s special envoy for the region, said on Tuesday that Washington was “very clear about its willingness to pursue additional economic sanctions against those individuals who are involved in violence, repression of human rights or the blocking of the democratic process”.
Washington imposed sanctions on Celestin Kanyama, Kinshasa’s police commissioner, in June following the suppression of protests.
Mr Perriello described various actions by Kinshasa in the last two weeks as “very problematic”, adding: “It’s difficult to convince people of the good faith of a government that’s actively detaining opposition members and civil society activists.”