A t midnight on December 19, whistles could be heard throughout Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joseph Kabila’s presidential mandate had expired and protesters were calling full-time.
Mr. Kabila assumed power in the DRC after the assassination of his father in 2001. He was officially elected president in 2006 and has served two terms in office. Despite the expiration of his presidency, on the morning of the 20th, Mr. Kabila formed a new cabinet and vowed to stay until April 2018.
Diplomatic adviser to Mr. Kabila, Kikaya Bin Karubi, has told the media that the government needs time and money to prepare for elections. He cites the ongoing conflict with armed groups in the east of the country, coupled with the logistical challenge of holding elections in Africa’s second largest country.
Critics and opposition figures see the delays as a desperate attempt at clinging to power. Talks between the government and some opposition figures mediated by the Catholic Church looked to potentially avert upheaval, but they have been put on hold. The head of the opposition, Étienne Tshisekedi, encouraged the Congolese people to peacefully protest what he has described as a “coup d'etat”.
In the week that marked the formal end of his rule, as has recently been seen in Sudan and the Gambia, Mr. Kabila banned social media to hinder organised protest. However, in the past few days sporadic insurrection erupted across major cities, albeit in smaller numbers than the opposition had hoped.
In Kinshasa, Goma and Lubumbashi protesters brandished red cards signalling Mr. Kabila’s time was up. In the streets, people burned barricades and chanted the Lingala slogan “Kabila yebela mandat asili / Kabila be on your guard, your mandate has expired”. Students at the University of Kinshasa were blocked from leaving their campus by state security forces; hundreds of protesters have been arrested and at least 34 people were killed during clashes with the police.
According to Koen Vlassenroot, director of the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University, those protesting are not necessarily aligned to Mr. Tshisekedi, opening up political space for a plethora of representatives, particularly in the east where new armed groups have emerged.
There has never been a peaceful transition of power in the DRC: after Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled two consecutive civil wars ensued, claiming the lives of 5.4 million people. Many now fear the country could once again descend into bloodshed.