One of the busiest cities in sub-Saharan Africa came to a halt on Tuesday, as a daylong general strike paralyzed Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo — part of an opposition effort to persuade President Joseph Kabila to step down later this year, after 15 years in power.
The normally bustling streets saw traffic slow dramatically, with few of the shared taxis that ferry much of the city's workforce running. Meanwhile the central market was largely empty, witnesses said. Some schools were closed. People tweeted about the strike with the French hashtag #VilleMorte (dead city.)
There was a heavy police presence in Kinshasa and the second-largest city Lubumbashi, but no reports of violence. The opposition initially planned to hold a protest during the strike, but after the Catholic church criticized the move for becoming too political, opposers dropped the demonstration plans.
"For us, this (strike) is an important action against an irresponsible government," Abdul Mpia, a 39-year-old Congolese citizen, told Reuters.
While the nationwide strike went off without any clashes in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, in Goma, located in the eastern part of the country, police reportedly detained six members of the youth movement known as the Struggle for Change, or Lucha in its French acronym. In the past, several members have also disappeared in Kinshasa, targeted by security forces and intelligence services, according to Amnesty International. The organization called for the immediate release of the arrested individuals.
"The arrest of Congolese youth activists this morning shows how low the Congolese government is willing to stoop to deny its citizens the right to peacefully protest delays in preparations for elections later this year," said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
For the average citizen, some said the strike was causing hardship in a city where many make a living as street sellers or market traders.
"We should wait until November when (Kabila) finishes his mandate," a woman who identified herself as Mama Lily told Reuters. "For now, let us work."
The constitution bars Kabila from standing again in elections slated for November, but critics fear he wants to change the law or delay the poll to retain power.
Kabila came to power when his father was assassinated in 2001. He won elections in 2006 and 2011 that the opposition says were rigged. The duration of his tenure has raised tension in a country that has never known a peaceful handover of power since gaining independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960.
More than 40 people died in a police crackdown on protests in January 2015. The demonstrations kicked off to protest against a revision to the electoral code, which critics said was a pretext to delay the presidential vote and extend Kabila's tenure in power. Parliament ultimately dropped the proposed amendment.
Opposition leaders say the strike on Tuesday is the first step in a broader protest movement, but some analysts were skeptical of its impact.
"I always thought that this particular strike would not have any significant consequence on the respective positions of people," said Pascal Kambale, former Congo country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
In addition to the youth movement members in Goma and Kinshasa, one member of the opposition Union for the Congolese Nation party was also arrested in the eastern city of Uvira, the director of the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office in Kinshasa, Jose Maria Aranaz, told Reuters.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said he was not aware of any arrests.
Embassies urged their citizens to exercise caution and the US, French and Belgian schools in Kinshasa were closed. The popular Radio France International station was off the air in Kinshasa. Broadcasts were cut also during last year's political unrest.
Earlier this month, Tom Perriello, US Special Envoy to Africa's Great Lakes Region, addressed the upcoming elections at a US congressional hearing. He linked Kabila's potential new term in office to the ongoing crisis across the border in Burundi. In April, the Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a controversial third term. The decision, and his subsequent victory at the polls, has triggered nine months of violence that has left 440 dead.
"A political crisis is building as the DRC prepares, or rather fails to prepare, for upcoming historic elections scheduled for this November," Perriello told the congressional hearing. "If the DRC chooses the path of Burundi, the scale of human suffering could dwarf what we have seen next door."