NAIROBI, Kenya — Mass demonstrations expected in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week failed to materialize as the government mounted an unprecedented show of military and police force to quash protests against electoral delays.
President Joseph Kabila officially hit his term limit Tuesday but has no plans to step down. The constitution prevents him from seeking a third term, but a court ruled the 45-year-old politician could remain in power until elections take place. Protests erupted in September when the people first suspected he would not give up power, sparking deadly repression, and popular anger intensified when the November deadline for elections passed with no election date in sight.
These elections would mark the first peaceful transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1960, with a new generation of activists eager for strong leadership and a chance to benefit from the country’s mineral wealth.
“The population has shown indignation and a refusal to accept the constitution being taken hostage. Kabila completed his second and last term,” said Ruzizi Aganzi, an activist with Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA) or “Fight For Change,” a well-known pro-democracy movement in Congo. LUCHA and other youth opposition supporters took to the streets this week in an operation they called “Bye Bye Kabila.”
Hundreds of protesters were arrested in Kinshasa and the southern city of Lubumbashi early in the week and Human Rights Watch recorded reports of Republican Guards going door to door to arrest protesters. The rights group confirmed authorities shot at least 34 people in protests on Tuesday, while a police spokesman said that over 250 have been arrested.
In September, 50 people were killed in the capital Kinshasa in protests against expected electoral delays.
“There has been massive repression of opposition and pro-democracy activists in the past few months, exacerbated since the September protests,” said Séverine Autesserre, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of “Peaceland” and “The Trouble with Congo.”
“This has weakened the anti-Kabila movement and, most importantly, it has scared ordinary citizens. People know that participating in anti-Kabila protests means putting their lives and the lives of their families at risk,” Autesserre added.
Dozens of Aganzi’s fellow LUCHA members have been arrested or have gone missing. He acknowledged that ultimately, the group’s efforts to “defend the constitution” fell short due to “violent means and repression.”
The military muscle on display this week served to prevent large-scale demonstrations. “We did not want the population to be targets of bullets for those ready to shoot and massacre. That definitely prevented peaceful protests in large numbers,” Aganzi said.
The ruling party has offered only murky explanations for a failure to meet election prep deadlines, in a strategy known as “glissage,” or slippage. They blamed the election delay on the need to update voter rolls, and said that would take until 2018 to complete.
Divided opposition and failed talks
Regional experts, including Autesserre, say a divided opposition, known as the Rassemblement, and a strategic play by Kabila to co-opt several opposition figures in his government are also to blame for the inability to mobilize the population.
The new opposition prime minister announced a transitional government just minutes before Kabila’s mandate expired. But Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of Congo’s largest opposition party, refused to take part in AU-backed meditations months ago and this week rejected the transitional government.
Talks between the opposition and ruling party resumed in Kinshasa on Wednesday, led by mediators from the Catholic Church who insist an agreement must be reached by Christmas.
But that looks unlikely.
“We have no agreement regarding the institutions during this transitional period. We have no agreement regarding the calendar of electoral process. We haven’t any agreement…I’m not hopeful,” Valentin Mubake, political adviser to Tshisekedi, told VICE News minutes after a mediation session on Thursday night.
Mubake believes Kabila’s move to install a transition government before the dialogue ends indicates he is not out “to reach a peaceful agreement.”
The Road ahead
Analysts fear the national political situation could aggravate the instability in eastern Congo, where various armed groups operate with relative impunity as they pursue regional agendas related to mineral resources and opposition to governments in neighboring countries.
Human Rights Watch reported clashes this week between local security forces and militia groups in the east, but it is unclear at this point if they are directly related to the political instability consuming the capital and cities.
Ben Shepherd, director of Africa Research Group, said as long as Kabila’s fate remains uncertain, “popular anger will inevitably find outlets.” This could be “through armed groups or generalized, opportunistic disorder,” he said, and “could happen almost anywhere across the country, particularly if political uncertainty continues to erode already-low government authority and capacity.”
Late Friday, political insiders said negotiations could reach a positive outcome, with movement toward a potential agreement to end Kabila’s term in 2017. Mubake insists the opposition led by Tshikediedi has a plan in mind should these negotiations fail.
And activists like Ruzizi Aganzi say this week is just a stumbling block in a larger fight against the ”confiscation of democracy.”
“Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the population will be the winner of this fight. We won’t get tired. The population always has the last word.”