Shots rang out on Wednesday morning at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a student demonstration against a controversial draft law to extend the rule of DRC President Joseph Kabila.
The protests began on Monday following a week of escalating tension in Kinshasa. Police say that five people were killed in the unrest, while a Congolese human rights group estimates the death toll at 42. Police opened fire on thousands of students calling for Kabila to step down near the University of Kinshasa on Monday, according to AFP.
Clashes meanwhile also broke out in the eastern city of Goma, where police dispersed student protesters with tear gas and bullets.
The DRC's powerful Catholic church waded into the crisis on Wednesday to back the protesters and voice its opposition to the proposed election reform, which would delay the scheduled 2016 presidential election pending a national census and allow Kabila — who has been in power since succeeding his assassinated father Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 — to extend his term in office.
Kabila says the census is vital to ensure fair elections, while his opponents denounce it as a ploy to allow him to hold on to power.
Georges Berghezan, a researcher at the Brussels-based Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, told VICE News that the legislative gambit could be a political ruse.
"Kabila had initially planned to secure a third term by changing the constitution," he said. "Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, also attempted this constitutional pirouette to stay in office, but he was stripped of the presidency and forced into exile. Chastened by this incident, Kabila is pretexting a national census to postpone his exit."
Opposition supporters and students have been protesting the reform since mid-January, when Congolese lawmakers first examined the bill. On January 13, the three main opposition parties called on the people to occupy parliament, which is also known as the Palace of the People. Police violently broke up the rally, according to local news site Afrikarabia, during which 10 protesters and 8 police officers were injured.
Speaking to French daily Le Monde, Kinshasa police spokesman Israël Mutombo attributed the tough police crackdown to "public order disturbances," and denied that police had used real bullets to disperse protesters.
The bill passed its first reading when the National Assembly — the Congolese parliament's lower house — approved it on Saturday night. The draft law has since been taken up by the Senate, whose vote is the final step in the ratification process.
The city of Goma has also been the site of growing popular unrest, with encounters between protesters and the authorities turning increasingly violent. According to RFI, two police officers and two protesters were killed during protests earlier this week.
In another sign of political anxiety, police surrounded the headquarters of several opposition parties on Monday, sequestering party leaders inside their offices. The Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), Congo's third biggest opposition party, denounced the move, which prevented UNC leader Vital Kamerhe and Congolese Solidarity for Democracy leader Jean-Claude Muyambo from taking part in protest rallies.
Skirmishes erupted again on Tuesday, after opposition parliamentarians successfully postponed the review of the bill until Wednesday. Barricades assembled from burning tires, pieces of wood, and rocks blocked the capital's main arteries amid reports of protesters looting businesses.
Several media outlets have reported that opposition leaders — including Muyambo, who was sequestered at the UNC headquarters on Monday — have since been arrested and are now detained in Kinshasa and Goma. Meanwhile, government officials have shut down internet access and text messaging services.
"The national intelligence agency (ANR) gave the order to suspend internet access for Kinshasa until further notice," a DRC network operator told AFP. The government also shut down two television channels, Canal Kin and Radio TV Catholique, which had relayed the opposition's call for protest.
On Tuesday night, opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, who heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress invited the Congolese people to remove "the outgoing regime."
Tshisekedi, who is currently undergoing medical treatment in Brussels, referred to article 64 of the DRC constitution, which says, "All Congolese have the duty to oppose any individual or group of individuals who seize power by force or who exercise it in violation of the provisions of this Constitution." Tshisekedi lost the 2011 presidential election to Kabila — a defeat he blamed on election fraud.
The European Union called this morning for "a return to calm," and urged the Congolese government to "respect the legally determined electoral timetable." The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an international peacekeeping mission within the country, also deplored the casualties in Kinshasa.