Kinshasa: Congolese President Joseph Kabila‘s final term in office expires on Monday, with no election to choose a successor and amid a surge in popular anger over what opponents say is an attempt to cling to power in defiance of the constitution.
The election has been postponed until at least April 2018 on the grounds of logistical and financial problems, and Kabila has struck a deal with some opposition leaders that is meant to allow him to remain in place until then.
The constitutional court has also ruled that Kabila, president since his father was assassinated in 2001, can stay on.
But Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition bloc rejects the deal as a ploy. Recent talks mediated by the Catholic church failed to reach a compromise.
The opposition said on Saturday that it would not call for protests, but that move may not stop them happening.
“We are prepared to take to the streets to chase out Kabila,” said Diego Kas, 29, who is unemployed like much of Congo’s adult population, as he stripped a discarded fridge.
“Kabila will be an illegal president. I don’t know how Kabila‘s going to stay on because we don’t like him anymore. We are not his tenants. Congo is our country.”
The government has outlawed protests in Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold and city of 12 million people, raising fears of repression and widespread violence in a nation that has been plagued by war and instability for two decades since the fall of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko.
More than fifty people were killed in anti-Kabila protests in September, mostly protesters shot by police, although some mobs also attacked police stations and lynched officers. A similar number died during demonstrations in January 2015.
“Flirtation with disaster”
Diplomats fear the violence could gain momentum and trigger a conflict reminiscent of the wars from 1996 to 2003 that killed millions of people, sucked in more than half a dozen neighbouring armies and saw armed groups clash over its vast mineral wealth and use mass rape as a strategic weapon.
US Great Lakes envoy Tom Perriello on Thursday called Kabila‘s hanging on “an entirely unnecessary flirtation with disaster” at a speech at the US Institute of Peace.
Anticipating a showdown, the government plans to block most social media in order to prevent demonstrations and has set up security checkpoints throughout Kinshasa. It appears to be calculating that, as in the past, any demonstrations will fizzle out after a few days.
But youth activists seek inspiration from Burkina Faso, where Blaise Compaore was ousted in 2014 by popular protests while trying to extend his 27-year rule.
As in Burkina, protests in Congo are in part driven by economic desperation. Congo is Africa’s biggest miner of copper and metals used in gadgets, like cobalt and coltan, but a slowdown linked to falls in commodity prices has triggered steep budget cuts and a 30% fall in the Congolese franc.
Yet Congo, a vast, forested country of 70 million people and more than 200 ethnic groups, is much more fragmented than Burkina, and previous protests achieved little.
Former colonial master Belgium has advised its citizens to leave before Monday and the US has warned against all non-essential travel, telling expatriates who must remain, to stay indoors.