Monday was meant to be the last day of Joseph Kabila’s 15-year presidency. Instead, as the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo refuses to step down, the largest country in sub-Saharan African is lurching towards a bloody political crisis.
In the capital, many are bracing for a violent clash between Kabila’s opponents and security forces. In September, when the last major demonstrations were held, about 50 people were killed. This time, experts worry, could be worse.
Over the last week, Catholic bishops mediated talks between Kabila’s supporters and a patchwork of the regime’s political opponents. But on Saturday, participants announced that no agreement had been reached, emboldening the mostly young men who have begun referring to Monday as D-Day and say they will take to the streets en masse.
Kabila is among a growing number of African leaders who have angled to extend their terms either by changing the constitution, delaying elections, or holding elections marred by allegations of rigging. Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, 74, has ruled for 37 years. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 92, has been in power for 30 years. More recently, the presidents of Burundi and the neighboring Republic of Congo both announced plans to extend power, igniting domestic crises in each country.
But the stakes are particularly high in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which saw a brutal civil war that killed about 5 million people between 1997 and 2003. Fighting continues in much of eastern Congo, and the country remains the site of the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, with about 20,000 troops.
“There is a grave risk that Congo could descend into widespread violence and chaos in the coming days, with potentially volatile repercussions across the region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Peacekeepers will be on high alert this week, according to U.N. spokesman Charles Bambara, who said that the mission is “preparing for the worst-case scenario.” The government has said it will shut down access to social networks which protesters use to mobilize.
On the streets of Lemba, a frenetic neighborhood in Kinshasa, local opposition leader Jean Claude Mwamba was getting ready to confront the regime, in spite of the violent reaction he anticipated. Mwamba led a small protest Saturday, with young men holding signs that read “Farewell, Kabila.” By Monday or Tuesday, he said, that protest would grow larger, pouring into the streets, demanding Kabila’s resignation.
“There’s no security, no jobs, no respect of the constitution,” he said. “For us, there is only one option — that Kabila leaves.”
A huge number of Congolese agree that Kabila has failed to improve lives for the country’s average citizens even as he and his family appear to have grown fabulously wealthy. A Bloomberg investigation last week linked 70 companies, many in DRC’s lucrative mining industry, to the family. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the country’s 77 million people earn less than $1.90 per day.
“The constitutional discussion will soon be overshadowed by the struggle to remove Kabila through protests in the streets and repression by the security forces,” said Jason Stearns, a longtime expert on DRC and the head of the Congo Research Group.
Leaving power would ostensibly endanger Kabila’s large investments, particularly as his coalition has not yet put forth a viable successor. Kabila and his political allies have suggested that he must stay in power until at least 2018 — which they say is the soonest elections could be held in a vast country where polling would be expensive and logistically complicated.
But that explanation doesn’t carry any weight with experts or Kabila’s political opponents. The United States had originally encouraged elections to be held this year. Earlier this month, with that prospect diminished, Washington and the European Union announced sanctions against nine senior Kabila officials who they said were involved in repression.
For now, the sanctions don’t appear to have reduced the likelihood of violent demonstrations. The Congolese government has emphasized the strength and loyalty of security forces, which have already been deployed across much of Kinshasa.
“We have the police, the army and the intelligence services working for us,” said a spokesman for the ruling coalition, André-Alain Atundu. “Maybe there will be turmoil for two or three days, but eventually the [protesters] will get hungry.”
Kabila, 45, took power in 2001, after his father, president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which achieved its independence from Belgium in 1960, still has not had a peaceful handover of power.
As the son of a rebel, Joseph Kabila grew up in far-flung parts of DRC and Tanzania, an experience that defines him, according to those close to him.
“He was born and grew up in the bush,” said Aubin Minaku, president of the national assembly and a senior figure in Kabila’s coalition. “He knows what it means to struggle.”
But even Kabila’s political allies are not sure what will come next for the country. Kabila has said he doesn’t intend to change the constitution — which he would have to in order to run for another term, whenever elections are finally held. But will he stay true to that pledge?
“In reality, no one can answer that question,” said Minaku.