World Africa First Look

Kinshasa faces turmoil as Congolese president refuses to step down

Military and police deployed across the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as president Joseph Kabila says he intends to remain in power after the end of his term, with new elections delayed indefinitely.

A Congolese opposition party supporter displays a red card against President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday.
Thomas Mukoya/Reuters | Caption

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faces an uncertain future as the final hours of President Joseph Kabila’s official mandate fade and the deadline of midnight Monday looms closer, with little likelihood of the leader stepping down.

Security forces have been stationed across the capital, Kinshasa, as well as in Goma and other cities, as the threat of protest hangs in the air. Activists have already taken to the streets this year, most notably in September, when protesters on the streets of Kinshasa demanded that elections slated for November be allowed to proceed. At least 50 protesters were killed; the elections never happened.

“[He] does not want the elections so I am advising him it is still possible to leave a legacy,” Moise Katumbi, an opposition politician in exile, told The Guardian. “It is very important ... At midnight on [Monday] he will no longer be a legitimate president.”

In recent years, it had become increasingly clear that Mr. Kabila would seek to remain in power beyond his second term. To achieve this he initially sought to garner support for constitutional amendments – necessary to legalize such a move – but, in what some analysts describe as an illustration of the limits of his power, Kabila failed to round up sufficient backing.

Even had he been able to stand in elections, he seemed unlikely to emerge victorious: An opinion poll conducted between May and September 2016 by the Bureau d’Études, de Recherches, et Consulting International and the Congo Research Group at New York University found 7.8 percent of respondents likely to vote for him, should elections be held this year. By contrast, Mr. Katumbi, the front-runner, would receive the backing of 33 percent.

The ruling party has suggested April 2018 as a possible date for elections, saying that updates to the voter rolls and other such changes must be made before people can go to the ballot box. In this, they have a point, say David Landry, a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Marcel Dirsus, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kiel in Germany, writing in Foreign Affairs.

Citing statistics compiled by the National Independent Electoral Commission in January, which stated that at least 13 months would be required to even partially revise the voter registry, Mr. Landy and Mr. Dirsus – both with research experience in DRC – agree that the electoral system is a mess. They also point out that there has been plenty of time to address those flaws in Kabila's 15 years as president, should the desire have been present.

Last-minute talks have been taking place between Kabila’s government and the opposition, brokered by the Catholic church, but the mediators have suspended talks until Wednesday.

This vast, resource-rich nation at the heart of Africa has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since achieving independence in 1960. Conflict in the country drew armies from more than half a dozen neighboring countries between 1996 and 2003, killing millions. US special envoy Tom Perriello, speaking Thursday at the United States Institute of Peace, described Kabila’s determination to retain power as "an entirely unnecessary flirtation with disaster."

Conceding that it “might be too late to prevent Kabila from staying in power beyond his mandate,” Mr. Landry and Mr. Dirsus nonetheless see hope in the long-term, saying that democracy can still be saved, both in DRC and elsewhere. But it would require the West to “increase the costs to DRC officials of ignoring the popular will” by imposing travel bans, more effectively spending money in support of democratic institutions, and “vastly” expanding financial sanctions targeting key personnel.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.