By Lenin Ndebele
THE Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in the cusp of civil strife amid spreading riots and a heavy-handed police response to plans by President Joseph Kabila to stay beyond his second and last term, which ends on December 19.
Kabila, citing the country’s lack of “logistical readiness” to hold elections this year, has been allowed by the constitutional court to stay in office until elections are held — without giving a date for the polls.
This has prompted accusations that he wants to hold on to power in Africa’s largest copper producer for as long as possible.
The United States and France say they are considering imposing “targeted sanctions” on senior DRC officials in response to recent repression. This has included the arrest of hundreds of protesters, politicians and activists opposed to Kabila’s apparent bid to cling to power.
Local rights group claim at least 50 people have been killed since protests began against Kabila – who could yet be in power for close to two years, based on information provided by the country’s electoral commission that says it needs at least 18 months to revise the voters’ roll.
The DRC has a population of 80 million people. The current voter register is thought to exclude about half of the DRC’s 45 million potential voters, including about seven million new voters who have come of age since 2011.
Kabila’s backers and some opposition members announced an agreement on the timing of elections last week. Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, the justice minister, said an interim government including members of the opposition would be formed and the election postponed until mid-2017.
“The government will be redone. We will put in place a government that we will co-manage between the presidential majority, the opposition and civil society,” Mwamba said.
Most major opposition parties have boycotted the discussions and it appears unlikely the announced agreement will end the unrest.
The uncertainty threatens to plunge the country, which was ravaged by internal conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s, into a new bout of prolonged civil strife.
Kabila’s reluctance to leave has echoes of moves by leaders in neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, who all used the courts or held referendums to extend their time in office beyond the two-term constitutional limit.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is a member, and the African Union (AU) have remained largely mute.
Tom Perriello, the US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, said there was a brief opportunity between now and December 19 — when Kabila is supposed to stand down — for South Africa and other countries to try to influence events.
He noted that South Africa had extra clout in the DRC — and in neighbouring Burundi where a 17-month-long crisis is still raging — because of its long and active engagement in resolving previous conflicts in both countries.
Briefing African journalists by phone from Washington, Perriello would not say outright that it was now clear that Kabila had no intention of stepping down at all.
But he did say that Kabila could have avoided the violence which erupted on Monday if he had announced any time over the last year that he was ready to hand over power.
Increasing US concern has prompted a diplomatic offensive by senior officials close to Kabila in recent weeks. Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, who is Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser, is in Washington on a “pleading mission” to press US officials not to impose sanctions against key political figures.
“There are two resolutions that were pending in the House to impose sanctions on Congolese officials,” Kikaya said last week. “My mission is to plead with American officials and to prove to them that sanctions are not a solution to help us resolve our problems.”
Kikaya denied that Kabila was seeking to stay in power and rejected accusations that the delay in the election was “purposefully engineered”.
The constitution “means a lot to him and he will not violate it”, Kikaya said.
The DRC’s sprawling borders reach nine other African countries, and it has been argued that an implosion in the vast country could spark instability in its neighbours.
Kabila took over as leader of the DRC less than two weeks after his father, Laurent, was shot by a bodyguard in the presidential palace in 2001. He was elected president in disputed polls in 2006 and again in 2011.
The DRC’s constitution bars a third term.