Dead bodies laid strewn across the streets in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Protesters, demonstrating against the President’s delay in holding elections, were met by armed police who fired bullets indiscriminately into the crowd. This recent excessive use of force by the government of the DRC has been condemned by the international community and there are now concerns that the already tense situation in the country could escalate into another devastating civil war.
At present, Joseph Kabila has served two five-year terms as President of DRC, which is the maximum term-time permitted by the constitution. Kabila is due to step down by December 2016 at the latest, but currently seems unwilling to give up his position. While the country has never experienced a completely peaceful and transparent transition of leadership, many hoped the elections scheduled for this November would represent another step towards democracy and stability. However, as aforementioned, the protests on 19 and 20 September left 53 people dead. Kabila’s soldiers reportedly also targeted opposition headquarters using machine-guns, grenades and arson to kill members of these groups. Political freedom is obviously still a long way off. In addition, the preparations being made by Kabila and his private army force (Garde Républicaine) ahead of the recent clashes show that the chances of a peaceful election are quickly slipping away.
President Kabila came to power in 2001 after his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated by his own young bodyguards. After years of civil war, Kabila managed to negotiate a peace deal in 2002 with rebel groups backed by Uganda and Rwanda, which had previously supported his father before he was assassinated. Kabila became head of the transitional government established after these negotiations in 2003. Although the civil war was declared to be over that year, tensions are still high with several rebel groups who have links to politicians in operation across the country.
Activists argue upholding the constitution is paramount if peace is to be maintained in the country. The government and several rebel leaders agreed to the constitution after the civil war ravaged the country, and the limit of two five-year terms was included in the hope that it would allow peaceful elections to decide changes in leadership in the future. Although there were accusations of fraud in the 2011 elections when President Kabila was re-elected, many still believed he was committed to the principles of democracy. Now that the Corneille Nangaa, head of the country’s electoral body, has announced that elections will be delayed until December 2018, many in DRC and abroad will be anxiously waiting to see if the violence seen in the recent protests will continue or, more likely, intensify.
Many were rightly horrified by the force used by Kabila’s police and soldiers during the protests in Kinshasa. The government’s reaction to protestors, however, is not surprising when one looks at the current political climate in DRC. According to the BBC, there has been increased repression in the country over the past few years. For example, in January 2015, there were protests in the capital in reaction to an electoral bill during which 30 people were killed. In addition, there have been instances of peaceful activist groups being labelled ‘terrorists’ by the government and relatively little free speech is permitted. Although President Kabila says elections could lead to chaos and violence, many argue he is clinging to power to further his own ends, especially with accusations that he has embezzled an amount worth billions of American dollars during his rule.
The international community has condemned Kabila’s actions and the force used against protesters. In an attempt to force Kabila to step down, the US imposed sanctions on two Congolese officials who are close allies of the President. Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced her concerns about the situation in DRC at a recent meeting with other UN representatives. Gilmore also described reports of journalists and photographers ‘being rounded up’ prior to the protests and warned that a ‘large-scale crisis could be looming.’ This alarming conclusion has been echoed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Mark Ayrault who stated that DRC is ‘on the brink of civil war.’
The current situation in DRC is not unique. Across Africa, there are many cases of presidents rejecting constitutional limitations and illegally running for additional terms. For example, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for and won a ‘controversial’ third term more than a year ago. Since then, it is reported that hundreds have been killed, many thousands have been forced to flee and many more have been arrested. The international community is also concerned that crimes against humanity are being carried out by the government.
Could the same fate await Burundi’s neighbour, DRC? The population, the international community and political activists abroad all fear it does. They warn the delay in Kabila stepping down could give rebel groups reason to reform and take up arms, which could push the country over the edge and into civil war. Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be maintained now that a delay in elections has been confirmed and after the government has shown how much violence it is willing to commit against the population it claims to care for.