Joseph Kabila was supposed to step down as president of DR Congo in December 19, 2016. On the anniversary of that date, the country is bracing for more opposition protests calling for Kabila to go.
When the pope prays for a country, it means the situation is serious. In November, Pope Francis led a prayer service in Rome calling for "seeds of peace" to be sown in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Peace is something the country desperately needs. One of Africa's poorest nations, it has long been ravaged by ethnic violence and local conflicts. Now, violence is escalating amid political uncertainty about how long Kabila will cling to power. There is also growing polarization between the government and the opposition.
December 19, 2017 – marks exactly one year after Kabila's second term as president ran out – the opposition has called for another round of protests for Kabila to step down. Under DR Congo's constitution, Kabila isn't eligible to run for a third term. But the country has failed – several times – to hold presidential elections to vote in a replacement for Kabila. The president now looks likely to remain in office until the delayed elections take place. They are scheduled for December 23, 2018 but the country's electoral commission has already said the vote will probably take place in April 2019.
Gregor Jaecke, the representative of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in DR Congo, criticized the election delay tactics.
Violent clashes common
Speaking to DW in an interview from the capital Kinshasa, Jaecke said he expects the anniversary protests to continue the pattern of violence seen in previous anti-Kabila demonstrations. In November, police and security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters, arresting many of them.
Security forces have killed 53 protesters between April and October this year, and injured at least 105 others, according to the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO).
"Very volatile days [are] ahead for Congo," warned Africa expert Phil Clark from SOAS, a London-based institute specializing in Africa and Asia.
As the opposition continues its call for protests, Congo is "going to see violent crackdowns," Clark told DW. "And I think the fear of many Congolese people is that this will also lead to a very significant civilian death toll."
Doubts surround election date
Amid fears that the election could be infinitely postponed, the opposition is demanding that Kabila vacate his post by the end of this year.
Experts also aren't convinced the polls will go ahead.
"Immediately after the election date was published, the so-called Independent Electoral Commission declared that there were still many logistical, financial and legal obstacles that could influence the election timetable," Congo expert Jaecke said. "If [the commission] is already giving reasons why [it] can't meet the deadline, then you start asking yourself if there are serious intentions to hold the election."
EU sanctions ineffective
The European Union has also been outspoken in its concerns over the election delays. Earlier this month, it extended sanctions against 16 members of Kabila's government, who aren't allowed to travel to the EU and have had their bank accounts frozen.
Kabila's government seemed unfazed by the move. "They want to influence our policies and impose sanctions that are completely illegitimate," government spokesman Lambert Mende said. "In our view, only the UN Security Council has the authority to impose sanctions on states and civil servants."
Congolese political scientist Bob Kabamba doesn't believe the sanctions have much impact. "Most of the politicians involved don't have assets in Europe, and they don't necessarily want to come to Europe," Kabamba told DW.
So far, the opposition hasn't been able to unite against Kabila. Etienne Tshisekedi, a high-profile opposition figure, died in February and the opposition remains "extremely divided", said Phil Clark from SOAS.
Attempts to build a "more coherent opposition coalition" have failed in the past year, he said. "Kabila has weakened the opposition through his ministerial appointments and other strategies."
As such, it's not yet clear who, for example, could stand against Kabila if elections were actually held.
Joseph Kabila has ruled Congo since 2001 since he took power from his father, Laurent Kabila following his assasination. Many believe the young Kabila will try to stay in office as long as possible. The Kabila family has enormous economic interests, owning shares in mines, telecommunication companies and agrobusinesses.
"Another reason for Kabila to hold onto power is fear of prosecution – either in his own country or by the International Criminal Court," said KAS expert Jaecke, adding that this fear wasn't unwarranted. He believes that the international community needs to raise the topic of amnesty if it hopes to convince Kabila to step down.
But if the friction between government and opposition continues, said Jaecke, the situation will only get worse. "The Congo is a powder keg that can explode anytime."