The opposition in the Democratic Republic of Congo is on strike. President Kabila’s opponents hope to force him to announce a date for elections. But the government won’t budge and it still has some aces up its sleeve.
Kinshasa is holding its breath. On the second of a two-day general strike launched on Tuesday, life has slowed down in the usually very quirky capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The strike was organized by the Lucha Movement, a group of young people able to mobilize large segments of the civil society. Almost all commerce in the center of the capital was shut down. Security forces increased their presence in the streets of Kinshasa. While access to social media platforms has been restricted, Twitter users are posting pictures showing empty streets at rush hour.
The protesters want the electoral commission to announce a timetable for upcoming elections and President Joseph Kabila to step down. "The situation is very clear," said Denis Kadima, director of the South Africa-based think tank, Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). "Joseph Kabila's mandate has expired. The same applies to parliament and to the provincial assemblies and governments."
The president's term ended in December of 2016. On New Year's Eve, the government and the opposition agreed on elections by the end of 2017. There is no mention of this anymore. The chairman of the electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, now merely promises to announce a timetable before the year is up.
Civil society is gearing up for confrontation
This feels like mockery to Kabila's opponents. They are already planning new ways of demonstrations. If no election date is announced by October 1st, they will ask citizens to stop paying their taxes and utility bills. It remains to be seen how effective such actions will be. Many Congolese believe that past strikes have failed to produce intended results and only enhanced their misery.
Their doubts are shared by Belgian journalist Coleete Braekman. "If it comes to a direct confrontation, the young will be at a disadvantage," the expert on the DRC told DW. Confrontational measures like strikes should be preceded by political negotiations. "But the young won't accept political games and intrigues. They feel that negotiations are only delaying tactics," Braekman said.
Escalation a boon for the government
At this point confrontation seems more likely. At least twelve people died on Monday in shootouts near the central prison of Kinshasa and in the neighboring province of Bas-Congo. Government spokesman Lambert Mende blamed the violence on the sect Bundo dia Kongo. Speaking with DW, he mentioned "young people clearly under the influence of drugs." Mende however added that the government had the situation under control.
Representatives of the opposition go a step further. They argue that the incidents benefit the government and may even have been orchestrated by Kinshasa. "The government hopes to avoid elections by spreading chaos," said Jacques Djoli Eseng'Ekeli from the opposition party MLC. He added that Kinshasa is looking for excuses for prolonging the state of exception. This will allow it to postpone elections indefinitely. "They are playing with fire, same as in Venezuela," Eseng'Ekeli said. He called on the Congolese and the international community not to be fooled by these maneuvers.
International pressure increases
The international community is loosing patience, agrees Gregor Jaecke of the German Konrad-Adenauer foundation in Kinshasa. "Reactions are getting more severe" he told DW, stressing extensive international sanctions imposed by the European Union and the US on Kabila's closest allies. Jaecke argues that the sanctions have hit Kinshasa badly. Observers like Jaecke and Kadima say they understand why no sanctions were imposed on Kabila so far, as they should be a last resort.
Opposition politician Moise Katumbi exiled himself, lessening his ability to influence politics in the DRC
International partners have also criticized the appointment of prime-minister Bruno Tshibala. "They believe that this is in direct violation of the New Year's Eve agreement, which explicitly states that the prime-minister will be nominated by the opposition alliance Rassemblement," Jaecke said. He added that international pressure, especially by the United Nations Security Council, is strong also in the Kasai crisis.
After the murder of two UN observers, UN investigators sucessfully pressured Kinshasa to allow them to return to the central Congolese province to collect evidence.
Gregor Jaecke said that pressure from the outside is useful. But real democratic change will only be possible from within and only through a united opposition. Jaecke is not the alone in lamenting the lack of a leading figure. Former Kabila ally and provincial governor Moise Katumbi seemed to be the remaining hope since the death of UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February. But after being indicted, Katumbi chose to go into exile. "He is weaker in exile than he would be if he returned to the Congo," said analyst Colette Braeckman.
Congolese expert Denis Kadima admitted that it is difficult for the opposition to counter the government's intrigues. But the people have a clear will to democracy. In the end they will prevail, Kadima said.
Eric Topona contributed to this report.