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Pressure mounts on DR Congo leader

Julia Hahn / mc
January 23, 2015

DR Congo's Senate has amended a controversial bill which unleashed deadly protests and triggered concern that President Kabila would prolong his stay in office.

Kongo Unruhen in Goma
Riot policemen detain a demonstrator during a protest in the city of GomaImage: Reuters/Katombe

In a surprise move, DR Congo senators unanimously amended an electoral bill which stipulated that a national census must be conducted - in order to update the electoral roll - before elections are held.

The Senate's amendment states that the electoral roll must now be updated in time for the 2016 elections, apparently giving the elections priority over the controversial census.

After the Senate vote, a joint commission of both houses of parliament met to find a consensus on the bill.

But is doubtful whether this will defuse the anger of protestors who object to the census and who are worried that President Joseph Kabila - in office since 2001 - will be reluctant to relinquish power when his second mandate expires in 2016.

Violence erupted in the city of Goma in eastern DR Congo on Thursday (22.01.2014) when riot police fired on groups of several hundred protestors.

The unrest came after three days of deadly violence in the capital Kinshasa some 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) away.

One rights group - the International Federation of Human Rights - said 42 people had been killed and dozens wounded in the protests in the capital. The figures were challenged by the government which said 12 people had died.

Kongo Unruhen in Kinshasa
One rights group says 42 people have been killed in in three days of unrest in KinshasaImage: Reuters/N'Kengo

His opponents suspect he is using delaying tactics to stay in power. The government has admitted that a census could delay elections at the end of 2016.

Echoes of Burkina Faso

Many African leaders have tried - and often succeeded - to stay in power by amending constitutions to remove limits on the number of presidential terms they can serve.

But in a sign that such ruses may not always work in future, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore was driven from office by street protests in October 2014. 63-year-old Compaore had sought to amend the Burkinabe constitution so he could serve a fifth term.

Could events in Burkina Faso be repeated in DR Congo? "The situation in the DR Congo is different", said Dustin Dehez, analyst with Manatee Global Advisors, political consultants based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Joseph Kabila Kabange 25.09.2013
Presdient Joseph Kabila came to power in DR Congo after the death of his father in 2001Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Burkina Faso's president had been in power for a very long time and was clearly a dictator. Kabila is also an authoritarian ruler, but one who tries to cover his regime with a veneer of democracy. The moment he sheds that veneer, the opposition could take to the streets more or less permanently."

But the opposition is divided and given to bickering. Nonetheless, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who is in Belgium for medical treatment, called on the people of DR Congo to force a "dying regime" from power .

A scenario similar to that in Burkina Faso is unrealistic as long as the opposition and civil society in Congo are not moving in the same direction, said political scientist Philippe Biyoya from the University of Kinshasa. "The opposition does not have a strategy to gather the people behind it."

Several regions of DR Congo have spent decades embroiled in armed conflict. The United Nations maintains a stabilization force of 20,000 troops (MONUSCO) in the country. The head of MONUSCO, Martin Kobler, denounced the recent violence by security forces and called on the opposition to exercise restraint. "Protest has to be peaceful and take place within the law," said Kobler.

Burkina Faso Ex-Präsident Compaore Archiv 2011
Burkinabe President Campaore was forced to flee after trying to prolong his stay in officeImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/R. Blackwell

Power struggle and frustration over Kabila

The Catholic Church is openly backing the protestors. The Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo, called on the government to desist from the use of force and urged all Congolese to oppose the changes to electoral law "with legal and peaceful means." He told DW "things cannot continue the way they are going."

Whether such appeals will ease tensions in DR Congo is doubtful. There has been speculation for some time that Joseph Kabila intends to stay in power beyond 2016. Kabila has been in office since the murder of his father and predecessor Laurent Kabila in 2001. In 2006, the son won the first free elections in the country since independence from Belgium in 1960. However, Joseph Kabila is no longer DR Congo's undisputed ruler .

There is widespread discontent in the country according to political scientist Christoph Vogel.

"People feel that Kabila hasn't done anything to solve the country's problems. They accuse him of not stopping the rise of the rebel group M23 and of not doing enough to improve infrastructure and education," he said.

There are question marks over Kabila's political future. A power struggle is unfolding in the mineral-rich province of Katanga in the country's southeast, said Dehez. Katanga is Kabila's stronghold , or rather was, until the province's governor Moise Katumbi Chapwe positioned himself as a rival presidential candidate for 2016. "Kabila could lose backing from Katanga, and then the question arises whether his powerbase within the party will be strong enough for him to fight the next election," said Dehez.

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