The peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark sign of a healthy democracy – something that is unfortunately not present in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Joseph Kabila has been in power for close to two decades and his transition out of government has not been smooth and now, at the end of his constitutionally permissible amount of time in office, citizens of the DRC have begun rallying for his step-down from power. Almost four months after President Kabila was supposed to have left office, protests erupted on March 28th in the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa. The protests were aimed at ensuring President Kabila’s exit from the government, which was supposed to have happened in December of 2016.
Negotiations surrounding the transfer of power have involved religious leaders in the Congo, where individuals from the Roman Catholic Church have acted as intermediaries to facilitate the handover. These religious intermediaries initially brokered a deal where, according to the BBC, President Kabila would lead a transitional government until the end of 2017, when an election was set to be held. However, these talks have been called off, and religious leaders have withdrawn their involvement, because of disagreements surrounding both the composition of the transitional government and because of a lack of genuine political will to move towards a transitional government.
The protests were a direct result of the collapse of the talks and the apparent disinterest of the current government towards allowing an election to occur. The main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, had encouraged its supporters to participate in a peaceful protest set for April 10th, but as a result of the Catholic leaders’ withdrawal, the protests erupted spontaneously. Riot police are reported to have used tear gas and fired off shots in order to quell the protesters. The prevailing fear of both the religious leaders and the protesters is that President Kabila will not respect his constitutional term limits and permanently solidify his dictatorship of the DRC.
This is also not the first time that there have been protests regarding President Kabila’s unwillingness to leave office. In September of 2016, dozens were killed during protests, after the electoral commission did not schedule a new election. This was repeated in December 2016, when Kabila’s mandate as president expired. At the time, Congolese citizens were again protesting the fact that Kabila indefinitely delayed a new election, which allowed him to remain in power as president. The 2016 protests resulted in the death of at least 26 people, according to the Telegraph.
All of these protests also occur in a context of a broader scale of violence that has been occurring throughout the Congo. According to Reuters, there have been at least 400 people killed since August of 2016, which is attributable to the militia group, Kamwina Nsapu, in Kasai, a central province in the Congo. Moreover, the bodies of two UN officials and their Congolese interpreter were recently discovered in Kasai; the UN was investigating mass graves in the area.
These elections and protests come at a very fragile time for the Congo, which has long suffered from instability and violence. Hope remains that there will be a peaceful transition of power, which could potentially provide stability for the nation, and ideally mitigate the violence that has been occurring in its central province.