Planned nationwide protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) turned violent after security forces clashed with protesters on May 26th. Thousands took to the streets to protest president Joseph Kabila’s reluctance to schedule an election that is due to take place this November at the expiry of his second term.
One protester was left dead and a further two injured from suspected police gunfire in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, said Jose Maria Aranaz, director of the UN’s Congo-based Joint Human Rights Office. A policewoman was also killed when protesters began throwing stones, he said, although the BBC reports that local officials are denying this claim. In the capital, Kinshasa, security forces fired teargas and charged at several thousand protesters, where further reports of stone throwing were made.
The DRC’s constitution prevents Kabila from running for a third term, however, earlier this month the constitutional court ruled that the president could stay in power as a ‘caretaker’ if no election took place. Several sources report that Kabila’s supporters are citing financial and logistical reasons for delaying the election and that a “secure environment” must be established nationwide before the elections can be held. Many believe that this process could take several years.
The Guardian reports that opposition leader Moïse Katumbi was charged with “threatening the internal and external security of the state” only hours after announcing he would run for president. On May 13th police fired teargas on Katumbi and his supporters as he arrived to court in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, where the opposition leader suffered injuries and was subsequently hospitalised. Katumbi then flew to South Africa for medical treatment but has since moved to London amid concerns for his security.
Following the March 26 protests National police spokesman Colonel Pierre Rombaut told the AFP news agency that “in these cases we don’t negotiate, we disperse”, a tactic that is seemingly consistent with Kabila’s attitude towards political opposition. There have been frequent allegations of the government’s interference with the democratic process. Congo National Assembly member Olivier Kamitatu Etsu has previously stated that Kabila had “deliberately sabotaged the electoral process” and in doing so has established a “policy of chaos and fear.”
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention under Kabila and the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in DRC registered more than 310 human rights violations in the year from January 2015 to 2016, most of which targeted political opponents, journalists and civil society.
The DRC has endured decades of civil wars, which have claimed the lives of over 5 million people, more than half of which were children under the age of 5 due to widespread disease and famine. The UN fears that growing tension caused by Kabila’s attempts to retain power will indeed throw the DRC back into ubiquitous civil conflict. Evie Franq, a researcher for Amnesty International writes that “what is happening at the national level with the elections is having an effect on armed groups, they are increasing recruitment.”
The UNHCR reports that fighting between the Congolese army and rebel forces have already displaced tens of thousands of people in eastern DRC, and a further 22,000 refugees fleeing the Burundi conflict as well as 12,000 from South Sudan had crossed eastern and northeaster borders into the DRC by mid-April 2016, many of whom are severely lacking food and access to healthcare, and therefore further perpetuating the instability that Kabila cites as a hindrance to the election process.
Bandi Mbubi, of Congo Calling, argues that the DRC is plagued by “dysfunctionally weak institutions” and an unaccountable government and that long-term stability and peace are almost impossible until a “peaceful and constitutional transfer of power takes place”.
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