Before 8am on Monday it was apparent that the day would not pass peaceably on the streets of Kinshasa. In Limete, the stronghold of veteran opposition politician Etienne Tshisekedi, police and young men were already battling. Colourful plumes of teargas scattered the protesters, who built barricades and set vehicles on fire. Who started the fight was unclear. Each side blamed the other. Some would be dead before the sun set.
It was meant to have been so different, more civic and affirming. From every quarter of this vast city, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of citizens were to march and converge on an assigned spot not far from the imposing Parliament building. Afterwards, a team of 50 prominent opposition figures was meant to make its way to Gombe, the well-appointed government district, and file a complaint with the electoral commission.
The message was simple: the DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, must obey the Constitution and leave office in December when his second — and supposedly final — term ends. “We have had enough of Mr Kabila,” said one woman, peeling away from her choir. “We want him to get out of the way and let us organise elections.”
The local authorities had given permission for the demonstration but that decision was revoked by mid-morning. The government claims it took the decision after two police officers were murdered. Trucks full of Republican Guards were soon deployed to support the police and it wasn’t long before the peaceful protest degenerated into what would amount to 36 hours of lethal violence.
Monday’s clashes were followed in the early hours of Tuesday by arson attacks on the headquarters of at least three political parties involved in organising the previous day’s demonstration. Flames gutted the offices of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, Tshisekedi’s party and the largest opposition grouping, and left behind at least two charred bodies.
Tshisekedi’s son and other politicians targeted in the co-ordinated assault point a finger squarely at Kabila’s Republican Guard.
An uneasy calm had descended on Kinshasa by Tuesday afternoon and the fighting gave way to scenes of burnt-out cars, looted stores and several torched public buildings.
Before the shooting ceased and the fires died, the battle to control the narrative had already begun. Kinshasa had faced down “a popular insurrection” in the estimation of Évariste Boshab, the interior minister, and the spokesperson for the National Police of Congo accused Le Rassemblement, the multiparty coalition headed by Tshisekedi, of launching “a plot to destabilise the DRC”.
Lambert Mende, Kabila’s spokesperson, has condemned the attacks on the opposition headquarters and rejected allegations of government involvement.
All lies, counter the opposition. They claim their followers were intimidated and harassed as they tried to join a peaceful demonstration before becoming the victims of a sustained and deadly battering at the hands of the state.
“It was the government which planned and started the violence,” said Joseph Olenga-Nkoy, president of the Forces for Renovation for Union and Solidarity. “The Republican Guard destroyed my office with rocket launchers. Civilians don’t have rocket launchers.”
Human Rights Watch has backed up Olenga-Nkoy’s assertion.
Competing claims about the number of fatalities are wildly divergent. On Monday evening, Boshab told reporters that 17 people had died during the course of the day — four police officers and 13 civilians. Mende has suggested that some protesters were killed while looting rather than during engagements with security forces.
Le Rassemblement on Monday evening accused the police and Republican Guard of having shot dead more than 50 demonstrators. By Wednesday morning, Tshisekedi put the number at above 100. The same day, the police put the official death toll at 32.
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Human Rights Watch has received “credible reports” of 37 civilians dying at the hands of the security forces, as well as six dead police officers.
Georges Kapiamba, the president of the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, said his team had identified 47 civilians slain during the fighting but added that the work had been complicated by “significant insecurity, threats of arrest and death from security agents, and forbidden access to morgues to count the dead”.
It need not have been this way. Conspicuous only by his utter absence throughout the week has been Kabila himself. This would be unusual in almost any other country but not in the DRC, which has become used to living under a head of state who rarely appears and speaks even less frequently.
Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, explained: “Kabila’s silence is striking but not atypical. He avoids the spotlight and dislikes public appearances of any kind, delegating that to his spokesperson and ministers.”
Unfortunately for the publicity-shy president, he is the lightning rod that conducts popular anger in Kinshasa and throughout the DRC.
Or rather, it is the suspicion that Kabila is deliberately delaying elections, which were supposed to take place in November, in order to contrive a change to the Constitution ahead of putting himself up for re-election.
Kabila’s allies favour holding the presidential poll in late 2018, which would grant the president ample time to lay the necessary groundwork.
It is this deep distrust of the president that has debilitated an ongoing African Union-sponsored dialogue aimed at forging a consensual agreement about how to organise the elections. Le Rassemblement has refused to take part and left a smaller platform of political parties to represent the opposition.
By various means, Kabila’s counterparts in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda and Burundi have all tinkered with constitutions and extended their presidencies. Is the DRC next? The available evidence supports contradictory answers.
Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser, Barnabé Kikaya Bin Karubi, has insisted on several occasions that the president does not want a third term and will step down at the next election.
The poll cannot take place in November, the government and electoral commission argue, because the DRC simply is not ready. They need to update the voters’ roll and work out how to finance not just the presidential vote but also local, provincial and national elections. It would be irresponsible for Kabila to depart the stage before the country is prepared, they claim.
Other senior political allies of Kabila have said, however, that there will be a referendum on removing term limits if the population of the DRC desires it — and, in their estimation, the president is widely popular.
If Kikaya is right and Kabila truly does plan to hand over power at the next presidential election, why does he not just say so? Kikaya recently told Reuters that such an announcement would be suicidal. He said of Kabila’s resounding silence: “He cannot say it. We are in Africa … where if Kabila had to say that … from that time on, he loses all authority.”
This logic does not convince everyone. Many argue that the president’s disappearing act has fuelled the current instability.
“If President Kabila had come out and confirmed that he won’t be a candidate in the next election, I don’t think we would have seen disorder on this scale,” says Stephanie Wolters, head of conflict prevention at the Institute for Security Studies Africa.
“It would also have lent more credibility to any dialogue process, and dispelled the prevailing sense that the election delay is really a power grab in disguise.”
Before this week’s bloodshed, the AU-sponsored dialogue was already struggling for credibility owing to Le Rassemblement’s boycott.
The dialogue process was dealt another blow after the anti-Kabila Catholic Church suspended its participation out of solidarity with the dead. In a statement, the bishops said they would not accept an outcome that does not include a clear commitment from the president not to contest the next election.
Juvenal Munubo, an opposition party delegate at the dialogue, says: “Given the worrying situation and that we are approaching the end of President Kabila’s final mandate, it’s in his interest and all of our interests that he now clearly express that he has no intention to seek a third term or prolong his final term.”
A frustrated European diplomat is more pessimistic. “The Catholic Church leaving is close to a nail in the dialogue’s coffin, since they are the most respected force in Congolese politics,” he said.
Pending last-minute alterations, the dialogue’s dwindling delegates were due to reconvene on Friday afternoon.
From the outset, their prospects of producing an agreement on elections acceptable to both the population of the DRC and Kabila’s political adversaries was slight. Those prospects are now approaching nonexistent.