Congo's crackdown is just a preview of violence to come

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo - It began a little before midnight, a few whistles blown by people standing on dimly lit porches in Congo's sprawling riverside capital. By the turn of the hour, the protesters' ranks had swelled to several thousand, some of them rattling pots and pans in a brave act of civil disobedience as President Joseph Kabila's second - and what was supposed to be his final - mandate expired.

After months of political gridlock, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa entered a new era of dangerous uncertainty on Tuesday. Kabila, in office since 2001, should have stepped down to preside over the first peaceful transition of power in the country's history. Instead, the 45-year-old son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the rebel leader who liberated Congo from the yoke of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, appears to be turning into the same brand of despot his father fought to overthrow. His government refused to hold elections this year, claiming it needs until at least 2017 to update voter rolls. In September, a controversial court ruling said Kabila could stay in power indefinitely until elections are eventually held.

If there was ever any doubt about the true source of Kabila's power, it has been erased over the last few days: Police and military units have deployed to cities across the country in an unprecedented show of force. For months, the opposition has threatened to stage mass protests on Dec. 19, but with a ban on public demonstrations, road blocks, and the intimidating presence of the army, few dared to come out on Monday. Students at the University of Kinshasa were barred from leaving the campus by trucks full of soldiers, and a peaceful demonstration in Goma, a city in the east, was immediately repressed.

But it's not just that Kabila has overwhelmed the opposition with physical force. The main opposition coalition, Le Rassemblement, weakened its own position by failing to articulate a clear message to its supporters on the eve of the Dec. 19 deadline. "We're still waiting to hear Étienne Tshisekedi speak on the radio," said Pathy Kalonji, an unemployed law graduate, referring to the leader of the main opposition party. "Today the city's streets are quiet. We were waiting for directives but they never came."

In September, huge protests against electoral delays turned violent and more than 50 people were killed in Kinshasa. Fearing a similar scenario, the international community pressured the opposition to call for calm, arguing that its leaders would bear most of the responsibility if more people were killed. "It really has caught the leadership by surprise - diplomats have even mentioned the International Criminal Court," said an opposition leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Of course Tshisekedi cannot tell people not to stay home. That would undermine our position, so there was a decision to remain silent."

Still, hundreds of people across the country turned out to protest on Tuesday. They built barricades in the streets overnight, and small groups of demonstrators tried to gather to protest in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, the capital of Congo's mineral-rich Katanga Province. But they were quickly dispersed by police and military forces using tear gas and in some cases live ammunition. More than 100 people have been arrested nationwide, and at least 22 people were killed in Kinshasa alone, according to the United Nations. People also protested in subtler ways, like blowing whistles and wearing red, a reference to the "red card" used by soccer referees.

But Tuesday's muted demonstrations were a far cry from the mass uprising the opposition had threatened, suggesting that Kabila may have survived the most immediate threat to his rule. "Street protest is the only leverage the opposition had left, and that's a very bad sign in terms of the democratic process. If there is no pressure in the streets, then Kabila is basically going to shrug," said Jason Stearns, who directs the Congo Research Group at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

In recent months, the opposition has seen its space to maneuver shrink rapidly, largely because of its own uncompromising and unrealistic strategy. This stubbornness was evident as far back as 2011, when Tshisekedi declared himself the winner of the presidential election even before the ballots had been counted. When the official tally revealed Kabila to be the winner, Tshisekedi refused to acknowledge the results and declared himself president. Observers said the elections had been fraudulent, but Tshisekedi's preposterous pre-results statement had already discredited his claim.

Since the 2011 elections, the opposition's stance has grown ever more radical, and obstructionist. A dispute over the composition of the electoral commission predictably became gridlocked, and when the commission argued - conveniently for Kabila - that updating the voter rolls would take until July 2017, months after the planned presidential election date in November 2016, the Rassemblement refused to participate in a national dialogue mediated by the African Union. Only a fringe of the opposition agreed to take part, and a deal was reached in October to form a transition government until elections can be held, ostensibly in 2018.

Marginalized by its own refusal to take part in the national dialogue, and with only a few weeks to go before the end of Kabila's mandate, the Rassemblement finally agreed to sit down for talks mediated by the Catholic Church in a last-ditch effort to find a solution. "That's three months lost because the Rassemblement felt it didn't have the guarantees necessary," said Stearns, noting that the national dialogue began on Sept. 1 and the Church-mediated talks began on Dec. 12. "It's not like they got any guarantees ahead of these talks. Nothing has changed in terms of what Kabila has promised them."

On Saturday, the talks were suspended before an agreement was reached, and Monseigneur Marcel Utembi, the archbishop leading them, announced that they wouldn't resume until Wednesday, a full day after the end of Kabila's constitutionally mandated term. On Monday, minutes before midnight, the new transitional government was announced in accordance with the October deal, further eroding the credibility of the talks.

With the successful repression of street protests, it will be extremely difficult for the Rassemblement to gain the upper hand now. Every indication suggests that Kabila's strategy for remaining in power consists of doing nothing. With the unwitting help of the Rassemblement, he has managed to divide and rule the opposition, and is now beginning his new unofficial term with the faux legitimacy of a transition government. The talks with the Rassemblement can easily be dragged out for months, buying him more time to figure out a strategy to remain in power on his own terms.

In many ways, what is playing out now is the real end of Congo's democratic transition, which began at the conclusion of a bloody, decades-long war in 2003. That's not to suggest Kabila has succeeded at consolidating his own authority. Unlike other leaders in the region who have defied or removed term limits to remain in power, Kabila doesn't fully control Congo, a country the size of Western Europe. If protests don't threaten his rule in the short term, armed groups will in the medium to long term.

In recent months, recruitment and militia activity has picked up across the country, from North and South Kivu in the east, to Kasaï, the central province from which Tshisekedi hails. There, a militia has been fighting the Congolese army since July, and briefly invaded the provincial capital, Tshikapa, in early December. At least 30 people died in the attack, adding to the 49 killed during a similar attack in September, when the militia took control of a nearby airport. In total, several hundred people have been killed, but exact numbers are hard to come by since authorities are trying to downplay the scale of the crisis.

"Some of these armed groups' leaders have been explicit in saying that they don't think Kabila is legitimate after the 19th, and therefore the army and the police are no longer legitimate, so they are going to take security in their own hands," said Ida Sawyer, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on Congo. "And within the security forces themselves, it's not clear whether all of the security forces will remain loyal to Kabila after the 19th. Some have already indicated that there are strong frustrations among the security forces and we could see fractions there as well."

Estimated deaths caused by the Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, range from 1 to 5 million. As Kabila's legitimacy crumbles with the end of his mandate, much more than a democratic transition is at stake in Congo.

This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on December 22, 2016

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Dec 22, 2016
Mélanie Gouby, Jason Stearns
Sub-Saharan Africa