Protests against Joseph Kabila’s government are nothing new, but the latest violence at recent protests on Jan. 21 and Feb. 25 have increased the call for the president of 17 years to step down. Violent repression against these protests has seemed to increase in the past two years, especially after Kabila has stayed in power past his term that was set to end in 2016. Kabila’s actions in the next year will decide how the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will move forward and whether this way forward will be peaceful or not.
What happened at these protests?
Thousands of Catholic worshippers and other Congolese citizens turned out in Kinshasa and elsewhere across the DRC to protest the Kabila regime on Jan. 21. The protests were organized by the Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee which is heavily backed by members of the Catholic Church and has publicly voiced opposition against Kabila.
Similar protests were organized by the same group in late December 2017, where a number of protestors were killed and scores arrested on New Year’s Day. Internet and SMS services throughout the country were also shut down and remained off until Jan. 22. Police shot teargas and live ammunition into the crowd and seven people were killed during the protests on Jan. 21, including a 24-year old studying to be a nun who was shot in front of her own church.
Another protest occurred on Feb. 25, despite a national ban. One person was killed during the protest in Kinshasa. This is not the first time that the Kabila regime has imposed heavy-handed measures on protesters, and even seems to be using increasing force in the past three years. In September 2016, for example, over 40 people were killed during protests against the government and the government police force even burned down the headquarters of the main opposition party in response to these protests.
Why were there protests?
The most recent protests are a response to Kabila’s reneging on a 2016 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church.
According to the DRC’s constitution, a president is limited to serving two terms, meaning that the national electoral commission should have conducted presidential elections in November of 2016. After the national electoral commission delayed these elections, two negotiations took place.
One, called the l’Accord de la Cité de l’OUA created a power-sharing agreement between Kabila’s coalition in parliament and the opposition led by Vital Kamerhe. As part of this agreement, Kabila named Samy Badibdanga, a member of the opposition party, as his prime minister.
The opposition was not satisfied by this agreement because it did not grant them enough leverage within the government. This unhappiness led to another round of negotiations brokered by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) on December 31, 2016. In this agreement, Kabila agreed to honor the constitution limit and not to seek a third term in the election scheduled December of 2018. Since then, Kabila has appointed Bruno Tshibala as his new prime minister and his opposition does not seem satisfied with his choice.
To many, Kabila’s promises seem hollow. A public opinion poll conducted by the Congo Research Group, for example, found that 72% of those surveyed has a bad opinion about Kabila in February of 2017.
Furthermore, Kabila’s leadership has prompted a national petition that “demands the resignation” of Kabila and calls on Congolese citizens “to perform their sacred duty, using peaceful and non-violent means, to thwart President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to remain in power after December 31, 2017, in application of Article 64 of the constitution”.
The tension between the Congolese and Kabila were further aggravated by his recent press conference on Jan. 26, which was his first in five years. During the press conference, he affirmed that the national electoral commission was the only authority to decide when polls are scheduled. As part of his justification for the delay, he said that no one wanted another situation to occur like the one after 2007 which saw widespread violence between government troops and militias loyal to Kabila’s challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba.
During that election, fights erupted on the streets of Kinshasa that lasted three days. At least 31 people died in these protests, where the government employed automatic weapons and tanks in an attempt to quell the angry crowds. There were additional riots in the northern town of Gbadolite, and in Kinshasa’s main prison. When asked at the press conference if he would run for re-election, Kabila said no and made sure the reporter in question received a copy of the DRC’s constitution after the press conference.
Additionally, a spokesman from the regime, Lambert Mende, said that voter registration is finishing up in remote regions of the country and that elections are on track according to the electoral commission. Mende also added that Kabila will announce his choice of candidate in July 2018. The opposition cites these oscillations as proof that he has lost “all legitimacy”.
Opposition leaders claim that Kabila is clearing an uneven path towards democracy. For example, Kabila additionally stated during his press conference that laws regarding the legality of demonstrations would have to be revisited because “democracy isn’t a fairground”. Throughout 2017, the regime and its security forces have forced media outlets to close, banned opposition demonstrations, and have jailed over 300 opposition leaders, human rights activists, and journalists, many of whom were later released.
While on one hand seeming to value the constitution, it is clear Kabila has a unique take on traditionally defined democratic principles. For example, in 2017, over a thousand people were extrajudicially executed for presumably going against his regime, which represents a threefold increase from the previous two years.
What are the implications of these protests?
While it is nationally understood that Kabila cannot constitutionally seek a third term, some Congolese have resigned his actions to glissement, or watching for events that could lead to ‘sliding’ in the length of his term. Kabila has stated in previous interviews that he does not want to relinquish power right now because it is not safe for his country nor for the peaceful transition of power. “The issue in Congo is about stability,” he told reporters in 2015. “Have I been successful [in creating it]? I don’t know. Lumumba is the real father of democracy, and he was assassinated.”
Kabila is right in some regards, considering that an estimated 70 armed groups are believed to still be operating in eastern DRC that pose a danger to both the survival of Congolese democracy and to its citizens. Between August 2016 and September 2017, up to 5,000 people were killed in the southern Kasai region in fighting between government forces and these armed groups. Despite the UN peacekeeping mission, which the DRC has hosted for over 20 years, strong militant groups such as the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) remain in the area and terrorize communities while leeching profits from the country’s natural resources in that region.
“The issue in Congo is about stability. Have I been successful [in creating it]? I don’t know. Lumumba is the real father of democracy, and he was assassinated.” – Joseph Kabila, 2015
There are also over 2 million internally displaced people in DRC that further contribute to the instability. It is unclear whether Kabila truly believes that by remaining in power, he will be able to subdue these groups and prevent violence from breaking out during an election, but many of his opponents do not see the reason for his delay.
These protests also attempt to highlight the tragic economic regression that Kabila has personally presided over these past years. Over 60% of the population still live below the national poverty line. The GDP rate additionally has dropped from 9% in 2013 to 2.4% in 2016, its lowest point since 2001. According to the most recent Human Development Index (HDI), the DRC ranks 176 out of 188 countries. The Kabila family has also personally benefitted during Kabila’s presidency by accumulating thousands of acres of farmland, diamond mining permits, and tens of millions of dollars in assets alone.
These profits leave Kabila vulnerable to investigations in the future as well as doubts to the legality of some of these business ventures.
It is unclear whether these protests will truly change anything or be enough to convince Kabila to step down and allow for a peaceful transfer of power. Nevertheless, Kabila will be a defining figure in the DRC’s history based on his actions in the next year. If he decides to step down and honor these elections, he will be the first Congolese president to peacefully transfer power in a region that has survived everything from a harsh colonial system to a brutal dictatorship to outright civil conflict to a currently fragile but upright democracy. If he refuses and cites security reasons, he may muddle the DRC’s hopes of becoming a democracy in more than just name only.