Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga Province and declared opposition presidential candidate for the November 2016 elections, has been taken in for questioning by Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) security forces on the basis of allegations that he has hired mercenaries. The move has been denounced by opposition political figures and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), who claim it is part of an intimidation campaign by incumbent President Joseph Kabila.
The accusation that Katumbi hired mercenaries with the intent of disrupting the government of DRC is a highly emotive one in a country that has long been plagued by civil conflict. Adding credence to allegations that the charges were trumped up by Kabila loyalists to neutralise Katumbi ahead of the presidential elections are rumours that he is to be transferred from Lubumbashi, where he is extremely popular, to the capital, Kinshasa, to face a military tribunal. In addition, many of Katumbi’s supporters have been arrested and detained in recent weeks by security forces on a variety of charges.
Meanwhile it is widely believed that Kabila is intent on either remaining in power himself or ensuring a pliable loyalist succeeds him in the DRC’s upcoming presidential elections. Various analysts have suggested his Prime Minister, Matata Ponyo; Kabila’s wife, Olive Lembe di Sita; or even his twin sister, Jaynet Kabila, could fill this proxy role.
This perceived plan to retain power has already led to protests in Lubumbashi and Kinshasa, most recently when Kabila asked the constitutional court for clarity on whether or not he has to step down at the end of his second term if elections have not yet been held. Opposition figures saw this as a cynical ploy to delay elections in order to extend his rule. The ruling administration has already hinted it may delay elections citing logistical and financial challenges to holding the polls.
Given this environment of heightened political tensions, there is a strong possibility of violent protests if Katumbi is charged over the allegations or if the constitutional court decrees that Kabila can remain in power until elections are held, regardless of when that is. Such protests would most likely take place in urban areas, such as Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, where opposition support is strongest.
This political intrigue and tension is inevitably distracting the DRC government from addressing the major infrastructure and security challenges facing the country, in particular, the ongoing insecurity in the eastern provinces. On 3 May 2016, 16 people were hacked to death in a militant attack on a village in the Beni region of North Kivu province. The attack has been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militant group originating from Uganda. Also in North Kivu, on 3 May 2016, three Red Cross workers were kidnapped and subsequently released on 7 May 2016. After the kidnapping, the second incident targeting Red Cross workers in a month, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that it would be suspending its operations in the eastern DRC until further notice.
Given these developments, the threat of continued insecurity in the eastern provinces and the civil unrest in the urban areas of the DRC is likely to increase until the current political situation is resolved. However, the chance of resolution remains remote for now as Kabila’s apparent intransigence in his ambitions to maintain power will likely result in greater opposition repression and a corresponding outbreak of opposition protests and possible violent clashes with local security forces.