Protests are continuing to escalate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with incidents of politically motivated violence across the country leading opposition leaders to warn President Joseph Kabila that the country risks sliding towards civil war if he does not commit to democratic elections.
The political crisis follows Kabila’s announcement that the DRC would not be holding its scheduled elections on 19 December 2016 citing financial and logistical challenges and that they would instead take place in April 2018. This, however, means that Kabila will extend his tenure over a year past his constitutionally limited two terms. This apparent attempt to retain the presidency has led to widespread protests in the country’s cities, particularly Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, and opposition calls for Kabila to be removed from office. In response, the government and security forces have arrested several opposition leaders on charges of inciting violence. Many of the protests have been marred by violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces leaving dozens dead; in September 2016 alone over 50 people died during such clashes.
In an attempt to garner legitimacy around the delayed election, the ruling coalition and some of the smaller opposition parties agreed to a deal in which some opposition leaders would be given roles in government in return for supporting the delay. As part of this deal, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo would resign and be replaced by a yet to be named opposition leader.
However, the major opposition coalition, Rassemblement, rejected this deal and pledged to continue to lead protests until Kabila calls the constitutionally mandated election. This deal was also rejected by the country’s influential Catholic Church. Leaders of Rassemblement have warned that the DRC could potentially spiral into a civil war if Kabila does not step down when his term expires on 19 December 2016. The escalating violence has raised the concerns of the international community and human rights organisations. On 10 November 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that Kabila risks pushing the DRC into chaos if he insists on extending his term.
Also of concern is the increasing violence in the country’s eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Communities here are continuing to suffer attacks by militant groups. On 14 November 2016, five people were killed in an attack on the convoy South Kivu’s provincial interior minister, Etshiba Mboko. Of greater concern in North Kivu, the mayor of Beni, Bwanakawa Nyonyi, said that he believes that politicians in the DRC are involved in the recent attacks in and around Beni. These attacks have been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist extremist militant group; however, Nyonyi believes that the ADF is being supported by elements in government and the security forces and has implied that Kabila benefits from a security crisis in the eastern DRC.
It is highly unlikely that Kabila will step down in December 2016, or for that matter in April 2018, accordingly there is an increased likelihood of continued protests, particularly in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, and a risk of escalating violence between protesters and security forces. Although the prospect of a full-scale civil war is currently slim, the possibility remains that the DRC risks slipping into a civil conflict if the violence continues. Regardless, this increasing political insecurity will have negative effects on the DRC’s business environment particularly on transportation routes connecting mining and other operations in the interior to the protest-affected major cities in the country.