KINSHASA. – The Democratic Republic of Congo is headed into a crucial week, with President Joseph Kabila set to declare whether he will run again in elections as one key challenger returned home and another was banned. The DRC was thrown into a crisis nearly two years ago when Kabila refused to step down.
And it has been further roiled by the return of former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba (55), freshly acquitted of war-crimes convictions in The Hague, who flew back to Kinshasa for a brief visit to lodge his candidacy for the December 23 elections. He is due to head back to Europe this week. Another key rival is Moise Katumbi, a powerful former governor of mineral-rich Katanga province – who has been living in self-imposed exile after falling out with Kabila.
But his supporters are incensed after authorities twice barred him from returning, and said he could be arrested if he sets foot in the country.
“Katumbi tried to come back, no-one can criticise him for doing what he needed to do, we are now waiting to see what happens on Wednesday (tomorrow),” said a diplomatic source in Kinshasa who doesn’t believe Kabila will reveal his plans by the set deadline.
“Katumbi is seen as the main challenger because he is from the east of the country, like Kabila, and can galvanise support there,” said Georges Kapiamba, human rights lawyer and president of the Congolese Association for Access to Justice.
He said the 53-year-old would likely join forces with another major political player, Felix Tshisekedi (55) – an alliance that would pose a hefty threat to Kabila or his chosen successor.
The DRC is one of the world’s most volatile countries and worries about the elections run deep, with many observers fearing it could spiral once more into bloodshed. The vast country has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. In the space of one generation, it was gripped by two wars that sucked in countries from around the region.
Many provinces are already in the grip of armed conflict and millions have had to flee their homes, many flocking to Uganda, Tanzania, Angola and Zambia.
A regional summit has been scheduled for mid-August, and the DRC elections are likely to dominate the agenda.
Last month, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, warned of “numerous violations of human rights norms and principles” in the DRC, raising “serious doubts about the credibility of the country’s long-delayed elections”.
The level of anxiety today is “the worst in 20 years”, said the head of a political NGO who has lived in the DRC for two decades. Kabila, who took the helm in 2001 from his assassinated father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, was meant to step down at the end of 2016 at the end of his second mandate. But he has stayed in office, invoking a constitutional clause to stay in power until a successor is elected, and provoking protests that have been suppressed with deadly fire.
As Wednesday’s midnight deadline looms, there are growing fears Kabila (47), could claim he has only completed one term under a revised constitution and run again.
To do so would “heighten the risk of large-scale violence and instability, with potentially devastating consequences across the region”, said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. –AFP