December 20, 2016
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The leader of Congo’s largest opposition party on Tuesday urged peaceful resistance to the “coup d’etat” he said President Joseph Kabila carried out by staying in power after his mandate expired at midnight. Angry demonstrators began putting up barricades in the capital, Kinshasa, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in the vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources but remains one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries.
At midnight, people blew whistles and rattled pans as part of a protest meant to symbolize the “end of the match” for Kabila. In the early morning hours, barricades were set alight and small groups of protesters in the streets were quickly met by police and army forces using tear gas.
Congo’s presidential election once set for November has been delayed indefinitely, adding to fears that Kabila will not step aside. Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father’s assassination, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until a new election. The ruling party says there is “no possibility” of one in 2017, saying it needs time to prepare. The opposition wants a vote as soon as possible.
In a statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called the president’s actions “treason.” “I launch a solemn appeal to the Congolese people to not recognize the illegal and illegitimate authority of Joseph Kabila, and to peacefully resist a coup d’etat that was carried out with the blessing of the constitutional court,” said the 84-yearold Tshisekedi, a longtime Kabila foe who once declared himself president following the 2011 elections.
Until now, opposition figures had refrained from calling publicly for demonstrations, but political negotiations stalled over the weekend without reaching an agreement on a date for new elections or the release of political prisoners.
Both are key demands of the opposition parties, along with the dropping of criminal charges against opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who fled the country as authorities announced plans to try him. Katumbi’s supporters say the charges of hiring mercenaries are politically motivated, as he had been a leading presidential candidate.
A presidential adviser said Monday that no election was feasible until 2018 and maintained that Kabila’s extended term was legitimate. “The constitution clearly states that the president remains in his position until his successor is elected by the people of the Congo, not by a loud and insistent mob,” said Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, the president’s diplomatic adviser.
Kabila’s government has tried to ease tensions by including some opposition figures. A few minutes before midnight, the new opposition Prime Minister Sami Badibanga announced his new transition government, a blow to ongoing negotiations between the government and the wider opposition coalition.
Although a small part of the opposition, including Badibanga, had taken part in an earlier national dialogue mediated by the African Union, most of the opposition, including Tshisekedi, refused to join in and rejected an agreement signed in October.
In a last-ditch effort to find a political solution, Catholic church officials had been leading talks. Over the weekend, they announced those efforts had stalled and said negotiations would resume Wednesday.
People inside and outside Congo fear a repeat of the dozens of deaths in September, when the opposition took to the streets after the electoral commission failed to schedule the presidential election.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Saturday that concerns about unrest are high, especially since “no one to date has been held accountable” for the protesters’ deaths in September.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed