Electoral gamble fuels protests in Kinshasa and elsewhere

(Italic paragraphs added on January 25 and 26)

As the Congolese government moves on to finalise changes in the country’s electoral law, a series of demonstrations and concomitant clashes between opposition and police forces have unleashed in Kinshasa (and other towns like Goma and Bukavu) over the past couple of days. Media and human rights organisation have reported that around 50 civilians have been killed as protests were dispersed, while government spokesperson Mende maintains that statistics are significantly lower. Today, 22 January, the Senate is scheduled to hold its concluding meeting on the law in question. Its changes stipulate the holding of a census prior to the electoral cycle, a tricky issue given potential logistic challenges to carry out such an operation as well as the fact that while being important for local elections, a census is not needed to run a presidential poll. Most of the opposition claims the law shall extend President Kabila’s tenure and warn against indefinite postponement of the ballots.

What happens in Kinshasa?

Since 19 January, major opposition figures have in a more or less unified way called for popular uprising against the modification of the electoral law. With Vital Kamerhe and Martin Fayulu at the helm, also civil society organisations have joined. Reconvalescent Etienne Tshisekedi made his declaration from abroad and the notoriously influential Catholic church is said to be supportive. In the past three days, people subsequently took to the streets and set up roadblocks, denouncing a ‘constitutional coup’ and demanding the departure of Kabila. At this point, it is still difficult to understand the exact composition of the demonstrators in Kinshasa. However, three rough groups emerge: First, students are one key component of the demonstration. Kinshasa University (UNIKIN) and other universities were neuralgic spots as well as Rond Point Ngaba leading up to UNIKIN and other areas surrounding such a Rigini, Lemba. Second, many opposition and civil society activists are amongst the various protesting crowds in town, including numerous quarters like Selembao, Matete, Matonge and others. But also a third group, most likely unemployed youth and random people are on the streets. While police forces have cracked down on protesters with full strength, leaving  many wounded and killing some, these so far unidentified parts of the demonstrators have also attacked police forces on their own. Certain opposition members criticised these events and took distance of the more violent parts of these demonstrations.

In the meantime, but to lesser extent, people also took to the streets in Goma and Bukavu. There again, protests crystallise around university circles (Goma) or opposition parties (Bukavu). However, outside Kinshasa the amplitude of these events has been much smaller than in the capital so far. On Tuesday morning, the Congolese government ordered all providers to shut down 3G/edge internet and SMS services. This leaves Congolese with phone calls only and depending on how close to a border they are, the possibility of roaming. A few opposition leaders reportedly got their phones blocked.

This ongoing wave of popular discontent lines up in a series of earlier protests that opposed a looming change of the constitution. In fact, the Congolese government had found a legal and formally correct way (or even several ways) to modify term limits without violating the constitutional provisions safeguarded through the ominous article 220. With rising protests and warning signs from Burkina Faso, these plans have been aborted ever since. Instead, changes in the electoral law, which is not part of the constitution, should provide a new strategy. Like the 220 debate, this triggered political mobilisation pitting Kabila’s majority against the major opposition parties.

With protests escalating in the past couple of days, the political climate is worsening. As of now, little dialogue happens – at least at a public level. Rather, the government becomes increasingly repressive while the opposition gets more and more radicalised as well. In case there is not détente (or any other development that may simply take out the breath of the protest movement), increasing tension could exacerbate the situation. A suivre…

A few days later, the Congolese Senate has modified article 8 of the controversial law project. The mention of ‘identification’ – giving clear reference to a census to be carried out prior to elections – is replaced with that of ‘demographic data’. The latter could be as well a census by ONIP as a revised ‘fichier electoral’ of CENI. Ever since, the situation in Kinshasa and Goma considerably stabilised and grand demonstrations in Bukavu have been cancelled for now. 

Now, a parity commission of the National Assembly and the Senate will bear the task of finding a compromise and discuss if the Senate amendments are acceptable to the National Assembly. Before these talks begin, it is hard to estimate how the public debate is going to evolve around that matter. 

While the National Assembly carries a constitutional right to outdo the Senate on this question, Congolese MPs are also aware of the recent demonstrations. The Senate in turn, is likely to use its ‘voix de sages’ on this topic. Although a open standoff between the chambers and their diverging opinions is not impossible, recent events on the street carry an opportunity window for a solution. 

Hence, on Sunday 25, the parliament opted for the adoption of changes as introduced by the upper chamber. While this decision comes with good chances for social unrest to be tamed, the medium-term outcome remains subject to a whole set of further political developments. 

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