Sporadic gunfire echoed across Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital on Wednesday, a day after a reported 26 people were killed nationwide in protests demanding President Joseph Kabila step down after his election mandate expired.
African and Western leaders fear the political crisis could spiral into broader conflict, risking a repeat of the 1996-2003 wars in the vast, chaotic country that killed millions and drew in the armies of half a dozen neighbouring states.
Here’s a look at what’s going on in a country that has never had a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960:
Why is Congo so tense?
Monday marks the end of Kabila’s five-year term, but the ruling party has suggested it might be well into 2018 before lists of voters and other materials will be ready to hold an election to succeed him. Until then, he remains in charge. Growing anger at the delays led to dozens of deaths during angry protests in September in the capital, Kinshasa. In response, the government banned opposition meetings there.
What’s happening in the capital?
A heavy security presence is in Kinshasa, and internet access is spotty amid reports that the government ordered a shutdown. Last-minute talks between the ruling party and opposition representatives, moderated by Catholic leaders, ended Saturday without any agreement. They are expected to resume this week after Catholic representatives visit the Vatican. Human rights groups have expressed alarm about possible bloodshed and government abuses if Congolese take to the streets again. “The country’s brittle security forces could fracture if Kabila relies on force to stay in power,” Human Rights Watch warned. The United States, the United Nations and others have urged that elections be held soon. The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, the world body’s largest, is preparing for chaos.
Who is Kabila?
Kabila is the son of former president Laurent Kabila, who led a long rebel march from the country’s militia-riddled eastern region to the capital to overthrow leader Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 after decades in power. Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and his son took over as president. A Bloomberg investigation has shown how Joseph Kabila and his family have amassed a fortune in Congo’s rich mineral resources and other sectors, suggesting that Kabila might be reluctant to leave what has been a vastly lucrative position in the heart of Africa. The president has denied the charges.