Tens of thousands of paramilitaries and policemen have been deployed across the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the vast central African country
braces for violent protests and riots when the mandate of the president, Joseph Kabila, expires on Monday.
Heavily armed security forces set up checkpoints around Kinshasa, the capital, while soldiers in armoured vehicles were deployed to strategic points in the sprawling city of 12 million.
Flights into DRC have been empty for days, while family members of the country’s wealthy elite have rushed to safe havens in neighbouring countries including South Africa and Europe.
Markets in Kinshasa were busy on Sunday, as people stockpiled food and fuel supplies in anticipation of a prolonged crisis. The UN mission has redeployed some troops from peacekeeping operations in the east of the country to reinforce its presence in the capital. The British
embassies have withdrawn all non-essential staff and warned against all travel.
Observers fear the vast central African country, which has never known a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Belgium
in 1960, could plunge into a prolonged period of damaging, and possibly very violent, instability.
“There will be lots of deaths. We will never know their number, because we never do around here, but there will be many, sadly,” said Valentin Mubake, political adviser to the DRC’s main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi.
Ministers loyal to Kabila, who won elections in 2006 and 2011 but is constitutionally limited to two terms, say logistic and financial problems make it impossible to hold fresh elections within 18 months.
However, their claim that the constitution allows the president to remain in office until a successor is elected is contested by opposition politicians and many observers, who accuse Kabila of seeking to hold on to power indefinitely.
The crisis has been building for several months, with negotiations and protests intensifying as the end of Kabila’s mandate approaches.
In September, more than 60 people died when security forces opened fire on an opposition march calling for Kabila to step down. At least four policemen were lynched.
Opposition leaders have said they would not call for mass demonstrations on Monday, but would let “the people express their anger” instead.
Last-minute talks brokered by the Catholic church between government representatives and a coalition of opposition groups failed to reach agreement on Saturday, but are scheduled to start again next week after bishops visited Rome where they will see Pope Francis.
Government officials have blamed the opposition for the lack of progress in reaching a settlement, and accused western powers, which have tried to pressure Kabila to make concessions by imposing sanctions on key members of his entourage, of “a neo-colonial mindset”.
“The US and the Europeans
shouldn’t try and force us. It’s a pretty clumsy approach to take. It is lucky that the president is a very calm man,” said Lambert Mende, minister of information and a close confidante of Kabila.
In a rare speech last month, Kabila accused politicians and foreigners of manipulating youths. “It is morally reprehensible to try to come to power by spilling Congolese blood,” he said.
Large groups of young men gathered on Sunday outside the offices of Kabila’s party and coalition allies. “He is a man of peace, our president. Those others in the so-called opposition are hooligans, bandits,” said Marius Bayolo, 29.
A key question now is the degree to which opposition parties can channel widespread popular discontent, or whether they are seen as part of the problem rather than a potential solution by ordinary people.
Activists from dozens of opposition groups are expected to demonstrate this week across the country, but it is unclear how many people outside party structures will join them.
High inflation, the devaluation of local currency, and flagging investment are causing deep economic hardship throughout the country, where two-thirds of the estimated 70-million population live on less than £1.50 a day.
“It is very difficult to live. Every week is harder. No one has money. No one has jobs,” said Annie, 45, who runs a street stall selling fried chicken and rice in the Matongi neighbourhood. She refused to give the Guardian her full name, for fear of government reprisals.
The government has already moved to counter the protests, with reports on Sunday of the arrest of opposition activism in Kinshasa and other cities.
Last week, authorities ordered the blocking of social networking websites, including Facebook and Twitter, from late on Sunday night.
In 2006, Kabila oversaw the first free vote in decades, ushering in a period of relative stability and economic growth as mining firms invested billions of dollars. But recent years have seen allegations of massive corruption levelled at the president’s close family, and growing repression.
Many observers now fear a return to the brutal civil wars that killed an estimated 5 million people in the DRC between 1997, when the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted after a 32-year rule, and 2003.
“It is the balance of power on the ground which counts – look at the Russians and Aleppo. The balance of power will now be worked out on the streets and then we will take again. But in the long run, whether its around a table or in the streets, Kabila will lose,” said Mubake.