What is there to learn from the May 26 demonstrations?

Today, opposition rallies took place across the Congo. This was the latest in a series of opposition demonstrations intended to ratchet up pressure on Joseph Kabila’s government. The stakes were high: Kabila, who is supposed to step down in December, is appearing increasingly reluctant to hand over power any time soon. On May 11, the constitutional court ruled that the incumbent president can stay on indefinitely until his successor is elected. And that might not happen any time soon; the election commission has said that it will take 16 months from February just to revise the voter registry, meaning that it could be late 2017 before the first elections take place––and the election commission still wants to hold local polls before presidential elections.

Increasingly it is becoming clear that the political deck needs to be reshuffled in order to break the political impasse. Foreign government are contemplating sanctions, but even diplomats say that the real game will be in the streets of the Congo’s major cities.

So how did the demonstrations go?

  1. The opposition is under strain: Congolese political elites are notoriously fractious, and the opposition is no exception. You have three main sub-groupings in the opposition at the moment: the Dynamique de l’opposition (UNC, MLC, Ecide, Congo na Biso, FONUS, and others), the UDPS, and the G7. These strands have been pulled apart recently by different dynamics: the Dynamique has opposed the dialogue proposed by Kabila, while the UDPS has accepted the principle (but pre-negotiations have gone nowhere) and the G7 has gone back and forth. But personalities are probably more important than substance here: Moise Katumbi, the rich former governor of Katanga, was forced to leave the country on May 20 after the government issued an arrest warrant for him. In response, the allied G7 grouping said they would pull out of the May 26 demonstrations; they said this was out of respect for Katumbi, other members of the opposition alleged it was because Katumbi didn’t want other leaders to steal the limelight. In the end, the G7 didn’t make any official declarations so as to avoid controversy, but these fissures are likely to widen in coming weeks. Already, the UDPS and the G7 are planning a meeting in Brussels next week to plan a joint strategy; Vital Kamerhe’s UNC is snubbing the meeting.
  2. The government is ramping up repression: The government has begun to seriously clamp down on civil liberties, shutting down radios and TV stations, locking up demonstrators and opposition politicians (Katumbi narrowly avoided that fate), and preventing protests. Although the Congolese constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, the government denied to authorize demonstrations in Goma, Mbuji-Mayi, Kananga, and Lubumbashi. Nonetheless, demonstrations did take place in Kinshasa, Goma, Bukavu, Bunia, Mbandaka, Kalemie, Moba, Butembo, and Beni. All of these demonstrations––with the sole exception of Bukavu––were broken up with tear gas and, in some cases, live bullets. The police in Kinshasa is now saying that 35 of their members were injured by the protestors, and that one policeman was killed by projectiles in Goma.
  3. Despite all this, the opposition fared relatively well: Crowd sizes are difficult to estimate, but according to several observers, the biggest march took place in Kinshasa, where between 6,000-10,000 people marched before they were dispersed (the police say they deviated from their planned route). Elsewhere, numbers were much smaller––in Bunia only several dozen protested, for example. But the fact that demonstrations took place across the country, and that large parts of most major cities were shut down temporarily marked an improvement for the opposition on the April 24 demonstrations, and on the February 16 “ville morte” (ghost town).

The upshot: the stage is now set for further turbulence. There is no viable political process in sight, and both sides seem to be intent on trying to improve their negotiating position through force before sitting down to talk.