Kinshasa, DRC – The policemen block our path and one taps on our car window. We roll it down and ask him where the meeting is. We are here for a gathering organised by the political opposition in Ngiri Ngiri, a bustling commune in the centre of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s sprawling capital.
The police officer, muscular and chewing insouciantly, tells us that we have been misinformed and that no opposition events are being held in the Kimbanguist religious centre 20 metres ahead. His lie is exposed by a small group of activists who appear at the car’s other window and afterwards by the stream of people filing out of the building under instructions from the large police cohort patrolling this otherwise unremarkable part of the city.
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It is Tuesday, January 19, and similar scenes are playing out at most of the 44 sites across Kinshasa where Citizen Front 2016 – a large coalition of opposition political parties and civil society organisations formed a month ago – have arranged a series of conferences followed by church services to commemorate the killing, one year before, of opposition demonstrators by security forces. Exactly how many people were killed is disputed; the International Federation for Human Rights puts the number at 42, the government at 27.
It is still unclear how many of the government’s political opponents were arrested on the anniversary day – some put the number at around 40; others above 100. But Pierrot Mwanamputu, spokesperson for the Congolese National Police, told Al Jazeera that everyone detained was soon released.
“Early in the morning, the government sent soldiers and policemen to the site allotted to me and my party where they blocked our access and arrested five of my activists,” said Martin Fayulu, a leading figure within the Citizen Front. “They told the priest to stop the mass, not only here but at all the other sites too.”
Albert Moleka is a founding member of the Citizen Front and a veteran of Congolese politics. He was supposed to attend the conference in Ngiri Ngiri, but says: “The regime wants no opposition demonstrations in Kinshasa at all.”
Both Moleka and Vital Kamerhe, a Citizen Front heavyweight who finished third in the flawed presidential elections in 2011, claim that the police were assisted by machete-wielding thugs loyal to the DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, who harangued and intimidated opposition activists.
The United Nations’ mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, has not gathered any evidence to substantiate these allegations at this point, but Jose Maria Aranaz, the director of the UN’s Joint Human Rights Office, told Al Jazeera that “there was a concerted effort by the police and the ANR [the intelligence agency] to impede the opposition’s demonstrations from taking place”.
Police spokesperson Mwanamputu justified the clampdown by saying that the organisers had published leaflets of “seditious character calling on the population to rebel against” the government and had not secured proper authorisation – something opposition leaders insist was not required.
Kabila has been the DRC’s president since 2001, when he succeeded his father who was shot by a bodyguard during the country’s civil war.
He was first elected five years later and renewed his mandate in late 2011. The president’s party, the PPRD, often holds public events.
“The double standards in the application of the law when banning opposition rallies is contrary to a level playing field,” Aranaz said.
That the clampdown on the opposition gatherings came on the day they were due to mark the one-year anniversary of the protests – and the resulting violent crackdown – in January 2015, gave it added significance.
Protesters took to the streets of the capital and other cities last January to oppose a draft law that would allow Kabila to extend his stay in power beyond his current mandate, which ends in December 2016. The law called for a new, nationwide census to serve as the basis for the voter list and distribution of parliamentary seats – an undertaking that could take years in a country as vast and poorly connected as DRC.
The opposition saw it as an attempt by Kabila and his supporters to buy time during which he could engineer a modified constitution that would allow him to run for a third term in office.
The census provision was removed from the legislation that was subsequently passed, but the opposition says it was only ever one of numerous methods available to Kabila to delay the holding of elections.
The most effective method, some say, has been to undermine the workings of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), chiefly by withholding funds allocated to it in the national budget.
Lambert Mende, the communications minister, told Al Jazeera that it is “completely false” that the government could block the electoral process and that CENI, not the government, is charged with organising elections. But this is the electoral commission that members of the opposition claim is undeserving of the “independent” in its name. According to Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, the opposition’s accusations are justified. “The political influence on the electoral commission has been clear,” says Stearns. “While, in theory, the political opposition can nominate members to the body, almost none of those are still recognised by the opposition.”
Indeed, a timetable prepared by CENI in mid-January and distributed to embassies in Kinshasa shows that the electoral commission foresees it taking between 13 and 16 months just to update DRC’s electoral roll.
At its unveiling just before Christmas, the Citizen Front gave the government an ultimatum: It must “unblock the electoral process” before the end of January and allow CENI to publish an electoral calendar. Should Kabila fail to meet this fast-approaching deadline, the opposition coalition has promised to launch a programme of nonviolent resistance.
But this red line appears largely symbolic, and few expect a meaningful organisation of elections to get under way before February. Even the leaders of the Citizen Front seem to doubt that much will change. “The government won’t unblock the electoral process,” said Martin Fayulu.
He thinks Kabila may nominate “a weak successor” if he encounters a strong and united opposition, but believes that the president’s “first choice is to violate the constitution and carry on as president without elections”.
Moleka adds: “Kabila’s logic is that it’s him or chaos and civil war.”
“Elections will not be held because of lack of political will. If President Kabila could run, then elections would take place,” says Vital Kamerhe.
The Citizen Front
The leaders of the Citizen Front say they expect what happened on January 19 to serve as a template for the rest of the year.
The opposition coalition has a march scheduled for February 16, but Moleka says he is convinced that “all our peaceful actions will be repressed”.
Despite being just a month old, the Citizen Front already finds itself in an uncertain position. On the one hand, it represents a singular achievement for the DRC’s famously fractious opposition. The country’s largest opposition party, the UDPS, is currently riven by factionalism and it is unclear whether it will join the platform, but all the other main anti-Kabila parties have lined up under the banner of the Citizen Front.
Furthermore, among the founding signatories is Moise Katumbi, a former Kabila confidante who split with the president in September 2015. Katumbi, the former governor of resource-rich Katanga, is wealthy and popular, as well as the owner of the football team TP Mazembe.
For the moment, the Citizen Front appears united and the leading figures have spoken of the importance of the coalition supporting a single candidate for the presidency. Katumbi is currently thought to be best placed to challenge Kabila, but he will need to convince a diverse alliance of party bosses and their followers to lend him their backing.
Yet, as Moleka wryly observes, “The question of a joint candidate really isn’t the problem du jour” and such talk is getting wildly ahead of political realities.
The events of January 19 appear to demonstrate the extent to which the game is rigged in Kabila’s favour as he continues to control the levers of economic and political power. Furthermore, following an emergency ruling by the Constitutional Court in September 2015, 21 out of DRC’s 26 provinces are now ruled by appointees of the president rather than governors elected by provincial legislatures.
It is difficult to gauge how much support the opposition commands on the streets of Kinshasa and across the country. The opposition controls many seats in the national assembly, but will it actually be able to build a mass movement capable of forcing the president to call elections?
The Congo Research Group’s Stearns notes that “in the DRC’s recent history, there is little track record of mass mobilisation leading to political change”.
The opposition has had “a hard time creating leverage in the streets – even after extremely flawed elections in 2011”, he adds.
Yet, despite this note of caution, Stearns believes that “We are in new waters now as many political powerbrokers [such as Katumbi] have joined the opposition and we have a new generation of Congolese youths trying to create a new movement around a new social philosophy.”
But, however united, popular and energised it is, the opposition faces an uphill struggle in its quest for elections and the first peaceful transfer of power since independence.