Security forces patrolled the streets of Kinshasa yesterday (18 December) after the suspension of last-ditch talks seeking a peaceful end to a crisis sparked by the end of Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s mandate.
Negotiations to agree on a way forward after 20 December, when Kabila’s second term finishes, were halted on Saturday (17 December) with no significant progress made.
Fears of fresh political violence in mineral-rich but unstable Democratic Republic of Congo were running high, with no elections planned and Kabila showing no inclination to step down.
Talks are due to resume on Wednesday (21 December) when Catholic bishops acting as mediators return from a long-planned trip to Rome, a day after Kabila’s term ends.
AFP reporters saw security forces posted in large numbers in opposition strongholds and other flashpoints around Kinshasa, the teeming capital of 10 million people.
“We’re waiting to see what happens. The politicians are okay, it’s us, the little people, who suffer,” a supervisor at a cleaning company told AFP.
“Things are not normal. We are very worried,” said 25-year-old Atine Butela, a hair salon owner.
At the dilapidated Tata-Raphael stadium, which hosted the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, the usual crowd of runners, football players and boxers, was noticeably small.
“Normally, there are 700 or 800 people. Today there must be fewer than 250,” visitor Michel Kabamba said outside.
“Soldiers are criss-crossing the city, which creates a sense of fear… Some people have already made plans, foreigners have left …”
In the run-up to Christmas, however, churches were as busy as ever in a country where Christians make up 80% of the population.
Kabila, constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, has indicated he wants to stay in power until a successor is chosen, but some opposition figures want him to hand over to a transitional leadership while awaiting the vote.
The 45-year-old has been in power since his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001. He was elected in 2006, and again in 2011, in polls decried as rigged by the opposition.
Last week’s talks sponsored by the Congolese bishops’ conference (CENCO) brought together the ruling party and fringe opposition groups, allied against a mainstream opposition coalition led by the 84-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi.
But despite three days of mediation they broke up on Saturday, with no progress made on the main issues that divide the two sides.
Kabila’s opponents accuse him of delaying the vote in the hope of tweaking the constitution to extend his family’s hold over a nation that is almost the size of Western Europe.
Tshisekedi’s opposition grouping had threatened to bring people into the streets from Monday if the talks failed.
Leaflets urging people to retake Kinshasa “street by street, district by district until we retake the whole of the DRC”, have begun to circulate in the capital.
But so far the opposition has not given an order to mobilise, while the international community is urging calm on all sides.
Tensions were also running high elsewhere in the country, with security heightened notably in the towns of Lubumbashi, Goma and Kisangani.
Church mediators have warned that failing to find a political settlement will lead to “an uncontrollable situation”, a stark prospect in a country that barely two decades ago plunged into the deadliest conflict in modern African history.
Congo’s two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s dragged in at least six African armies and left more than three million dead.
The European Union urged the two sides to reach a deal for “transparent, credible” elections to be held as soon as possible.
The UN mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, also appealed for calm, saying the political players had a “historic responsibility to reach a negotiated settlement on holding elections.”
In Rome, Pope Francis urged worshippers to “pray that the dialogue in the Democratic Republic of Congo proceeds calmly, to avoid any violence and for the good of the whole country.”
A democratic handover would break ground for Congo’s 70 million people who since independence from Belgium in 1960 have never witnessed political change at the ballot box.