The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is bracing for a day of general strike on 19 September called by the main opposition bloc amid continued tension over slow preparations for the presidential elections. Presidential elections are supposed to take place in November, but the vote is set to be postponed due to outstanding issues which are yet to be resolved, including updating the voter register.
The current crisis in DRC is prompted by the impossibility of organising the elections before the 19 December this year, date at which President Joseph Kabila is required to step down from power when his second full term expires.
Known as the Rassemblement, the main opposition has been drumming up support in the capital Kinshasa ahead of the protest over what the opposition says are attempts by Kabila to cling to office.
Population called to protest on 19 September
IBTimes UK spoke to Martin Fayulu, leader of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party (ECiDé), about the Rassemblement's plans to walk to and have a sit-in outside the headquarters of the Electoral Commission (CENI). CENI is supposed to call presidential elections on 19 September – 90 days before the end of the president's mandate.
"People who go and protest are peaceful demonstrators, who want to march to the CENI to ask for two things: Kabila's notice on 19 September at 23:59, and for the CENI to show us the official convocation for the elections that it is obliged to hand on that day. If they have already done and can show it to us, then great. If they haven't then, from 20 Sept, the members of CENI are disqualified," the policitian said from Kinshasa in an exclusive interview.
On Wednesday (14 September), the Congolese police circulated across the capital to present its new anti-riot arsenal and vehicles – a show of force the opposition claims was intended to discourage the local population to take part in the day of strike.
"The police cortege of a dozen trucks and jeeps drove around Kinshasa, it claims, to show the people it has the equipment to protect them. But we know that it's done in order to intimidate them, ahead of 19 September," Fayulu alleged. This came a day before police sealed off and carried out arrests in a number of so-called UDPS opposition strongholds – including Mombele in Limete.
Kabila camp: 'Violence will be 'handled by the law, not by repression'
Amid continued tension, there are fears the situation could turn violent on, or after, 19 September.
"The situation will turn violent if, and only if, the regime wants violence – as it did the week 19-25 January 2015," the politician said, in reference to violent clashes between police and protesters that claimed at least 42 lives after protests led by students at the University of Kinshasa broke out on 19 January 2015. "If we are in a country where the right to protest is recognised in the Constitution (Article 26), why should protesters be bothered or scared?"
When asked to respond to the claims, an official from Kabila's camp said that any incidence of violence would be "handled by the law, not by some repression and anything like that" as the authorities had "put an emphasis on security forces (to be) mobilised to work more professionally".
Michael Sakombi, Special Deputy Commissioner for the Economy, Finance and Development, who is participating in the national dialogue, exclusively told IBTimes UK: "If there is a popular uprising today, no one will be able to bring the situation under control and we face having a bloodbath in Kinshasa."
While the official described violence breaking out as "the worst case scenario", he explained the majority's main focus was that no more blood was spelt. "We just suffered a lot in the last 15 years. Nobody wants another drop of blood."
He added: "(Demonstrators) are not always ordinary citizens – they are organisations of young thugs that are recruited and receive funding from a number of opponents to create chaos. I don't think it's fair to say that's the majority of the population, but there are opposition groups who want chaos and we must prevent them from doing so with the law and the police and security services will take care of them (...) When you have demonstrators with cocktail Molotovs and who throw rocks at you and carry knives, I am sorry but what do you want a policeman to do?".
Kabila camp: Opposition is 'irresponsible' for calling protests
The official went on to describe the Rassemblement as " irresponsible" for calling Kinois (Residents of Kinshasa) to protest.
"I think it's very irresponsible to push those people in the streets instead of coming to the negotiating table, considering the fragile situation in which we are. Those people are tenors of the opposition – Etienne Tshisekedi, Martin Fayulu, Moise Katumbi – and the Congolese people can now differentiate between those who want to go to the elections, and those who want to gain power by the means of chaos."
Describing the calls for "Ville Morte" (general strike) as "old fashioned tactics for the (opposition leader Etienne) Tshisekedi era, from the Mobutu (Sese Seko, former dictator) era", Sakombi said:"People just want to go on with their daily life, buying food and going to work. We missed many days of school because of similar days of action when we were younger, in Kinshasa, and what did it bring us? Nothing at all, no effective change to our democracy."
'Real' opposition claims agreement is 'smokescreen'
The main opposition bloc, which said a number of pre-conditions set for attending the national dialogue had not been met, does not appear to be satisfied by the agreement struck between Kabila's camp and the participating delegation, led by opposition leader Vital Kamerhe, Samy Badibanga, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, José Makila, Bruno Mavungu and Jean-Lucien Busa.
The election talks were suspended after a walkout by opposition parties after refusing to back down over the sequence of elections in the country, but on 14 September, all sides agreed to hold the presidential, legislative and provincial elections the same day. Kamerhe had previously insisted that the opposition's stance on holding presidential elections ahead of local elections was non-negotiable.
Describing the fringe of the opposition attending the talks as "Kabila's friends", Fayulu questioned the "credibility" of the dialogue and claimed the agreement was a "smokescreen".
Kabila's camp, meanwhile, welcomed the agreement, but confirmed the presidential election could be held before at least July next year as millions of voters need to be added to the register.
"The timeline right now is 16 months – July or September – we will have finished the new list, nationally. We don't have a real time frame at the moment because some questions need to be debated to have a clear view of the time frame," Sakombi said.
There are some 280 participants attending the dialogue, including civil society representatives.