, LUBUMBASHI, DR Congo, May 26 – Tensions are soaring in the Democratic Republic of Congo where veteran President Joseph Kabila is turning up the pressure on an embattled yet defiant opposition ahead of planned protests on Thursday.
With Kabila’s powerful rival and football magnate Moise Katumbi all but pushed into exile in South Africa, some dissidents in the vast central African country feel disillusioned.
- Political unrest has plagued DR Congo for months over concerns that Kabila intends to extend his rule despite being legally barred from seeking a third term.
- There are fears at home and abroad that Kabila will delay elections due to be held late this year.
- The strongman's supporters want the election delayed for two to four years due to logistical and financial difficulties, but the opposition accuses Kabila of planning to amend the constitution to extend his rule.
A key dissident group, the Citizens’ Front, has vowed to hold nationwide protests Thursday in defiance of a government ban.
Opposition groups called for the protests after the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this month that Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, could remain in a caretaker capacity beyond the expiry of his second term in December.
With many dissidents seeing in Katumbi a rightful potential leader for the resource-rich country, the Citizens’ Front has defied the ban on protests in restive North Kivu province in the east and the second city of Lubumbashi in the south.
“To publicly protest with strict adherence to the law is an inalienable right granted under our constitution,” the group said.
Political unrest has plagued DR Congo for months over concerns that Kabila intends to extend his rule despite being legally barred from seeking a third term.
There are fears at home and abroad that Kabila will delay elections due to be held late this year.
The strongman’s supporters want the election delayed for two to four years due to logistical and financial difficulties, but the opposition accuses Kabila of planning to amend the constitution to extend his rule.
‘Who will rescue us?’
Two other opposition groups Dynamic and G7 have also called for protests in the capital Kinshasa and elsewhere.
Despite opposition support for Katumbi, many rank-and-file dissidents are disappointed that he left the country on May 20, ostensibly to undergo treatment at a South African hospital. His departure came a day after he was charged with “threatening the internal and external security of the state”.
Katumbi’s followers say he was injured in clashes between police and thousands of his supporters in Lubumbashi on May 13, with a source saying he was suffering from “respiratory problems” after being teargassed.
But his detractors claim he is feigning medical problems.
“We are disappointed,” said Sangwa Masikini, 30, who lives in the poor Lubumbashi neighbourhood of Kenya where anti-Kabila sentiment runs high. “It’s like a good football match being interrupted before the final whistle.”
Criticising the security forces’ heavy deployment in the district, a young mechanic told AFP on condition of anonymity: “Who will rescue us from their grip?”
Young men and women gathered at the Catholic church where the opposition leader usually attends mass meanwhile prayed for his return.
Katumbi, 51, draws part of his popularity from his ownership of TP Mazembe, one of Africa’s biggest football clubs.
Less than a week into his departure to South Africa, one of his supporters criticised him for leaving them to face police “harassment” alone.
According to Human Rights Watch, “government authorities have sought to silence dissent with threats, violence, and arbitrary arrests.”
On Tuesday, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “worry” over the “mounting pressure” faced by the opposition and civil society in DRC since the beginning of the year.
– Decision ‘unassailable’ –
The UN body meanwhile demanded that the Congolese government allow Thursday’s planned rallies to take place.
Nonetheless, Julien Paluku, governor of violence-wracked North Kivu, told a press conference that no protests would be permitted in the province.
He said after 20 years of unrest in the region, it was not appropriate for people to take to the streets.
“North Kivu is in mourning”, Paluku said.
He justified the protest ban by claiming that the opposition groups calling for the demonstrations “do not legally exist.”
The mayor of Katumbi’s stronghold Lubumbashi insisted that the ban on demonstrations in his municipality must be observed.
“The decision of the constitutional court is unassailable,” mayor Jean Oscar Sanguza told AFP.