At least 20 people have been killed in demonstrations in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, in protests against a bill that would require a national census be taken before the next presidential election, scheduled for 2016. Protests have taken place in the capital, Kinshasa, as well as the eastern cities of Goma and Bukavu. The government responded with tear gas, live ammunition, and suspension of internet and SMS service. Internet access has been partially restored, but social media sites and SMS remain suspended in an effort to prevent further protests from being organized.
The reason so many people are outraged at the bill is that they see it as a ploy to prolong President Kabila’s presidency–and they are probably right. The Constitution says that the president can only serve two five year terms, and that the presidential term limit cannot be changed with an amendment. Last year, demonstrations were held in response to reports that members of the presidential majority were seeking such an amendment. The government’s information minister said then, and has reiterated this week, that there are no proposals in the government or by Kabila himself to change the Constitution. However, passing a bill that requires a census be taken before elections would mean postponing the elections, as it is estimated that a census would take three years to organize. So, a census in effect means several more years of Kabila in power. The demonstrators are supported by the political opposition and the National Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church.
The DRC has not had a “reliable” census, according to the BBC, since independence in 1960. But the timing of this proposal is certainly suspect. The government’s rationale that free and fair elections won’t be possible without a census is questionable, since the elections held in 2006 (albeit with strong international support, and despite post-election violence) were largely deemed to be free and fair by international observers. So it’s understandable that many Congolese see this as a pretty transparent attempt to prolong Kabila’s presidency. It would also not be the first time legal sleight of hand was used to help the President stay in power. Ten months before the 2011 elections, the electoral law was changed to eliminate the second round run-off, giving Kabila, the incumbent, a decisive advantage in a large and divided pool of competitors.
What is worrying about these developments is not only the potential delay in holding elections, and the perceived effort to prolong Kabila’s presidency, but the government’s reactions to the demonstrations. The government has a long record of violently suppressing peaceful demonstrations and curtailing free speech, and it appears they’re continuing this strategy. However, free speech and participants in demonstrations (not to mention some police) are not the only casualties of such a strategy — any legitimacy the President may have left is also bound to suffer.
There is also a danger that this could escalate into more large-scale political violence. Senior diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, and Belgium met with Senate President Leon Kengo Wa Dondo on Wednesday, and a US State Department spokesperson has called for elections to be held in accordance with the Constitution. As Decky Kipuka Kabongi wrote on African Arguments last year, continued diplomatic pressure from bilateral partners may help to ensure that Kabila does in fact respect the constitution and step down in 2016.
The DRC is at a potentially significant crossroads right now. Conflict still persists in the eastern part of the country; and it remains one of the poorest places on the planet. If the situation in Kinshasa is not resolved peacefully and democratically, a country that has endured the deadliest conflict since World War Two, may destabilize even further.