KINSHASA, Congo — Security forces clashed with protesters in the capital of the Congo on Tuesday, leaving up to 20 people dead, as a political crisis escalated over the president’s refusal to step down at the end of his formal term.
The demonstrations were scattered across Kinshasa, a sprawling city of 12 million, and quickly put down by heavily armed soldiers and police. Young men set tires aflame and threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas. There were few details about the killings, but some hospitals in the city reported receiving victims who had been shot or beaten. By mid-afternoon, police officers could be seen arresting young men in large groups.
The United Nations had “received reports that 20 people were killed,” according to Felix Basse, a U.N. spokesman in Kinshasa. By Tuesday evening, it was still working to confirm those reports, he said.
Monday was originally meant to be President Joseph Kabila’s last day in office, but his coalition claimed the country lacked the money or logistical resources to hold elections until 2018, a move widely perceived by Congolese citizens and the international community as a way to extend his rule. Opposition leaders encouraged their followers to defy the governing coalition’s decision by taking to the streets, where police and soldiers had been deployed en masse to enforce a government ban on public demonstrations. During the last sizeable anti-government protests in September, about 50 people were killed.
“Today we are taking things into our own hands,” said Peter Kabongo, 27, who was preparing to join a demonstration in Kinshasa’s Matete district, where periodic gunfire could be heard. “The police have guns, but there are millions of us who want Kabila out.”
There were also protests in Lubumbashi, the country’s second-largest city, and witnesses reported that demonstrators had set a gas station on fire.
The country, also known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest nation, and has not had a peaceful handover of power since it became independent from Belgium in 1960. Kabila has ruled since 2001, when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
The majority of Congolese would like Kabila to step down, according to polls. He has served two terms, and the country’s constitution does not permit leaders to run for a third term. But Kabila argued that the country was not prepared to hold elections, and the Constitutional Court approved his plan to stay on until the next elections.
A number of African leaders have found ways to stay in power for decades by challenging constitutional limits or winning elections marred by irregularities. Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, 74, has ruled for 37 years. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 92, has been in power for 30 years.
In this mineral-rich country, power often translates to wealth, and reports have linked Kabila’s family to a large fortune, even as most citizens here earn less than $2 per day. Some politicians have backed his plan to delay elections, but many others, including the country’s most powerful opposition figures, have not.
Negotiations on the crisis between Kabila’s coalition and the largely fragmented opposition have so far been unsuccessful. In a video posted Monday night, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called on people to “peacefully resist (Kabila’s) coup d’etat.”
On Monday, Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser, Kikaya Bin Karubi, called anti-government protesters a “loud and insistent mob.” He said the demonstrations would have no bearing on Kabila’s decision to stay in power until the delayed elections. Late on Monday night, the government announced new cabinet appointments, which included some opposition members who agreed to postpone elections until 2018.
The country is still reeling from a series of conflicts between 1996 and 2003 that left millions dead. Experts and Western officials worry that the political instability caused by Kabila’s efforts to remain in power could reignite fighting .
As the day ended, the only people left demonstrating on the streets of Kinshasa were men wearing flags emblazoned with Kabila’s face and the phrase “We support the president.”
The police didn’t stop them, despite the ban on public gatherings.
“The president gave us this big road,” said Etienne Kayembe, 40, pointing to the city’s main highway that had been emptied due to the massive police presence. “Before Kabila, we had nothing like this.”