Is Congo headed for a large-scale political crisis?

Africa | UN chief wary of ongoing unrest after 50 people died in two days of clashes this week
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 9/23/16, 11:57 am

The United Nations human rights chief on Thursday warned Congolese authorities to dial back their “extremely confrontational position” with opposition forces, or risk facing a large-scale political crisis. Zeid Ra’aad Al Hussein issued his statement after clashes between opposition protesters and security forces earlier this week left several buildings destroyed and at least 50 people dead.

The protests followed an announcement by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission that the elections scheduled for November will not take place until sometime next year due to lack of funding. Opposition groups viewed the decision as another attempt by President Joseph Kabila to extend his two-term limit, which ends Dec. 19. The constitutional court ruled Kabila can stay in office until a new leader is elected.

The two days of street clashes that began Monday saw assailants burn the headquarters of three opposition parties, some with people inside. By Wednesday, the government placed the death toll at 32 people, although opposition forces and Hussein estimated more than 50 people had been killed.

“The high number of civilian casualties, the burning of the headquarters of several political parties, and the continuing high tension together provide a stark warning that a large-scale crisis could be just around the corner,” Hussein said. “The writing is on the wall, and the authorities need to pull back from their extremely confrontational position and build bridges with the opposition.”

The human rights chief called on Congolese officials to hold fully inclusive dialog and impartially prosecute those found guilty of human right violations.

In a statement released Wednesday night, Kabila said the sad events touched him profoundly, but he blamed opposition forces for the outburst.

“Although permission had been given for this demonstration, which was presented as a peaceful one, unfortunately the organizers twisted it towards another objective, namely: senseless violence, or worse, bloody riots,” the statement said.

Arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings have marred Kabila’s second term. Last March, human rights groups confirmed security forces buried more than 400 bodies in mass graves, with many of the victims killed during political demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch, in a report released this week, agreed the country risks instability and widespread violence should Kabila remain in power past his term. The rights group pointed to Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term left the country in crisis. The political upheaval claimed hundreds of lives and more than 290,000 Burundians sought refuge in neighboring countries.

“Taking strong action now to address the situation in Congo could help deter further abuses, rein in security forces during upcoming demonstrations, and put further pressure on President Kabila to abide by the constitution and agree to step down at the end of his mandate, and help prevent a broader crisis,” the group said.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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