Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of youths gathered in the streets of Kinshasa on Tuesday to demand that Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila step down after his mandate expired overnight.
Some limited protests started after opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called on the Congolese people to peacefully resist Kabila, who has remained in power despite the expiry of his constitutional mandate and with no election to pick a successor.
Sporadic gunfire crackled in several districts of the capital Kinshasa, a city of 12 million, as measures to thwart dissent fanned fears of more violence.
But with a ban on demonstrations in force, and a heavy military presence, Kinshasa’s normally busy streets were for the most part deserted. U.N. peacekeepers in armoured personnel carriers patrolled an empty side street.
“I think there will be trouble. The people are saying Kabila has to leave,” said student Joe Doublier, 20, peering nervously out of his house in the opposition stronghold of Limite, where youths burned tyres and pieces of wood in the streets.
“It’s been 16 years and nothing has changed,” he said, referring to the time Kabila has been in power since his father was assassinated in 2001.
Reuters witnesses in various parts of the city heard repeated gunshots. Protesters also set off fireworks overnight.
“I launch a solemn appeal to the Congolese people to not recognise the … illegal and illegitimate authority of Joseph Kabila and to peacefully resist (his) coup d’etat,” Tshisekedi said in a video posted on YouTube.
The declaration appeared to be an effort by Tshisekedi and opposition leaders to reinsert themselves into the drama surrounding the conclusion of Kabila’s mandate after they originally declined to call for mass protests.
Kabila faces potentially one of his biggest challenges since he took office. Critics accuse him of clinging to power by letting his term run out with no election to name his successor expected until 2018.
Kabila has rarely spoken about the issue in public, but his allies say the election was delayed because of logistical and financial problems. The constitutional court has ruled that Kabila can stay on until the election takes place.
Some opposition leaders have agreed Kabila can remain in office. But opponents, especially in Kinshasa, are not buying it. Diplomats have urged Kabila to step down to avoid triggering a crisis and possibly another civil war.
Demonstrators in the districts of Kalamu, Matete and Lingwala as well as at Kinshasa University blew whistles around midnight to signal to Kabila that it was time to leave.
Clashes that began a day earlier resumed outside of Kinshasa University, a witness said.
In what appeared to be an attempt at soothing opposition grievances, Kabila’s administration announced on state TV an expansion of the government by about 20 ministerial posts to more than 65, many of them reserved for opposition members.
The main opposition coalition, led by Tshisekedi, refused to accept the deal enabling Kabila to stay on and is unlikely to be appeased.
Scores of protesters have been arrested in the past 24 hours, mostly in the eastern city of Goma, according to human rights groups.
Authorities have blocked most social media and outlawed protests in Kinshasa. Those measures have raised fears of more violence in a nation that has never had a peaceful transfer of power and has suffered near-constant war and instability in the two decades since the fall of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko.
Western powers are nervous of a repeat of the conflicts between 1996 to 2003 that killed millions, drew in half a dozen neighbouring armies and saw rebel fighters rape women en masse. (Reuters)