The ongoing political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a reminder of the country’s turbulent past. Since it became independent in 1960, no head of state has left office peacefully after an election. By refusing to hold an election, which was due in November, and clinging to power even after his term officially came to an end on December 19, Joseph Kabila, the President of the DRC, risks repeating the mistakes of his predecessors. Congo’s Constitution, which Mr. Kabila himself helped write after his 2006 election, bars the President from seeking a third term. But Mr. Kabila later changed his mind and sought to amend the rules to stay on in power. After failing in such attempts, he simply refused to hold elections, citing “logistical problems”. A court has allowed him to remain President until the next elections are held, which the ruling party says will only be in 2018. It is now evident that the President wants to delay the process for as long as possible. But the going is not easy for Mr. Kabila, who was seen in his early years in power as a young and energetic leader who could democratise the polity, offer stability and lift the living standards of millions of its citizens. Not any longer.
Mr. Kabila’s decision to delay the elections has triggered massive protests across the country, in particular turning Kinshasa, the capital, into a battleground between security personnel and protesters. Dozens of opposition activists have been shot dead and hundreds arrested since September. The President is so unpopular in the capital that the ruling party’s headquarters in the city was burned down during Christmas week. As of now, the army and the police stand behind the President and show no qualms in shooting down protesters. But the question now is how long Mr. Kabila can stay on in power by suppressing mass protests. Significantly, the weeks-long violent repression has not turned the protesters away from the streets. Besides, the opposition has rejected outright any bid by Mr. Kabila to stand for another term. If this stalemate continues, Congo will plunge into a greater crisis, at a time it faces several other economic and security challenges, including frequent cross-border attacks on civilians by Uganda-based rebels. Mr. Kabila should draw lessons from the country’s past. After the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted in 1997, Congo was plunged into a deadly civil war, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead. Mr. Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila, who spearheaded the protests against Mobutu, was assassinated. President Kabila should call early elections and hand over power peacefully, thereby setting a precedent for his successors.