The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s turbulent election season just got wilder. Just as the DRC’s leading opposition figure, Moïse Katumbi, was returning to his country after months of exile, his plane was turned around. Bloomberg:
Democratic Republic of Congo authorities refused to clear a plane carrying presidential hopeful Moise Katumbi to land in the central African nation amid campaigns for national elections.
“I wanted to return to my country and participate, despite threats of arrest made against me by the Minister of Justice,” Katumbi said in an e-mailed statement. […]
Etienne Tshisekedi, 83, another opposition leader, returned to Congo on July 27 for the first time in over two years to be greeted by tens of thousands of supporters. During a rally on Sunday in the capital, Kinshasa, he called on President Joseph Kabila to step down.
This setback for Katumbi comes on the heels of two dueling rallies in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital and, with more than 11 million inhabitants, its most populous city.
First, the government held a massive rally on Friday for the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila. Many of his supporters want him to follow the example of presidents-for-life in neighboring countries and amend the constitution to allow for a third term.
— Aurelia BAILLY (@AureliaBAILLY) July 29, 2016
Then, even though Katumbi’s plane was turned around, the opposition went ahead with the rally they had planned for Sunday. As expected, the turnout was massive. And this is in Kinshasa, the capital, far from Katumbi’s old stomping grounds in Katanga province, where he served as governor.
— Malcolm Webb (@MalcolmWebb) July 31, 2016
It’s important to note here that Congo’s opposition is united for the very first time. In previous elections, the fractured opposition has never united behind a single candidate. Now, the old opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, a longtime critic of Mobutu Sese Seko and harsh critic of President Kabila as well, seems to be passing the torch to Katumbi.
Another thing to keep in mind as we watch this election: the DRC’s long, violent history and its troublesome geography. Katumbi hails from Lubumbashi, the largest city in Katanga and the second largest in the country. The distance from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa is 975 miles, about the distance from Berlin to Moscow. And with Katumbi enjoying considerable support in both major urban areas, it will be difficult for Kabila to maintain any semblance of stability as he delays and postures and obfuscates. The protests are peaceful now, and there’s not much talk of ethnic mobilization (the DRC is home to over 200 distinct ethnic groups), but if Kabila continues to cling to power, his opponents could could turn violent. Even if the official opposition remains peaceful, rebels on the Congo’s fringes could take advantage of the instability to launch new offensives. The DRC has never really been able to extinguish the smoldering insurgencies that singe its border regions. Look for them to begin flaring up anew.
For an in-depth look at the dynamics of geography, statehood, and political competition in the DRC, it’s worth looking at what a respected commentator from the Great Lakes region had to say in an interview with Deutsche Welle:
Congo is a vast country with a horrible history, really, and it requires statesmen and stateswomen to come together and try to hammer out some agreement. But it goes beyond an election; it goes beyond trying to stop Joseph Kabila from extending his rule in Congo. It is about trying to make a nation out of a vast country that has never really been a nation throughout history. It’s been a territory where everybody has come to plunder and take out resources but has never really become a nation that you can call a nation in a proper meaning of a nation.
Nation-building in the DRC is a project that will last decades, if not centuries—assuming the massive country doesn’t split up first. It’s worth reading the whole interview to get a sense of the challenges the DRC faces, both in this election season and in the years ahead.