- - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

KINSHASA, Congo — Opening his kiosk in Ngiri, a neighborhood in this capital city, Albert Lumumba lamented how his country was headed in the wrong direction as news came down that the government was delaying a presidential vote.

“We have been denied the right to vote by our own government,” said Mr. Lumumba, 29, who sells bread, sugar and other household items. “This is not a good sign for our country. There is tension everywhere. People are not going to work, and life is now very difficult.”

Anxiety has been building since members of Congo’s electoral commission revealed late last month that logistical problems stemming from the need for a census to determine voter rolls would make an election impossible this year.

The postponement violated a tenuous peace deal that President Joseph Kabila and the opposition coalition reached in December — technically when Mr. Kabila was supposed to step down after his second term in office. The government has blamed logistical and security problems, but critics say Mr. Kabila is slow-walking the process to keep his hold on power.

Last week, at least 27 people were killed in clashes between protesters and police, Human Rights Watch reported. The protesters, mainly of the Bundu dia Kongo tribe, were marching in the capital and southern cities when police opened fire.

Opposition supporters took to the streets to demand the president’s immediate resignation. They said they didn’t want Congo to go the way of Zimbabwe and other African nations where leaders cling to power for decades, often blowing through constitutional limits on their tenures in office.

Mr. Kabila assumed power in January 2001 after the assassination of his father, President Laurent Kabila. He won election in 2006 and re-election in 2011. The Congolese Constitution bars him from running again.

“We are not going to give up on President Kabila. He should resign and let us vote for another person,” Mr. Lumumba said.

He said his brother was shot dead by police last year during protests that erupted when Mr. Kabila announced he would remain in office on an interim basis. “Police have been assassinating anyone who criticizes Kabila, and we will not allow that to continue,” he said. “We want change in this country.”

Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi dismissed the postponement, saying that the electoral commission had “declared war on the Congolese people.” He suggested that more anti-government protests, civil unrest and a crackdown by security forces were imminent.

Postponed vote

Election authorities warned of a delay in the vote early last year, too, saying budgetary constraints and continued violence in the southwestern Kasai provinces, where the ethnic Luba community is staging a rebellion.

“The parameters at our disposal give us, more or less, reason to think that, in December, it will probably not be possible to stick to that date,” the Kabila-appointed president of Congo’s electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, said during a recent interview on France’s TV5Monde.

Raymond Tshibanda, a former Congolese foreign minister and now Mr. Kabila’s special envoy to the United States, said in an interview during a visit to Washington last month that some of the opposition groups clamoring the loudest for quick elections aren’t really interested in a free and fair vote but stand to benefit from instability that would follow a chaotic election.

“Short cuts,” he said, “are not always the best road to travel. Sometimes you have to take your time.”

But political pundits say Mr. Kabila is dragging out the political process with a clear goal in mind.

Kabila is not ready to leave power, and he is using all means to retain it,” said Adrien Mani, who has been leading protests in the capital. Mr. Kabila “is delaying election as a strategy to amend the constitution and remain in power. There is no way a country like [the Democratic Republic of Congo] can lack funds to finance electoral processes.”

The Trump administration has threatened to impose more sanctions on anyone who hinders the country’s preparations for an election to replace the president.

“We are ready to take additional action to sanction those who stand in the way of DRC’s first democratic transition of power,” Michele Sison, U.S. Deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council last week. “The Security Council should also consider targeted sanctions to reduce the violence in the country and help pressure all stakeholders to play a more constructive role in moving the country forward.”

In December 2015, Mr. Kabila called for dialogue, but opposition parties said police have instigated violence during their peaceful protests.

Security forces are suspected of burning down the headquarters of the main opposition party in September last year, killing 44, and are accused of firing deadly shots at protesters.

Human right groups have accused Mr. Kabila of cracking down on protesters and opposition members. Across the country, dozens of his political rivals and activists are in detention for speaking out against the government or for suspected links to the opposition.

Many have been held in secret detention without charge or access to family or attorneys, human rights groups claim. Others have been put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many say they suffer regular beatings and horrendous living conditions, which have received little international attention.

“I think Kabila is afraid to leave power because of the bad things he has done for this country,” said Mr. Mani. “He has killed and detained several opposition leaders and cracked down on peaceful protesters. He knows that he will be charged for all these violations immediately after he leaves power, and that’s why he doesn’t want to go.”

Kinshasa’s usually bustling streets were mostly empty last week after the electoral body announced the election delay. Many in the capital feared violent protests, and armed police officers patrolled bus stops and intersections.

The country’s economy is reeling from the instability.

“Business has slowed down across the country due to political violence being witnessed in the country,” said Sarah Makemba, a hotel owner in Kinshasa. “We are not receiving tourists because of the violence. Businesses owners are not opening their businesses due to fear of being looted, burned or smashed by crowds enraged by the election delays.”

If Mr. Kabila would step down, said Mr. Lumumba, then Congo could thrive under a new peace. “What we need is only change,” he said. “Our country is bigger than an individual. Kabila should resign and allow the country to move on.”

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