Militiamen in eastern Congo attacked a prison on Monday, engaging in a gun battle with security forces amid heightened tensions as President Joseph Kabila’s last term in office ends.
No election has been held to choose a successor to Kabila, whose mandate expires on Monday, and popular anger is growing over what opponents say is an attempt to cling to power in defiance of the constitution.
“Since this morning, there have been incursions by the Mai Mai (militia). They wanted to liberate prisoners at the central prison,” Fabrice Kakubuzi, a local activist in the eastern city of Butembo told reporters. “They want to take advantage of the day to liberate prisoners.”
A police spokesman said the militiamen were trying to loot but had been pushed back by security forces.
A presidential election has been postponed until at least April 2018 because of logistical and financial problems and some opposition leaders have agreed Kabila can remain in office until then.
The constitutional court has also ruled that Kabila, leader since his father was assassinated in 2001, can stay on.
But Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition bloc rejects the deal as a ploy. Recent talks mediated by the Catholic Church failed to reach a compromise.
The capital Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold of 12 million people, was quiet on Monday, with many residents staying at home and shops and businesses shuttered. Military and police patrolled the streets with riot trucks.
The government has outlawed protests there, raising fears of repression and violence in a nation that has been plagued by war and instability for two decades since the fall of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Congo has not seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.
The opposition said on Saturday that it would not call for protests, but that may not stop them happening.
More than fifty people were killed in anti-Kabila protests in September, mostly protesters shot by police, although some mobs also attacked police stations and lynched officers. A similar number died during demonstrations in January 2015.
“FLIRTATION WITH DISASTER”
Diplomats fear any escalation of the violence could trigger a conflict like the 1996 to 2003 wars that killed millions, sucked in neighboring armies and saw armed groups clash over Congo’s mineral wealth and use mass rape as a strategic weapon.
U.S. Great Lakes envoy Tom Perriello on Thursday called Kabila’s hanging on “an entirely unnecessary flirtation with disaster” in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace.
Anticipating a showdown, the government plans to block most social media in order to prevent demonstrations and has set up security checkpoints throughout Kinshasa.
But youth activists seek inspiration from Burkina Faso, where Blaise Compaore was ousted in 2014 by popular protests while trying to extend his 27-year rule.
As in Burkina, protests in Congo are in part driven by economic desperation. The vast, forested country of 70 million people and more than 200 ethnic groups, is much more fragmented than Burkina, however, and previous protests achieved little.
Former colonial master Belgium has advised its citizens to leave before Monday and the United States has warned against all non-essential travel, telling expatriates who must remain to stay indoors.