Moise Katumbi, the most popular politician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to recent polls, has intervened in the country’s ongoing crisis by calling on the president, Joseph Kabila, to stand down to avoid chaos and bloodshed.
A massive security presence, the suspension of the internet and a wave of arrests appeared to have largely stifled expected opposition protests on Monday against the continuing rule of Kabila.
With less than 12 hours before Kabila’s mandate expired at midnight – launching the vast resource-rich central African state into the political unknown – there were only scattered clashes and standoffs between security forces and opposition protesters in the capital, Kinshasa.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly promised to launch a wave of civil protest on Monday to force Kabila, who took power in 2001 and has won two elections, to step down and most observers expected widespread violence. The constitution does not allow a third term.
Katumbi, the former governor of the southern province of Katanga, called on Kabila to step down before he became “an illegitimate” ruler. “[He] does not want the elections so I am advising him it is still possible to leave a legacy. It is very important … At midnight on [Monday] he will no longer be a legitimate president,” Katumbi told the Guardian in a telephone interview.
Katumbi has been in exile since being convicted on a minor charge of fraud, which supporters say was politically motivated. He said he has no immediate intention of returning to DRC.
“If I want to go back I can go today or tomorrow but I am a man of peace. I do not want my people to die. We want peace to be our priority. [Kabila] can shoot me, jail me, kill me and create more chaos. I don’t want that. I want a peaceful transfer of power,” said Katumbi, who has spent recent weeks traveling between western capitals to rally support.
Critics accuse Kabila of seeking to hold on to power indefinitely, and promised a “trial of strength on the streets” in coming days. Talks between the government and opposition factions are suspended but are scheduled to restart later this week.
Valentin Mubake, chief political adviser to veteran opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, said the absence of violence was “the calm before the storm”.
Observers fear the crisis could plunge DRC, which has never known a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, into a prolonged period of damaging, and possibly very violent, instability.
Such concerns will be reinforced by reports of renewed fighting in eastern DRC on Monday linked to the political crisis. A newly emerged armed group broadly connected to the opposition launched assaults overnight on government troops’ positions in North Kivu, according to humanitarian officials.
Over the weekend tens of thousands of armed police and paramilitaries were deployed on to streets across the country, while armoured vehicles protected at strategic points in key towns and cities.
In September more than 60 people died when security forces opened fire on an opposition march.
“Today there were lots of police everywhere so we did not go into the streets. But we will tomorrow,” said one opposition activist in Bunia, a city near the Ugandan border.
In Kinshasa almost all shops and businesses were shut and streets were largely deserted.
There were unconfirmed reports of scores of detentions. Organisations such as Lucha and Filimbi favoured by young, educated opposition activists appear to have been particularly targeted. Gloria Sengha, a prominent member of Lucha, has been missing for the past three days, friends and family told local media. The 23-year-old lawyer was last seen in Kinshasa, Her current whereabouts were unknown, they said.
Human Rights Watch, the campaign group, said it had received credible reports of at least 42 people arrested in Goma, the eastern city, on Monday morning.
The opposition has been hobbled by a lack of unity and by successive crackdowns, with demonstrations banned for several months. Meanwhile negotiations have intensified as the end of Kabila’s mandate has approached. Washington and European capitals have sought to pressure him into holding elections.
Last-minute talks brokered by the Catholic church between DRC government representatives and a coalition of opposition groups failed to reach agreement on Saturday, but are scheduled to start again on Wednesday after Congolese bishops return form a visit to Rome where they will see Pope Francis.
Government officials blame the opposition for the lack of progress in reaching a settlement and accuse western powers, which have tried to pressure Kabila to make concessions by imposing sanctions on key members of his entourage, of “a neo-colonial mindset”.
“The US and the Europeans shouldn’t try and force us. It’s a pretty clumsy approach to take. It is lucky that the president is a very calm man,” said Lambert Mende, minister of information and a close confidante of Kabila.
But there is little doubt there is widespread popular discontent over Kabila’s rule.
On Monday, a crowd gathered by the roadside near the University of Kinshasa, waving red cards – mimicking football referees – and shouting anti-Kabila slogans.
“He must go. We are all suffering too much. There is too much pain from him for us. The government are thieves,” said Olivier, a 28-year-old unemployed law graduate.
At the university hundreds of students faced off with riot police who forced journalists away from the scene. Elsewhere in the capital there were reports of stones being thrown at security forces and public buses.
Countrywide protests are scheduled for Tuesday, however, raising the prospect of further unrest later in the week.
High inflation, the devaluation of local currency and flagging investment is causing deep economic hardship throughout DRC, where two-thirds of population live on less than £1.50 a day.
Many observers believe Katumbi, who also owns one of Africa’s most successful football clubs, could unify the fragmented opposition and present a more credible alternative to Kabila than Tshisekedi, a 84-year-old former prime minister.
In 2006, Kabila oversaw the first free vote in DRC in decades, ushering in a period of relative stability and economic growth as mining firms invested billions of dollars.
But many observers now fear a return to the brutal civil wars in which an estimated 5 million people were killed between 1997, when the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted after a 32-year rule, and 2003.
“It is the balance of power on the ground which counts … The balance of power will now be worked out on the streets and then we will talk again. But in the long run, whether its around a table or in the streets, Kabila will lose,” said Mubake, Tshisekedi’s adviser.