To say the Democratic Republic of Congo has trouble with transitions of power would be an understatement. The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa — it is four times the size of France — has never had a peaceful one.

President Joseph Kabila came to power in 2001 after his father Laurent was assassinated. Laurent Kabila took over the former Belgian colony in 1997 in a rebellion against the then dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who in 1965 led a coup against Joseph Kasavubu who had been in office since independence in 1960.

The trend looks set to continue, and in a worrying fashion. Mr Kabila’s second full term in office, the last permitted by the 2005 constitution, ends on December 19. But he will not be vacating the presidential palace in Kinshasa then.

Unlike leaders in neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, who have over the past 18 months used the courts or held referendums of questionable legitimacy to extend their tenure in office, Mr Kabila appears to be simply refusing to budge.

But what happens in the DRC matters to the outside world, thanks mainly to its natural resources. These include Africa’s largest copper reserves, as well as big deposits of cobalt, diamonds, gold, zinc and coltan, which is used to make mobile phones.

Mr Kabila’s tactics have been inactivity and silence. Despite the nation’s mineral wealth, the national electoral commission has cited a lack of funding for not organising the presidential polls that should be held in November. It says it will take up to 18 months just to update the voter register and work has yet to begin on it.

The president has remained conspicuously silent about his intentions, leaving it to proxies to persuade the constitutional court that he should remain in office until elections are held. Conveniently, the judges agreed without giving a timeframe for the polls.

The main opposition parties are not taking kindly to the president’s squatting. They have refused to join his so-called national dialogue to form a government of national unity until the elections. They say it is merely a façade to extend the president’s grip on power.

Instead they are organising nationwide street protests demanding Mr Kabila leave office in December even if there has not been an election.

The collapse in commodity prices over the past few years has hit the economy hard and is seen as a reason Mr Kabila has not been able to buy off more of the opposition parties or push through constitutional change, as in Rwanda and Congo, that would enable him to retain power.

This week the demonstrations turned violent. Human Rights Watch, the US-based group, said 44 people, including seven members of the security forces were killed on Monday and Tuesday, in protests in Kinshasa. Five opposition parties’ offices in the capital were burnt. Scores of people have been injured and hundreds arrested. The UN has criticised the government’s “extremely confrontational position”.

The violence could spiral. The Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the largest opposition party, has called for “mass mobilisation” every day for three months.

If law and order were to collapse the country could return to the anarchy of the late 1990s when rebel groups backed variously by Uganda and Rwanda rose up against Kinshasa. Angola and Namibia also sent troops into the DRC. While peace agreements were signed in 2002 and 2003, continued rebel activity in eastern DRC still requires the presence of 20,000 UN peacekeepers. It is estimated several million people died in the fighting.

Politicians claim they want to avoid a repeat of those years but both sides are unwilling to compromise. And they could easily lose control of the situation because the impoverished and angry Kinshasa mob is a force unto itself and its patience is wearing thin.

john.aglionby@ft.com



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