The opposition’s call for a ‘dead city day’ – a stay-at-home strike – was very widely heeded on Tuesday, February 16.
Images on Twitter under the hashtag #VilleMorte show near-empty boulevards in Kinshasa during rush hour, deserted markets, and shuttered windows. Images from other cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are just as dramatic, showing one or two cars and similar numbers of pedestrians on normally jam-packed streets.
The dead city protest was called to press President Joseph Kabila to respect the constitution – that is, to step down when his current term comes to an end this year.
The date is a symbolic one: It was chosen to commemorate the ‘massacre of Christians’ on 16 February 1992, when Mobutu Sese Seko killed about a hundred church members who were marching for a cancelled national conference to be reinstated. The subtext is to compare Mr Kabila (whose Republican Guard almost certainly killed more people while crushing student protests in January 2015 than Mobutu’s killed in 1992) to the hated dictator of Zaire.
The government seemed at a loss on what to do. Labour Minister Willy Makiashi circulated a somewhat pathetic memo informing employees that February 16 was not on the list of official public holidays and that roll call would accordingly be taken in the public administrations, and the broadcasts of RFI were jammed, in order, Communications Minister Lambert Mende said, to “ensure that no one pours oil on the fire.”
In Haut-Katanga, according to the opposition, a police commissioner went door-to-door to shops and stalls, demanding their owners open them.
Opposition leader Martin Fayulu, who heads the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (Ecide), a political party, was taken into custody at his party’s headquarters by elements of the security services on Sunday, February 14, two days before the action. He was arrested on charges of “incitation to public disorder,” according to Mr Mende.
It seems that the strike was, understandably, less well observed in the public service, where people feared losing their jobs over an expression of anti-government sentiment.
Generally, Congolese cities were extremely quiet, which can be seen as evidence of very widespread support for the call, and opposition to Mr Kabila.
Eve Bazaiba of the Congo Liberation Movement (MLC) said that “the population has widely answered the call” of the opposition.
A dead city day is a wiser protest tactic than street marches, as this form of protest is more difficult to police against or repress.
The success of the protest indicates wide and deep opposition to Mr Kabila and, as before, we think this opposition will become manifested in a very destabilising way when Mr Kabila makes his intention to stay on clear.
In order to delay this, Mr Kabila will keep doing what he has been doing until now: not announcing anything explicit, rather letting the dates for elections come and go while he tries to co-opt opposition members by means of one national dialogue or another.
It is hard to guess what will spark real resistance, but all the elements are in place for real trouble at some point.