A long-awaited “national dialogue” to avert political chaos opened in Democratic Republic of Congo Thursday despite the absence of many opposition figures who described the event as a government “trap”.
The crunch talks between the government and opposition groups are aimed at averting a crisis when President Joseph Kabila’s term expires later this year as fears grow that he will try to stay in power for a third term
Protestors clashed with police near the talks as they were opened by African Union mediator Edem Kodjo. The talks will last for two weeks.
“I didn’t come here to serve partisan causes, I came here to serve Congo,” said Kodjo, a former Togolese prime minister.
While some opposition figures joined the government and civil society groups for the event, a newly-formed opposition coalition — “Rassemblement” (Gathering) — did not.
The coalition said it would not take part in the dialogue until political prisoners were released and legal action against wealthy businessman and presidential hopeful Moise Katumbi was halted.
Katumbi was tried in absentia in June for real estate fraud and sentenced to three years in jail.
– ‘The alternative is violence’ –
While a court approved Katumbi travelling abroad to seek medical treatment, authorities say he will be detained if he returns and could also face charges of recruiting mercenaries.
The presiding judge in the fraud case has since said that authorities pressured her into endorsing a guilty verdict to ensure Katumbi would be ineligible to run.
“We are here to talk about Congo… we must discuss the organisation of elections for a democratic transition here and now,” said Vital Kamerhe who headed up the opposition delegation at the talks.
Maman Sidikou, the head of the UN’s mission in DRC, said that “democracy remains the only route out of the current impasse. The alternative is violence, destruction and the deaths of innocent civilians”.
Police fired teargas and were pelted with stones during violent clashes in the capital Kinshasa that lasted almost an hour.
Tension has been building for months in the vast mineral-rich nation of 71 million over fears that Kabila will follow in the footsteps of neighbouring heads of state and change the constitution to extend his rule into a third term.
The country’s highest court earlier this year ruled that Kabila could stay in office beyond the scheduled December date if no election were held.
Under the constitution Kabila must call elections three months before the end of his term on December 20.