Congo Opposition Renews Calls for Change After Fatal Unrest

(Bloomberg) -- Opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo renewed calls for President Joseph Kabila to leave office as a tense calm returned to the capital, Kinshasa, following violence earlier this week that authorities said left at least 32 people dead.

“It is a sad time for our country,” opposition leader and presidential hopeful Moise Katumbi said Wednesday by phone from New York. He urged Kabila to “take responsibility for the deaths” in two days of unrest in the city.

The G7, a group of seven political leaders backing Katumbi, said the protests showed the population’s “determination to defend the constitution.” A statement e-mailed late Wednesday called for the international community to organize fresh political talks under a new facilitator.

Congo, Africa’s biggest copper producer and a source of other key minerals including cobalt and tantalum, has never had a peaceful transition of power. It was due to hold elections in November, but they’re being delayed because of a registration process that the opposition says is a deliberate attempt by Kabila to extend his 15-year rule.

Kabila is required by the constitution to step down in December, although in recent talks, boycotted by most of the opposition including the G7, he proposed to remain as the head of an interim administration until the vote.

Potential Divergence

In a sign of a potential divergence between opposition groups, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, Congo’s largest opposition party and the driving force behind the protests, in a late Wednesday statement urged its supporters to remain mobilized and made no reference to potential talks with the government.

It said more than 100 people died in this week’s violence, a figure much higher than other estimates. New York-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said it had credible reports of 44 dead, including six police officers.

At a mass held Wednesday at Kinshasa’s most important cathedral, the head of Congo’s powerful Catholic Church, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, led prayers for those who died this week.

Attending was Senate President Kengo wa Dondo, constitutionally the second-most powerful elected official in Congo after Kabila, who was instrumental in ending four days of violent protest that left 36 people dead last year. He was one of only three senior politicians at the ceremony.

Condolences Expressed

The president is yet to publicly speak about the violence. In a statement written by Kabila’s chief of staff and read on his behalf on state television late Wednesday, the president expressed his condolences and called on parties to participate in the election talks. The discussions, already boycotted by most of Congo’s opposition, are due to restart Friday. On Tuesday, the Catholic Church also suspended its participation.

“If the dialogue was truly inclusive we would have avoided the blood that has been spilled,” Katumbi said.

The former governor of copper-rich Katanga province, who has been outside Congo since May and was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison on what he says are politically motivated charges, wouldn’t say when he plans to return to the country.

He said he will travel next to Ethiopia to ask the African Union to appoint a different negotiator and arrange “more inclusive” talks.