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Congo To Block Social Media Sites Ahead Of Protests Against The President

A man crosses a road near burning debris during September's election protests in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
John Bompengo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has ordered telecom companies to block social media sites ahead of protests planned for Monday. That's the day that President Joseph Kabila's final constitutionally sanctioned presidential term expires, though he has delayed elections until April 2018.

"The social media shutdown on the eve of the end of President Kabila's mandate is a blatant attempt to keep the Congolese people in the dark at a critical time, and must be rescinded immediately," Amnesty International said in a statement.

The temporary blackout request applies to Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube and LinkedIn, according to a copy of the order seen by Reuters.

Tension has been ratcheting up in the DRC and protesters have been rallying regularly since Kabila indicated that he intended to remain in office. The presidential vote was initially scheduled for November, but was pushed back following a deal between the government and some opposition leaders, according to Reuters, which adds that the main opposition bloc opposes the delay.

Observers had hoped that Monday would mark the country's first-ever peaceful transfer of power. Mvemba Phezo Dizolele of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies laid out the background on Weekend Edition in October:

"President Kabila has been in power for 15 years. He came to power after his father was assassinated. He served five years and then after that a new constitution was put in place via a referendum. He was elected. But the Constitution only allows him two terms, five years each. And now he's trying to wiggle his way to stay for longer."

The election commission said it was delaying the election because of a lack of funds and other logistical issues — but Phezo Dizolele said that's by design, because the government did not provide funding for the election.

State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about possible violence and unrest in Congo in the coming days. The department called on the DRC government and opposition to come to an "inclusive agreement" about a timeline for holding elections.

"There is a grave risk that Congo could descend into widespread violence and chaos in the coming days, with potentially volatile repercussions across the region," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "President Kabila is the one person who can prevent this, by making a clear, public commitment to step down and by ending the violent repression by those under his command."

The government has suspended the country's soccer league competition over fear of unrest. As the BBC reports, soccer matches have sometimes taken on a political tone, and "one popular chant at games warns Kabila that his mandate is over." The secretary-general of the sports ministry, Barthelemy Okito, told the broadcaster that "this general situation in the country risks spilling into the stadiums."

Bloomberg published an investigation Thursday that points to a possible reason why Kabila would want to hang on to power: his family's extensive business interests. Here's more:

"Together the Kabilas have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo's economy and has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the family, a Bloomberg News investigation has found. The sprawling network may help explain why the president is ignoring pleas by the U.S., the European Union and a majority of the Congolese people to hand over power next week, though his advisers dispute this.

"...Kabila and his siblings have assembled an international business network stretching across at least 70 companies, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of thousands of company documents and court filings as well as dozens of interviews with bankers, businessmen, miners, farmers and former government officials."

The tensions in the DRC come as Gambia also faces a leadership crisis. The country's election authorities says its leader of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, lost the vote earlier this month. But he refuses to cede power, citing supposed "irregularities."

Also this month, Ghana held an election where the opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo won and the incumbent leader, John Mahama, conceded. Ghana has a history of peaceful transitions of power.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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