The Democratic Republic Congo could plunge into social unrest if the political impasse over the transfer of power is not resolved soon.

People walk near burning debris during protests in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in December 2016.
People walk near burning debris during protests in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in December 2016.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is undergoing a political crisis after the government's failure to organise presidential elections, and President Joseph Kabila's determination to retain power beyond his two constitutional terms.

The main opposition coalition, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (the Rassemblement), had promised to organise mass protests across the country to force the 45-year-old president out of office on December 19, 2016 when his last term ended. A move which analysts feared would have plunged the most populous French-speaking nation into a bloodbath – considering the security forces' proven determination to repress any anti-government demonstrations. Earlier protests had led to dozens of deaths and arrests of opposition leaders and supporters.

It took mediation by the Catholic bishops of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) to save the country from reaching a boiling point. CENCO's mediation led to the 31 December agreement allowing Kabila to preside over a transitional government led by a Prime Minister from the Rassemblement – with a mandate to schedule elections by December 2017.

Four months on the main actors have failed to agree on a process to choose the prime minister, as well as the assignment of important ministerial posts – shuttering any hopes of holding elections this year.

CENCO's announcement in March of the total collapse of the direct negotiations led Kabila to picking Bruno Tshibala— a member of a dissident faction of the Rassemblement— for the post of prime minister, was contested by the main faction of the Rassemblement.

Attempts by the main faction of the Rassemblement to organize popular protests to force Kabila to respect the political agreement have so far been unsuccessful, an apparent sign of weakness within the opposition.

The opposition seems to have lost its ability to mobilise the masses since the untimely death early this year of Congo's charismatic opposition and former Rassemblement leader, Etienne Tshisekedi.

The ongoing leadership disputes within the Rassemblement, coupled with the fragmentation of the opposition groups casts serious doubt on the opposition's ability to keep Kabila in check. Kabila and his allies will capitalise on the opposition's weaknesses and further delay elections and retain his privileges.

If anything, the current impasse will only exacerbate the worsening economic conditions for most of Congo's nearly 70 million people. The price of extractive commodities — on which the country overly depends — show no signs of improvement on the global market. The local currency has also failed to recover since its dramatic fall (currently valued at 1,300 to one dollar, compared to 1,100 in November 2016), leading to a price increase of imported basic commodities, such as corn flour, chicken, sugar and rice, amongst others.

This situation has made day-to-day living unbearable for millions of Congolese who are unemployed, and for the few who are fortunate enough to be employed – their meagre salaries do not reflect the high cost of living.

Yet, with security remaining a rare commodity, tough economic conditions are only one of the many dimensions of Congo's human suffering. More than 400 people have died and more than 1,000,000 have been displaced in the ongoing fighting in the central province of Kasai since 2016, when security forces began fighting a local militia (followers of the slain local Chief, Kamuina Nsapu). The bodies of two UN experts investigating the violence were discovered in a shallow grave in the same area, and the UN has documented 40 mass graves to date.

In Tanganyika province, scores of people are being killed and houses torched on a regular basis, in an ongoing conflict between Pygmy indigenous and Bantu communities.

Security also remains fragile in the northeast of the country, due to the flow of refugees and armed combatants fleeing the South Sudanese civil war, as well as Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army's continued activism.

To make matters worse, the possibility of a renewed conflict in the unstable eastern provinces of Kivu, where over 400 armed groups remain active, cannot be overstated. The recent incursion by the former M23 rebel group, whose military commander and majority of combatants have recently gone missing from a camp where they were being held in neighbouring Uganda, is a cause for serious concern.

Failure by Congolese political actors to implement the 31 December agreement, and its resulting impasse, will worsen the country's already fragile economic and security situation. This will aggravate anti-government sentiment among the underfed, as well as the fed-ups, and create a precarious environment ripe for social unrest. Yet Kabila and his close associates have not shown any will to improve the situation, and will continue to channel government resources towards repressing any popular protests.

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