Kinshasa, DR Congo—Tens of thousands of people rallied in Kinshasa on Friday in support of Congolese President Joseph Kabila just two days after his leading opponent returned home to a massive welcome.
Political tension is high in the country as the opposition fears that Kabila, whose mandate ends in December, will delay elections in a bid to cling on to power.
“We came here to affirm our support for Joseph Kabila,” Aubin Minaku, secretary general of the ruling majority and president of the national assembly, told a crowd estimated at over 40,000, an Agaence France Presse correspondent at the scene reported.
“Kabila, stay as long as possible,” the crowd shouted, alluding to the political controversy raging in Democratic Republic of Congo.
In power since his father’s assassination in 2001, Kabila is suspected by opponents of eyeing a third term which would involve changing the constitution’s two-term limit.
Opposition protests erupted after the Constitutional Court ruled in May that Kabila could remain in office in a caretaker capacity beyond the end of his current mandate ending December.
But now the DRC’s opposition has achieved the rare feat of rallying behind a single figure, the immensely popular Etienne Tshisekedi who returned home Wednesday from Belgium where he had been medevaced in 2014.
The 83-year-old first emerged as a leading opposition voice as far back as the 1980s when he became a critic of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
In the DRC’s last presidential election in 2011, he ran second to Kabila but contended he was denied victory by massive fraud.
Thousands of supporters flanked his motorcade as it crawled its way into the city of 11 million people on Wednesday. An opposition rally is scheduled for Sunday.
At the Kabila rally Friday, Meta, a sociology student at Kinshasa University, said they “were given a free T-shirt,” but denied they had received money to show up for the event.
Seven anti-Kabila activists were released from jail in Bunia, northeastern DR Congo, two days after they were detained, the pro-democracy Citizen Front’s spokesman Claude Katende said.
The seven had been taken into custody during a protest held in support of a “national dialogue” between the government and the opposition, to which they had brought banners that read: “Yes to dialogue, yes to alternation of power” and “We want elections within the constitutional timeframe.”
The Congolese authorities had branded their act as “provocation,” but the prosecution found no reason to hold the seven for any longer, Katende said.
Kabila’s government has called for talks and former Togo premier Edem Kodjo has been named by the African Union as the talks’ “facilitator.”
But Tshisekedi, who recently accomplished the rare feat of uniting the Congolese opposition, wants nothing to do with Kodjo.
While the talks had been slated to start Saturday, Kodjo said in a statement that “the start of the preparatory committee’s work has been postponed.”
He meanwhile urged “all the sides involved to ... create the conditions” necessary to allow the talks to begin “within the next few days.”