Congo senate bows to protests

The opposition said a previous draft of the electoral law would have kept Kabila in power for years.

FILE: People stand beside burning objects in the middle of the street on 19 January, 2015 in Kinshasa. Picture: AFP.

KINSHASA - Democratic Republic of Congo's Senate on Friday scrapped plans for a national census before 2016 presidential elections, after four days of protests against a move that opposition leaders said was aimed at extending President Joseph Kabila's term.

The opposition said a previous draft of the electoral law, approved by the lower house at the weekend, would have kept Kabila in power for years by delaying elections until a census could be held in the vast and impoverished central African country.

Kabila, who won a second five-year mandate at disputed elections in 2011, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term next year. With several long-standing African leaders facing looming term limits, the process is being closely watched across the continent.

Following protests in Kinshasa in which one rights group said at least 42 people were killed, the Senate modified the proposed law to say that any revision of the electoral list must respect the constitutional deadline for elections.

"We have listened to the street. That is why the vote today is a historic vote," Senate President Leon Kenga Wa Dondo said when the article was passed.

"The amendments contained in this article about demographic data no longer speak about a census or about identification because the census and identification were perhaps going to exceed the time frame prescribed by the constitution," he said.

On the streets of Kinshasa, opposition supporters reacted with joy to the reversal by the government. Dozens of people on the central Rue de Commerce shouted "Victory! Victory!" after the Senate vote was broadcast.

"There is a feeling of joy," said Mbuyi, a 45-year-old businessman. "The Senate showed that it is a wise body by sparing the blood of the Congolese people that was going to spill."

A parliamentary committee will now seek to reconcile the two chambers' bills before a final vote, expected before the close of the current parliamentary session on Monday.

The United States, France and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had all called for Kabila's government to show restraint in handling the protests and urged presidential elections to be held on time.

"It is a big blow for Kabila and his people," said political analyst Pascal Kambale, former Congo country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

"The only vision, the only objective they have is to do whatever it takes for Kabila to stay there beyond 2016 ... But they don't have any clear strategy about how to get there."