JOHANNESBURG - December 19, 2016, is a date hangs over Joseph Kabila’s head, as well as the nation he has ruled for 15 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo - and over fragile central Africa.
That should be the last day of his second and final term in office as president, according to the country's constitution. The nation’s electoral commission, however, says it won’t be able to hold elections until late 2018. Kabila has not said publicly what he will do. Kabila's critics say he has been stalling to stay in power. Some of his supporters have called for a referendum to remove term limits.
This limbo has not been peaceful. Deadly protests this week over the delay have raised fears that this giant central African nation might become yet another chaotic, violent political crisis. Diplomats say the nation’s neighbors need to step up and encourage dialogue to end the impasse.
The situation is following a worryingly familiar script: elsewhere in the region, leaders’ attempts to extend their grip on power have led to violence in fragile, underdeveloped nations that can ill afford the accompanying economic shocks.
Burundi was the most recent example, with its president sparking deadly protests, a coup attempt and an exodus of refugees when he said the constitution allowed him a third shot in office in 2015.
Richard Moncrieff, central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, says the DRC has been torn apart by civil conflict in the past, and this crisis is about more than just leadership -- it's about a document that captures the nation's soul.
“The constitution of 2006, for them, is how they got out of the civil war," he said. "So it’s not just a constitution; it embodies a peace agreement, and it embodies the desire of the Congolese to live peacefully together. So when we see the president try to undo that constitution for his own narrow ends, it’s fairly natural and understandable that people are upset and angry about that.”
Rights groups say the DRC government has acted to suppress dissent, imprisoning activists and violently putting down protests.
A government spokesman defended the security forces’ response to demonstrators this week, telling VOA that some of the protesters "came just to loot and destroy and kill.”
Analysts say Kabila is not the first African leader who has served past the end of his term.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni is serving his fifth term in office after pushing for the removal of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit a decade ago.
The Republic of Congo held a 2015 referendum after violent protests that allowed the longtime president - in power since 1979 - to run for re-election earlier this year. He won. Rwandan voters last year approved a constitutional change that opens the door for its longtime president to run for yet another term.
Central Africa analyst Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies says what happens in the DRC inevitably reverberates.
“Because Congo is so big and because it has often drawn in other countries around it into its wars and other neighboring countries have chosen to get involved in wars in the DRC - greater instability and the lack of credibility of a government in Kinshasa is very bad news for the region as well," she said.
Wolters has criticized the African Union for being “relatively absent” from the debate, and called for the continental body to reiterate its stance against changing constitutions to extend presidential term limits. Instead, the AU has set up a continuing national dialogue that much of the opposition has boycotted.
The United Nations has called for the nation's ruling party to "build bridges with the opposition." And Thomas Perriello, the U.S. special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region, says the DRC's neighbors need to push for a resolution through dialogue. The president of the neighboring Republic of Congo has come to Kinshasa to attempt to mediate the crisis, but it is not clear how much success he has had.
“This is an excellent time for regional leadership," Perriello said. "Leaders in the region of course have such depth of knowledge of the country, but also have such a direct stake in the impact of the situation in DRC…If the DRC makes it through this historic transition that is so deeply desired by the Congolese people, that is something that could have very positive reverberations in terms of economic investment and human capital across the region.”
It is not clear whether the region will take that to heart and take a firmer line on the crisis. On Thursday, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, expressed concern about the violence in the DRC and called on all parties to participate in the AU dialogue. In a statement, however, Zuma did not mention Kabila by name, or allude to Kabila's next step.