Alarmed by mounting signs of repression and political deadlock in one of Africa's most strategically vital countries, Western governments are searching for ways to prevent a new civil war in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
President Joseph Kabila, already in power for 15 years, is making it increasingly clear that he will maintain his grip on the presidency beyond the scheduled November elections, in defiance of the constitutional two-term limit.
The growing likelihood of a delayed election, coupled with a police crackdown on opposition protests, is triggering fears of bloodshed. Opposition groups, tear-gassed by police when they last rallied, have announced plans for a national protest on Thursday, but police and other authorities have banned the rally.
The United States and the European Union are raising the threat of sanctions against the Kabila government if the election is postponed. The growing risk of bloodshed in Congo is now prompting scrutiny from the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board, created by the Barack Obama administration in 2012 to prevent atrocities and genocides.
Congo, one of the biggest and most mineral-rich countries on the continent, has a long history of oppression and war. Millions of people died from 1996 to 2003 after Congo was invaded by armies from Rwanda and other neighbouring countries. Dozens of armed militias are still active in the country today, opposition leaders have been harassed and arrested and police have killed dozens of protesters over the past year.
"If there's an election on the horizon, and if a country has a history of conflict and atrocities, then that's going to be always a country that you have to have your eye on," a senior U.S. official told a media briefing last week.
"So the Democratic Republic of Congo would be a country where we want to make sure … that the transition goes smoothly and doesn't descend into the kinds of problems they've had in the past," the official said, singling out Congo when he was asked which countries are being watched closely by the Atrocities Prevention Board.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Robinson, speaking to reporters on the same subject on Wednesday, warned of a potential "disaster" if Congo disintegrates under the pressure of the election crisis.
He said the current deadlock is a "manufactured crisis" that would disappear if elections proceed in November as scheduled. But few analysts expect this to happen. Congolese officials have said they cannot hold elections in November because of "logistical" difficulties. And a court packed with Kabila loyalists has ruled that Mr. Kabila can remain in power beyond November, even if no elections are held.
Western governments are worried that Congo's crisis could escalate into a deadlier version of the conflict in neighbouring Burundi, where more than 400 people have died in protests and violent clashes over the past year after the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, made a widely criticized bid for a third term. Congo has the potential to become "Burundi on steroids," one U.S. diplomat said recently.
The Institute for Security Studies, an African-based think tank, said the court decision allowing Mr. Kabila to remain in office was "essentially a straightforward power grab." As in Burundi, the "legal framework has been retrofitted to legitimize a political aim," the institute said in a report this month.
One of the main opposition leaders, former provincial governor Moïse Katumbi, was the subject of an arrest warrant by Congolese authorities last week for "recruiting mercenaries" – apparently because one of his bodyguards is an American. He flew to South Africa last Friday for hospital treatment after inhaling tear gas fired by police at him and his supporters as they arrived for a court appearance.