Thousands of police and soldiers are mobilizing for a crackdown on Congolese opposition groups this week as President Joseph Kabila moves to extend his rule beyond the end of his constitutional term.
On Sunday, police and soldiers were stationed on main streets of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as they prepared to confront an expected eruption of protests on Monday, with many analysts predicting that the clashes will turn violent.
The crisis in Congo is emerging as one of the biggest tests of African democracy this year. The country is one of the most populous and mineral-rich on the continent and its stability has wide implications for the whole of Central Africa, a traditionally volatile region. Investors have flocked to Congo's mineral sector, but corruption has been rampant, with reports that Mr. Kabila and his family are heavily implicated in dubious business dealings.
The government has ordered the shutdown of social-media websites on local Internet providers, beginning on Monday, to make it difficult for protesters to organize.
Mr. Kabila has hinted that he could amend the constitution to allow him to remain in power for many more years. His attempt to extend his 15-year rule over Congo is part of a broader trend of authoritarian African leaders entrenching their power. Autocrats have orchestrated similar extensions of their rule in Burundi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sudan, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and other countries.
Mr. Kabila's second term as president expires on Monday and he is constitutionally barred from a third term. He has claimed that elections are not logistically possible and must be postponed until 2018, but critics say his government deliberately made no effort to prepare the elections that should have taken place this year.
Police and soldiers have repeatedly used bullets and tear gas to crush protests in Congo this year. In September, during an earlier wave of protests demanding elections, Mr. Kabila's security forces killed at least 66 protesters in Kinshasa, including some who died in a blaze when presidential security guards attacked an opposition headquarters, according to reports from human-rights activists.
"There is a grave risk that Congo could descend into widespread violence and chaos in the coming days, with potentially volatile repercussions across the region," said a statement by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
The group warned that Congo's security forces could "fracture" if Mr. Kabila uses force to stay in power. This, in turn, could lead to military intervention by Congo's neighbouring countries, as has happened in the past.
Last-ditch negotiations between the government and opposition leaders on Saturday failed to reach any agreement. The talks, mediated by Catholic bishops, are due to resume on Wednesday.
Canada has had a long-standing involvement in Congo, partly because Canadian investors have extensive interests in Congo's gold and copper mining sector. Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has issued statements of concern about the serious human-rights abuses in the country, decrying the "political impasse" and the "noticeably shrinking democratic space." Canada has also deployed a small contingent of nine troops to help a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo.
But critics say Canada hasn't done enough to tackle the Congo crisis and to find ways to persuade Mr. Kabila to step down.
Glenys Babcock, president of Toronto-based Pragmora, a conflict-resolution group that has focused on Congo issues, says the Canadian government should have worked harder to find an exit strategy that would encourage Mr. Kabila and his family to leave the country, using the threat of financial and travel sanctions against him if he stays.
"Kabila has only incentives to stay – he has access to vast amounts of money if he stays in the Congo," Ms. Babcock said.
Her think tank has been lobbying international policy-makers, asking them to find a safe haven for Mr. Kabila and his family, so that they are more likely to depart.
"Urging Kabila to leave cannot be effective," she said. "He has nowhere to go, even if he wants to. Kabila needs an exit path."