Democratic Republic of the Congo's President Joseph Kabila (2nd R) and First Lady Marie Olive Lembe attend the anniversary celebrations of CongoÕs independence from Belgium in Kindu, the capital of Maniema province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo
President Joseph Kabila and first lady Marie Olive Lembe at celebrations marking the Congo's independence © Reuters

Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi has promised to return home from self-imposed exile and risk arrest if President Joseph Kabila refuses to leave office when his term ends this month.

Mr Kabila’s second and final term as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo is due to end on December 19. But his government failed to arrange elections in time and the supreme court has said he can remain in office until the next polls, which might not be until mid-2018. A group of Congolese bishops is seeking to broker a deal that would facilitate Mr Kabila’s leaving office but his ruling coalition has already branded their efforts a “failure”.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Katumbi — the most popular politician in the DRC, according to an opinion poll — said he would return if the talks collapsed. “I’m going to be on the side of the people,” he said from Washington. “This country doesn’t belong to one person. There’s a time to come and a time to go.”

The pledge by the businessman and former provincial governor is likely to add to a tense atmosphere in the vast and resource-rich nation, which is one of the poorest and most chaotic in Africa. Dozens of people have died in recent political and ethnic violence in the DRC, whose weak economy has been further blighted by the commodities slump.

Some small opposition parties have joined a newly formed interim government, but the main opposition groups accuse Mr Kabila, who became president in 2001 after his father was assassinated, of trying to cling to power. They are demanding that a new leader runs the country until elections and have promised huge protests if he stays in office.

Congolese opposition supporters chant slogans during a march to press President Joseph Kabila to step down in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo
Congolese opposition supporters during a protest march against President Joseph Kabila in September © Reuters

Mr Katumbi left the DRC in May to seek medical treatment shortly after being accused of hiring mercenaries. Soon after he was convicted in absentia of illegally selling a house that did not belong to him and sentenced to three years in jail. 

Then in July the judge in that case said she had been pressurised by the intelligence services to convict the businessman, whose popularity stems in part from his ownership of TP Mazembe, the country’s biggest football team. 

The intelligence services denied the allegation by the judge, who went into hiding.

Mr Katumbi, who was previously governor of Katanga province, said he did not fear arrest or worse. “I’m not afraid because Mr Kabila’s already killed so many,” he said, referring to people killed in protests, particularly the several dozen killed in the capital, Kinshasa, in September.

Moise Katumbi Chapwe, Governor of Democratic Republic of Congo's Katanga province, is pictured during an interview, on June 2, 2015 in Lubumbashi. AFP PHOTO / FEDERICO SCOPPA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP/Getty Images)
Moise Katumbi, the exiled former governor of Katanga province, in 2015 © AFP

In an attempt to encourage Mr Kabila to leave, Mr Katumbi said he would not lobby for the president to be tried for any alleged abuse of office. “No one needs to arrest or prosecute the president if everything is done according to the constitution,” he said. “What’s important is to have free and fair elections.”

Analysts are uncertain whether Mr Katumbi, who has previously failed to keep promises to return to the DRC, would really end his exile. “Diplomats are tired of hearing he’s almost about to go back,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at New York University. “He doesn’t have a political structure [in DRC] but he has his reputation, which is considerable, and his money.

International concern over the escalating crisis in the DRC was demonstrated this week when the UN Security Council issued a statement calling on authorities in the country to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially the right of peaceful assembly, and to exercise maximum restraint in their response to protests”. It also urged the opposition “to show responsibility” by demonstrating peacefully.

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