The tense DR Congo faces a nationwide shutdown Tuesday after the country's main opposition alliance refused to join talks with President Joseph Kabila's government in a stormy row over delayed presidential elections.
The fractured opposition recently came together in a new coalition — "Rassemblement" (Gathering) — headed by veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi to demand Kabila end his 15-year rule and step down when his mandate expires on December 20.
The coalition this weekend rejected an offer of all-party talks on the election that had been scheduled for Tuesday by Togo's former premier Edem Kodjo, who was asked to step in by the African Union (AU) to avoid a crisis.
In a statement it also called on "the people to mobilise as one to stop this umpteenth abuse of authority by observing a dead city strike this Tuesday August 23."
The opposition has signalled agreement to join the AU-run talks but only on condition Kodjo, seen as biased towards Kabila, be booted, and that the government release all political prisoners.
In an apparent sign of compromise, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo last week promised to free some two dozen prisoners of conscience to "ease political tensions" ahead of "inclusive national dialogue" — the all-party talks.
But the coalition says 112 political prisoners remain behind bars, with only four facing release.
And in the latest sign of a delay of the election, the electoral commission said this weekend that a voter registration drive launched in March would not be complete by December as it would need around a year of work.
The country's highest court earlier this year ruled that Kabila could stay in office beyond December if no election were held.
Warnings of 'high treason'
Tension has been building for months in the vast mineral-rich nation of 71 million over fears Kabila will follow in the footsteps of neighbouring heads of state and change the constitution to extend his rule with a third term.
When Tshisekedi, who is 83 and frail, returned to DR Congo last month after a two-year absence he was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of supporters.
In a fiery speech in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi warned Kabila not to extend his rule, saying it would be "high treason" if the electoral process were not launched on schedule on September 19.
He told a rally that date was the "first red line which must not be crossed".
"The electoral body must be convened (by that date) for the presidential election. If it is not, high treason will be proved in the person of Mr Kabila, who will take responsibility for the misery of the Congolese people," Tshisekedi said.
"From that moment, his three-month notice period on the presidential palace begins. On December 19 the notice expires and on the 20th the house must be free," he added, to rousing cheers.
An immensely popular figure who emerged as a leading dissenting voice as far back as the 1980s, when he was a critic of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, Tshisekedi in June in Brussels accomplished the rare feat of uniting the opposition.
Also in June, another leading light of the opposition, Moise Katumbi, was sentenced in absentia to three years in jail for property fraud.
The presiding judge in the case has since claimed she was pressured by the authorities into signing off on a guilty verdict, to ensure Katumbi would be ineligible to run for office, according to a letter seen by AFP.