Gunfire rang out across Congo’s capital and protesters poured into the streets as President Joseph Kabila made a last-ditch attempt to cling to power, appointing a new government five minutes before his two-term limit was due to expire.
At 11:55 p.m. local time, Congolese state television announced that Mr. Kabila had formed an expanded 65-member cabinet headed by opposition-leaning Prime Minister Samy Badibanga.
The nominations—which added 18 new ministerial posts all occupied by opposition lawmakers—was a clear attempt to curb opposition grievances.
Shortly after the announcement, crowds in several suburbs of Kinshasa took to the streets calling on Mr. Kabila to step down, witnesses and activists said.
Protesters burned tires and erected barricades across many streets, prompting police and the military to fire warning shots. There were no immediate reports of casualties, although opposition groups said dozens of activists had been arrested.
The protests also spread beyond Congo’s borders to some nations with large diaspora populations.
On Tuesday morning, South African police fired rubber bullets at scores of protesters outside the Congolese embassy in Pretoria demanding President Joseph Kabila step down, a spokesman said.
Social media sites such as Twitter and WhatsApp remained blocked for a second consecutive day.
Veteran opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, who heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, Tuesday urged supporters to reject Mr. Kabila’s “coup d’état,” with protests, threatening to escalate an already volatile situation.
“It is Kabila’s time to leave, he no longer has the mandate of the people,” said Fideli Beni, a local coordinator for pressure group, Lucha. “He is an illegitimate president.”
Some analysts said Mr. Kabila’s move could be sufficient to prevent further protests, but others said the standoff could plunge Congo—which is roughly the size of Western Europe—into a prolonged period of instability that could reverberate far beyond its borders.
“Today marks Kabila’s admission into a dangerous category of leaders who gain power by force, not by democratic process or respect for their people” said Holly Dranginis, Senior Policy Analyst at U.S.-based rights group Enough Project.
Mr. Kabila’s midnight move marked the latest twist in months of maneuvering, pitting the president against protesters angered by his decision to end his second five-year term without organizing elections for a successor.
Mr. Kabila’s term officially expired on Monday and he is prohibited by the constitution from seeking re-election.
The former rebel commander, who took power in 2001 when his father was assassinated, was supposed to hand power to an elected successor following elections to be held in November.
The elections have been postponed to April 2018 at the earliest. Authorities cited logistical and financial problems for the delay, and the country’s constitutional court ruled that Mr. Kabila could remain in office until the vote is held.
Government opponents view the postponement as the president’s ploy to remain in power indefinitely, a charge denied by his supporters.
Last-ditch talks between the government and opposition, mediated by the Catholic church, broke down on Saturday after Mr. Kabila refused to commit to stepping down.
Catholic bishops are expected to resume mediation efforts on Wednesday.