In January of this year, protests erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, against President Joseph Kabila. He came to power in 2001 as acting president when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. He was affirmed as president by a 2002 peace accord, and he was elected in what was probably a fair election in 2006. He was re-elected in what was probably a stolen election in 2011. His second, and final, term is up in 2016. The protests, called the #Telema (the word means “rise up” in Lingala – the language spoken in the capital and elsewhere in the DR Congo) movement, followed the announcement by Kabila’s government of a proposed law that would delay the 2016 election until a census could be completed. In the DRC, a census could take years, a fact that Kabila was no doubt aware of when the law was proposed.
The protests were started at the University of Kinshasa and the initial demand was for the removal of the offending article of the law that required the census before the election. But over the next few days in January, the demands started to escalate to the removal of Kabila. The armed forces attacked the protesters, with tear gas and live fire (1). An African human rights group gave figures of 14 people killed on the 19th and 28 on the 20th, all by security forces, while the government claimed a lower death toll of 15 people, supposedly looters killed by private security forces (2). Human Rights Watch gave an estimate of at least 21 people killed by security forces (3).
With 42 student protesters killed, ongoing arrests, and a mass grave found in Kinshasa just days ago, the DRC has its own Ayotzinapa.
In the years leading up to these protests, Kinshasa has been the site of a police campaign of social cleansing that left 51 people dead, murdered by masked police on suspicion of being “gang members” in what was called “Operation Likofi” (4). According to HRW’s summary of the operation, “uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged kuluna, or suspected gang members, from their homes at night and executed them. The police shot and killed the unarmed young men and boys outside their homes, in the open markets where they slept or worked, and in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken without warrants to unknown locations and forcibly disappeared.”
The largest number of protesters were killed on Tuesday, January 20, but the protests continued. By Friday January 23, the government had reconsidered. The bill was amended as the protesters had asked (5). In early February, a spokesperson for Kabila said “President Kabila will end his mandate in 2016. You’ll see” (6).
The student youths that were major players in the Telema protests of January continued to mobilize to try to defend the 2016 election, fearing that Kabila would continue to try to find ways to hang on to power. One of the main pro-democracy youth groups is called Filimbi (“youth for a new society”). In mid-March, they held a two day long workshop, inviting pro-democracy activists from Burkina Faso and Senegal to discuss the movements in their countries. At a press conference at the end of the workshop, the Congolese military swept in and arrested everyone at the meeting – foreign and Congolese alike, thirty people in total. They continue to make targeted arrests of youth activists, and while the foreigners have been released, many of the Congolese arrested in March – and, indeed, in January – remain in custody (7).
An aside here is in order, because while Filimbi is an independent organization, one of the co-sponsors of the event on March 14-15, called FNJE (forum nationale des jeunes pour l’excellence, or the national forum of youth for excellence), was financially supported by the US pro-democracy programs. A USAID official, Kevin Sturr, was arrested at the event and later released. The US Embassy defended the event and its support for it. For those who have seen the damage done to democracy by USAID and similar programs in Venezuela and Haiti, the presence of USAID in this event is cause for caution. But Filimbi and the pro-democracy movement deserve support from everyone concerned with democracy, especially at this early stage, in spite of the presence of USAID at the event. They deserve support because, unlike some of the organizations supported by USAID, NED, and IRI in places like Haiti and Venezuela, their cause is just – they are seeking to uphold the very fragile democratic institutions that are available to them – and they are doing so through popular mobilization and civil resistance as opposed to seeking the violent overthrow of the government.
As Ben Kabamba of Filimbi, now forced to operate underground, said in an interview, “today we are considered enemies of the state, but if we had taken up arms and killed people, we would be rewarded with ministerial posts.” (8) Indeed, the chosen US vehicles for influence in the Congo are not traditionally pro-democracy students, but the armed forces, business groups, private armies, and armies of the DRC’s neighbours, especially Rwanda and Uganda. While the US leaves no stone unturned in the search for influence and does target civil society organizations, it is much more likely that it sees the Congolese pro-democracy movement, and especially its civil and political – as opposed to military – nature, as a threat. It is also unlikely that the US is looking to overthrow Joseph Kabila, who has done nothing against US interests in his 14 years in power.
Even though most political commentators (myself included) have focused on the Congo’s wars, the Congo has a very long tradition of civil, pro-democracy activism. The Congo’s independence was won by such people, and Patrice Lumumba and his companions who won it were also among the first martyrs of the pro-democracy movement. In the early 1990s, the pro-democracy movement forced the Congolese dictator, Mobutu, to agree to a sovereign national congress that was beginning to impose limits on his power. In both cases, brief democratic openings were closed by violence, and in both cases, truly horrific wars followed. Joseph Kabila arrived in the DR Congo as a soldier in one of those wars. If he releases the political prisoners, ceases the campaign of arrests, and steps down, he could still balance out near the right side of Congolese history, even after the 2011 election and even after his recent crimes. The Congo’s friends can, and should, help.
First published at TeleSUR English April 14, 2015: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Filimbi-Affair-and-Telema-20150414-0017.html
(1) “Congo’s #Telema protests – in tweets.” UK Guardian, January 21, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/21/-sp-congo-telema-protest-twitter
(2) “Church backs Congo protesters, rights group says 42 killed”. Reuters January 21, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/21/us-congodemocratic-politics-protests-idUSKBN0KU0UI20150121
(4) HRW, “DR Congo: Police Operation Kills 51 Young Men and Boys” https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/18/dr-congo-police-operation-kills-51-young-men-and-boys
(5) AFP, via UK Daily Mail, January 23, 2015. “DR Congo Senate backs down on electoral bill after deadly clashes” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-2923442/DR-Congo-Senate-backs-electoral-bill-violence.html
(6) Malcolm Beith for Bloomberg, February 5, 2015. “Congo’s President Kabila Will Step Down in 2016, Spokesman Says” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-05/congo-s-president-kabila-will-step-down-in-2016-spokesman-says
(7) A basic website that includes some information about the Filimbi prisoners, demands, and ideas on how to help is telema.org: http://www.telema.org/