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Countdown to Congo’s election: A tale of youth power and a regime decline

Sunday, October 23, 2016 23:43
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During an opposition rally in Kinshasa on Sept. 19, Congolese protest President Kabila’s decision to delay elections, furious at his attempt to cling to power. – Photo: Eduardo Soteras, AFP

During an opposition rally in Kinshasa on Sept. 19, Congolese protest President Kabila’s decision to delay elections, furious at his attempt to cling to power. – Photo: Eduardo Soteras, AFP

by Kambale Musavuli

On Sept. 19, 2016, widespread protests took place across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Congolese population sent a clear message to President Joseph Kabila that he had only 90 days left to vacate the presidency because his last of two presidential terms expires on Dec. 19, 2016.

The Congolese security forces violently and brutally repressed the demonstrators. According to the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, “at least 53 people, including four police officers and 49 civilians, were killed during clashes in Kinshasa by gunshot, burns and machete.” Congolese security forces allegedly injured 127 civilians.

The demonstrations took place in the midst of a dialogue initiated by the Kabila regime with the support of the African Union, the United Nations and other partners in the international community. The major opposition parties boycotted the dialogue because the Kabila regime did not meet certain conditions – chief among them, the release of political prisoners and the resignation of the facilitator, Edem Kodjo, because he is seen as acting on behalf of president Kabila. The dialogue is at a standstill; meanwhile, civil society representatives and the Catholic Church have temporarily suspended their participation.

The major opposition parties boycotted the dialogue because the Kabila regime did not meet certain conditions – chief among them, the release of political prisoners and the resignation of the facilitator, Edem Kodjo, because he is seen as acting on behalf of president Kabila.

The protests were a result of months of grassroots organizing by the Congolese population, particularly the youth, and key opposition political parties. University students and recent university graduates were a part of these organizing efforts. They believe that their future is at stake in the current political crisis and see the failures of the current government as an obstacle to the Congolese people fulfilling their aspirations.

Speaking to tens of thousands at the rally in Kinshasa, opposition party chief Etienne Tshisekedi warned Kabila not to try to stay in power, saying it will be “high treason” if the electoral process is not launched on time in September. – Photo: Eduardo Soteras, AFP

Speaking to tens of thousands at the rally in Kinshasa, opposition party chief Etienne Tshisekedi warned Kabila not to try to stay in power, saying it will be “high treason” if the electoral process is not launched on time in September. – Photo: Eduardo Soteras, AFP

As the youth responded to the call for demonstrations across the country, no one expected that their participation would result in the loss of life. Whenever the Congolese youth protest in the streets, they put their lives on the line to make a change in the leadership of the country. Given their commitment for change in the Congo, these youth who are the “bright lights” of future leadership are being repressed, jailed, exiled or killed.

Among those who lost their lives on Sept. 19 was Papy Tshiswaka. He was a former student of the technical university Institut des bâtiments et des travaux publics (IBTP). He was the student government president for the class of 2008-2009. While he was among the protesters in the neighborhood of Bandal, the police fired live bullets into the crowd, killing Papy.

Given their commitment for change in the Congo, these youth who are the “bright lights” of future leadership are being repressed, jailed, exiled or killed.

Another youth, Bouquin Bukasa Kazadi, also perished. He died while serving as a part of a security team at a political party headquarters that was set ablaze by the regime’s security forces.

The backlash and repression is not only targeting opposition figures or those who would be future leaders and create healthy competition in a genuine democracy, but it is also using violence to spread fear throughout the population. A young Congolese child was victim of this widespread violence. On Sept. 20, an 11-year-old girl by the name of Théthé Tshibola lost her limbs and subsequently died as an explosive detonated in her family compound where she was playing with her siblings.

Since the Jan. 19 and 20 demonstrations, the Congolese republican guards have been rounding up young people in key neighborhoods throughout the city and taking them to unknown locations. There have also been reports of Congolese soldiers who were disarmed in Camp Lufungula and Camp Mobutu. These tactics are viewed by the population in these areas as a form of intimidation of the Congolese people whose protests paralyzed the city for several days.

The root of the crisis that plagues the Congo in this moment is a president who wants to remain in power against the will of the people and the dictates of the country’s constitution. President Joseph Kabila has made it clear to the Congolese people that he is bent on holding onto power by any means necessary even if it means gunning down dozens of unarmed protesters in the streets of Kinshasa.

The bodies of people killed during election protests lie in the street as Congolese troops stand nearby in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Sept. 19. – Photo: John Bompengo, AP

The bodies of people killed during election protests lie in the street as Congolese troops stand nearby in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Sept. 19. – Photo: John Bompengo, AP

President Joseph Kabila has made it clear to the Congolese people that he is bent on holding onto power by any means necessary even if it means gunning down dozens of unarmed protesters in the streets of Kinshasa.

This is not the first time the Kabila regime has responded to demonstrations in a heavy-handed manner. In January 2015, the regime killed at least 42 Congolese when people rallied to prevent him from changing the electoral law to extend his stay in power.

The Kabila regime has a well-established history and pattern of killing demonstrators. The international community should condemn the latest acts of violence by the Congolese government in the strongest terms. The killings should be investigated and the chain of command of the Congolese security forces should stand trial for the premeditated killing of Congolese citizens. An independent international investigation is warranted.

Pressure should be applied to U.S. lobby firms hired on behalf of the Congolese government, especially the BGR Group, who recently signed a $875,000 agreement with the DRC. They are providing the Kabila regime the incentive and strength to stay in power beyond the constitutional term limit while unchecked corruption continues. They too must be held accountable for their support of a repressive regime in Africa.

People of goodwill throughout the globe should call on the United States and Congolese officials to demand that Kabila cease the attacks against the people and respect the Congolese Constitution. The world has watched the Kabila regime jail innocent youth, drive others into exile, violently repress dissent and undertake a military build-up to go to war against the unarmed population, youth in particular.

The world has watched the Kabila regime jail innocent youth, drive others into exile, violently repress dissent and undertake a military build-up to go to war against the unarmed population, youth in particular. It is time to stop watching and start acting.

It is time to stop watching and start acting. Congolese, other Africans, and people of conscience throughout the globe must act to end the bludgeoning of a beleaguered people who seek peace, justice and human dignity.

Kambale Musavuli, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a social entrepreneur and an international human rights advocate. He serves as the national spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo, a group that raises global consciousness about the situation in the Congo and provides support to local institutions in the Congo. He can be reached at kambale@friendsofthecongo.org.

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