Congolese activists challenge violence on all sides

    The Congo Peace Network protested on World Peace Day against the continuing militarization of eastern Congo. (Congo Peace Network/Patrick Mulemeri)

    When World Peace Day was celebrated on September 21, it was marked by demonstrations around the world. Everywhere, people challenged governments and elites to think creatively about solving conflicts peacefully. But the toughest job probably fell to the young Congolese men and women, going to the streets of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They demanded an end to the violence that has shaken the country for two decades and a transformation of the political system driving this violence.

    To appreciate the courage of these demonstrators and to get a sense of what they are up against, one needs to have some background on the recent history of their country. Under colonial rule, the DRC was the personal fiefdom of Leopold II, King of Belgium. Almost 75 times larger than its occupier, the Congo was mercilessly exploited and the Belgians won the questionable honor of introducing to central Africa the punishment of cutting of hands and feet of forced laborers.

    Things didn’t turn any brighter after independence, with the iconic (if naive) democratically elected leader Patrice Lumumba being murdered in a conspiracy involving internal enemies, the former colonizers and the CIA. Colonel Mobuto Sese Seko emerged as absolute ruler from the ashes of Congo’s young democracy and — after thoughtfully aligning himself with Western powers against the Soviet Union — was left alone to treat a country the size of western Europe as his personal bank account for the next three decades.

    He developed a system of personalized politics and institutionalized corruption — aptly named “politics of the belly” by scholar Jean-François Bayart — that persists even 20 years after he was forced out of power by a war that went down into the history books as “Africa’s World War.”

    Since 1994, when the fallout from the Rwandan genocide inspired seven African countries to send their armies to slug it out on Congolese soil, eastern Congo has not known anything approaching the concept of “peace” as we know it. More than five million people died as a consequence and agents of the state — the police and army included — have proved to be just as predatory as members of any of the other violent political groups competing for power.

    It is in this context that the members of the Congo Peace Network (CPN) have started to protest peacefully against the state of politics in their country. In the leaflet they distributed during the march on World Peace Day, they criticize everybody — from the government to the opposition and the actions of the various armed groups in the region. But they also recognize the responsibility of the wider population for the current situation. “Our attitude has made us accomplices of our own misfortune for a long time,” reads one part. “Our fear, our resignation, our wait-and-see attitude are the biggest resource for those who suppress us.”

    These thoughts are also echoed by Patrick Mulemeri, one of the main organizers of the CPN, who wrote in an email: “There are many who think that what we are doing is a fantasy. That we can not change the country [using nonviolent methods] because it is extremely ill. That this is not worth the effort.”

    While resignation and indifference is certainly not helping the cause, it is actually one of the more harmless reactions towards the actions of the group. When the CPN organized a sit-in in front of a hotel in Goma on August 15, where military commanders from around the region were talking about yet another intervention, several of its members were taken into custody by the military secret service. On World Peace Day, six activists were imprisoned and two demonstrators were injured, when members of the security forces fired live rounds at the march, according to Patrick.

    But he says, this is also where their strictly nonviolent approach pays off: “Our colleagues have been set free again. The judges refused to bow to political pressure to keep them imprisoned, because some of them [the judges] saw the demonstration and noted to the prosecutor that it was peaceful.”

    The CPN draws much of its ideological inspiration from two towering figures of nonviolent resistance: Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela are also cited as role models, but they “try to analyze their mistakes,” says Patrick, which may be sensible, given that Lumumba wasn’t able to build critical support for his ideas.

    Looking forward, Patrick recognizes that there is still a long and stony road between them and their goal: “We are studying new forms of activism, like boycotts and the refusal to pay bills. [In the end], nonviolence has its role in bringing about democratic change in our country. Nonviolent methods will be successful, because they don’t harm anyone. They also have the potential to involve the majority of the population, who have been the victims of this system that has governed us since independence.”

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