The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to 80 million people. Its land is so vast that a peat bog the size of England was discovered just four years ago.
Yet, despite geographic distance, road inaccessibility, language diversity and internet blackouts, Congolese activists across the country — with the help of Catholic lay leaders — have coordinated dispersed marches and prayers against dictator Joseph Kabila, who continues to lead the country despite his last term having expired in December 2016.
Since the final days of 2017, Kabila’s security personnel have been filling churches with tear gas and administering bloody crackdowns, resulting in hundreds of cases of politically motivated arrests, torture and assassinations. Following a Mass last Saturday, Rev. Sebastian Yebo was beaten and kidnapped by police.
Amidst this severe repression, organizers are not only relying on their Congolese neighbors who must incur enormous risks simply to attend worship services, but also their international solidarity network.
“The first tactic is to mobilize people to join our struggle even if they are not Congolese,” activist Sylva Mbikayi said. “African brothers and sisters, and those of the rest of the world, can put pressure on the regime, by calling on Kabila to step down.”
Is DRC blessed or cursed?
The DRC should be the world’s wealthiest nation. Its territory is loaded with tantalum, tungsten, tin, oil and gold. It’s the birthplace of your cell phone, laptop and car.
But the Kabila family dynasty continues to rule, concentrating natural resources in its own hands, and in the hands of business partners. Joseph Kabila inherited rule of the DRC from his father, Laurent Kabila, in 2001. Since that time, countless rebel groups — including private and state militaries under the direction of Rwanda and Uganda, with support from the United States — have terrorized the countryside, raping women and pillaging raw materials.
Since around the time of Joseph Kabila’s appointment to power, a group of youth scattered across the nation have been patiently using everyday issues — such as the decrepit condition of roads, water access or the absence of waste management systems in municipalities — to rally against state neglect. Going by the name Lutte Pour Les Changement (which means Struggle for Change), or simply Lucha, this nationwide movement is tapping its decentralized network across DRC to pressure Kabila into stepping down and ushering in a period of democratic transition.
“Our big strategy is nonviolent action — reflection and action,” a representative of Lucha who preferred anonymity explained. “This means sensitization of the masses and peaceful demonstration.”
Since Kabila’s presidential term expired over a year ago, he has barely appeared before the media. He has also delayed elections, claiming state coffers — in what should be the world’s richest country — lack sufficient funds. This delay tactic has pushed Congolese beyond the edge of tolerance.
The anger of the population is not a new phenomenon. In early 2016, the transportation sector had gone on strike in the capital Kinshasa eight months prior to Kabila’s term ending. Other towns have also since protested his presidency. Although the strike and other forms of resistance resulted in short-term slow-downs of state activities, the momentum wasn’t sustained powerfully enough through 2016 to substantially challenge Kabila. Thanks to Lucha’s decentralized mobilization prowess, however, resistance peaked in 2017 and has escalated through these first weeks of 2018.
Mass education and mass protest
Even a movement as decentralized as Lucha isn’t alone in this struggle. Four activists from Filimbi (Swahili for “whistle”) carried out an anti-Kabila march in Kinshasa on December 30, which resulted in their detention. Meanwhile, a Filimbi member in the eastern town of Kindu was arrested and tortured around the same time.
Another geographically dispersed youth movement utilizing the tactics of grassroots political education and mass marches has branded itself “Quatrieme Voie,” or the “Fourth Way.”
Mbikayi, who is a member of Fourth Way, explained that in matters of making change, people traditionally rely on three things: the government in place, the political opposition, and civil society when all else fails. “But, in DRC, civil society did not fulfill its role of speaking for the interest of the people and consequently youth felt stifled,” he said. “[Fourth Way] has created an autonomous way to be heard. Congolese now get up and speak on behalf of themselves.”
This critique of activists is common across Africa, where foreign donor funding often sets campaign agendas, causing traditional advocacy organizations to follow suit. Activists are thus sometimes co-opted by foundations and organizations that want to take credit for the peoples’ struggles. As a result, youth and female activists are often brought into traditional and ineffective lobbying spaces and tactics, leaving less human resources available for those poorer and more genuine activists committed not to media airtime, but to winning their struggle.
The church has also led calls to action against Kabila’s regime. Congolese Catholics — whose leadership had brokered a deal to allow Kabila to remain in power through 2017 with the understanding that elections would be organized before the year’s end — participated along with a few Protestant counterparts in the December protests, often with clergy marching at the frontlines.
“Fifty percent of Congolese are Catholics,” Mbikayi said. “Lay intellectuals and activists are at the base of these actions. They are similar to the liberation theology adherents in Latin America. The church has filled the void that politicians created by betraying the people for purposes of gaining posts in the government.”
Catholic worship services endured utter brutality on December 31, 2017. While nearly a dozen people were killed in the streets, soldiers also opened fire on worshipers and filled churches with tear gas. A dozen alter boys and two freelance journalists were arrested at St. Joseph’s parish in Kinshasa, where services were infiltrated by the regime’s security forces. Over 160 churches participated in the call to resistance, despite the colossal risks. The United Nations documented at least 123 arrests nationwide.
“The Catholic church has always been on the side of the population and has taken positions against the dictatorial regime of [former dictator] Mobutu [Sese Seko],” Mbikayi said. “On February 16, 1992, [Catholics] led a march where Christians demanded the reopening of the National Sovereign Conference, which was repressed in bloodshed. It is the same thing that we see repeating today, where two marches in the space of a month have resulted in blood.”
A 2018 without Kabila?
Although an internet blackout coordinated by the Kabila administration made it difficult for the repression to backfire, those who were able to access the internet started a hashtag #2018WithoutKabila. Using this hashtag, citizens reported tanks, gunfire, snipers and presidential guards brutalizing and scaring off those going to worship services. Lucha’s Facebook page is calling upon the over 76,000 people who like their page to help identify the assailants in videos of state brutality that they have posted.
The push-back of the Congolese people has resulted in Kabila’s administration claiming fresh elections will be held December 23 of this year, but the people have been in this position before. No one trusts such a promise.
“Through political education sessions, we help the people overcome fear of the Kabila regime and mobilize to support the Catholic lay people’s calls to protest,” said Fourth Way spokesperson Elsie Lotendo.
Fourth Way has a system in place to mobilize civil disobedience, provide direct services and develop political awareness. Civil disobedience is carried out to further delegitimize Kabila’s administration. Poor women who are detained are offered pro bono legal aid. Students and orphans are supported financially, giving the movement an opportunity to speak to the public about the state’s neglect of its citizens. According to Mbikayi, “This shows the people the extent to which the government has abdicated its responsibilities and is instead stealing the people’s money. This helps people understand how much power they have in their own hands.”
Most of the activists interviewed use a similar strategy with their movements: grassroots political education combined with mass mobilization days. In a nation of 80 million people and over 200 tribes, a common strategy across movements — inadvertent as it may be — can only help strengthen the resolve to end Kabila’s reign. There’s even a chance, if the various youth-led movements and Catholic lay leadership can coordinate cooperatively, that Kabila might not make it to the postponed election date.
“We already say we do not recognize this regime and plead for a transition without Kabila,” said a Lucha representative who asked to remain anonymous. “We continue to organize actions in this direction and support all those who do the same.”
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