Democratic Republic of Congo: a country on the brink

Despite what President Kabila and his supporters may say, everything is not 'fine' in DR Congo.

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    Riot policemen fire tear gas canisters to disperse demonstrators during a protest organised by Catholic activists in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on January 21, 2018 [Kenny Katombe/Reuters]
    Riot policemen fire tear gas canisters to disperse demonstrators during a protest organised by Catholic activists in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on January 21, 2018 [Kenny Katombe/Reuters]

    On January 21, Therese Kapangala, a 24-year-old Congolese woman studying to be a nun, left her home in Kinshasa to attend church in the Commune of Kintambo. Therese never returned home. She was shot by security forces outside her church, just after Sunday mass. The bullet entered her arm and went to her heart. She died on the way to the hospital. 

    On that day, many others, including Serge Kikunda, Packson Kabadiatshi, and Hussein Ngandu were also killed by security forces. The Catholic Church and civil society organisations suspect many others have also been killed by regime forces across the Congolese capital on the very same day. But Congolese officials insist that only six people have died.

    Of course, enormous discrepancies in death toll estimates are quite common in the Democratic Republic of Congo - the repressive regime frequently tries to downplay the number of its victims. 

    Yet, there was something unique in the regime's account of the events of January 21. This time, Kinshasa not only tried to whitewash the scope of the violence, but also attempted to brand its victims, including Therese, Serge, Packson, and Hussein, as "terrorists".

    If one were to believe Congolese Minister of Communication Lambert Mende's incoherent account of the events, delivered on Al Jazeera's UpFront earlier this month, one would think that the victims of the January 21 violence were bomb-strapping ideological lunatics who had to be stopped by "heroic" Congolese soldiers.

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    No, sister Therese was not a terrorist; neither were Serge, Packson, or Hussein. Contrary to Mende's claims, these were young Congolese citizens fed up with being repressed by an ineffective government. They died because they dared to hope for a better Congo. They died because they lived and experienced a radically different Congo than one Lambert Mende and Bruno Tshibala, the Congolese Prime Minister, try to portray.

    Tsihibala recently said that "everything is fine in the DRC".

    But no, everything is not fine in the DRC. Joseph Kabila has managed to extend his presidential mandate, which expired on November 28, 2016; wanton warlords continue to rule eastern regions of the country, and inter-ethnic conflicts continue to plague some Congolese localities. If things do not change, many more Congolese citizens will inevitably become victims of the draconian insensitivity of Kabila's regime. 

    St. Sylvestre Agreement

    The chain of events that led to Therese's death started in December 2017, when the Lay Coordination Committee of the Catholic Church (CLC), a group backed by many priests and bishops in the majority-Catholic country, asked the Congolese government to respect the St Sylvestre Agreement. Signed between the government and the opposition a year earlier in December 2016, as result of the Congolese government's inability or indeed reluctance to organise a new presidential election, the St Sylvestre Agreement stipulated that: 

    1. All Congolese political actors would abide by the Constitution, specifically noting the two-term limit in regard to the presidency; 
    2. Presidential elections were to be organised no later than December 2017; 
    3. Political prisoners were to be liberated, and political exiles would be able to return home freely.

    Considering that by the end of 2016 Congo President Joseph Kabila had already served two terms (from 2006 to 2016) in addition to the transitional period from 2001 to 2006, amounting to a total of 15 years in power, the St Sylvester Agreement meant that Kabila's days in power were numbered. 

    But surprise, surprise!

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    By December 2017, the Congolese government was still not "ready" to organise a presidential election. That was when the CLC went nuclear on Kabila. Spokeswoman Leonie Kandolo and the CLC leadership warned that if the conditions of the St Sylvestre Agreement were not met by December 15, 2017, the people would take it to the streets.

    That is exactly what has happened not once, but twice so far. On December 31, the Catholics marched in Kinshasa and in other parts of the Congo. Marchers were heavily repressed, with many of them sustaining injuries. In reaction to the brutal repression of the protests on New Year's Eve, the CLC called for a second march on January 21. Police repression was heavier this time, resulting in the killing of Therese, Serge, Packson and Hussein.

    A tale of two Congos

    These days, there seems to be two Congos existing simultaneously. On one hand, there is the Congo of Kabila, Mende, and Tshibala where "everything is fine," and people can "freely" challenge the government and demand accountability. On the other hand, there is the Congo of the CLC and the Congolese people where calling the government into account is an act of defiance to Kabila, and speaking out against repression can land you in jail, in exile, or in the grave. 

    CLC spokeswoman Kandolo and many of her colleagues have now gone underground, as there is an arrest warrant on their names. But, in spite of the threats, the CLC is already planning to organise a third Christian march on February 25. Will this be the straw that breaks the camel's back?

    Among all the devastating photos that document the events of January 21, there was one demonstrating the reality of Congo the best. In the photo, a young Congolese man is kneeling on a street in Kinshasa. His hands are halfway raised in a prayer pose, his eyes are raised in reverence, and a rosary is dangling from his right hand. Around him, chaos runs amok, smoke bombs are fuming, and an inert body is lying nearby on the ground. Yet, the kneeling Catholic protester keeps praying while looking towards the soldiers attacking him and his fellow protester.

    What do we make of this? In a country where armed conflicts have directly and indirectly caused the deaths of millions, where countless people have been internally displaced, and thousands of others have fled to neighbouring countries, surrendering to the very possibility of death is an act of hope, a triumph of life and freedom over death and repression.

    The current political instability in Congo is no longer a question confined within the binary of stability and security against democratisation and political liberalisation. As of now, the most pertinent question is whether the Congolese people will finally have a say in the determination of their political future. For the time being, it is most likely that an ongoing confrontation between the Congolese government and the CLC will continue to erode Kabila's legitimacy, or whatever is left of it.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

    Is DR Congo still a democracy?

    UpFront

    Is DR Congo still a democracy?


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