Civil Society chairperson Thomas D’Aquin Muiti says that the first steps towards improving the DRC
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – That the Democratic Republic of Congo is still a fractured society, struggling with poverty, insecurity and state fragility, having emerged out of civil war almost a decade ago, is no secret.
But international media often fail to move past narratives of death and destruction in reporting or explaining the DRC. With the country in the spotlight as its citizens vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on Monday, allegations of fraud, logistical delays, and clashes between rival parties have come to the fore.
Little, however, has been said about how the media continues to cover the country, the role of civil society and the challenges it faces, and why the DRC – the lowest-ranked country in the UN Human Development Index – remains in the state it is.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa spoke to Thomas D’Aquin Muiti, chairperson of the North Kivu chapter of Civil Society, a DRC-based NGO, about media representation, civil society and the state of democracy in the Congo.
When the international media reports on the Democratic Republic of Congo, it usually revolves around three things: Kabila, mass rapes and armed groups. What are we missing as journalists in telling the story of this country?
Muiti: Firstly, the international media needs to realise that apart from Kabila, gender violence and armed groups, Congolese people are living.
There are Congolese who are surviving and should be treated as belonging to the large world community. Secondly, Congo does not exist without its relations and links with the surrounding countries. And thirdly, beyond the Kabilas [Joseph Kabila, the current president, and his murdered father and predecessor, Laurent Kabila], the mass rapes and armed groups, there are social actors who are trying to rebuild Congolese society.
I am not saying that we should deny the problems, [instead] it is about acknowledging that we are also survivors and right now, we are going to act, and vote for Kabila or against him.
Is the international community to blame for this one-dimensional view of the DRC, when it is such a massively complicated story?
Muiti: I don’t think we should blame the world. From what I understand, the first steps towards improving this place should be taken by Congolese themselves.
“[Kabila] has neither promoted nor prevented civil society from existing. It is something that is beyond his mind because he cannot imagine that a civil society can exist and he would not allow for something to become a counterweight to his power“
If nothing is being done, then it means that we aren’t willing to do so. It would be a mistake to forget the effort the world has made in the DRC. I always say that there is a problem of leadership and representativeness … and of the Congolese people not taking enough pride in ourselves.
We are still too caught up with tribal issues, regional issues, ethnic issues – and this is why we remain so parochial, even restricted, by a blinkered view of the world. This is one of the major problems and the day we become open to the world, the world will be open to us and things will change for the better.
To offer an example, our wealthy elite would rather invest in Belgium, France or South Africa, rather than in this country and this is a major problem hindering our development. We cannot say that all Congolese are poor. We have rich countrymen, but they do not bring their contribution back to the country. Instead of being investors in this country they focus on the outside. And this country remains as it is.
And when you say that the media focuses on Kabila, gender violence and armed groups – consider that two out of these three things are related to insecurity – which creates a vicious cycle that would naturally scare off potential investors in building this country.
After enduring colonisation, a series of dictatorships and then two horrific wars, the DRC remains a fractured society. Is this country ready for “civil society” or does it require a strong-arm leader to unify the country first?
Muiti: An independent democracy needs the following: institutions, strong policies to stabilise these institutions, and in this particular context, we need the republican army, a police force that is civilised and a good intelligence service.
These would allow the leadership to be well set, else you would create a power base that is very fragile.
When we bring up the point made in your first question regarding Kabila, sexual violence and armed groups again we realise that a country that is poorly built with a weak administration will lead to the rise of parallel power structures, allowing things like armed groups to take charge of different areas.
This is now happening, and there are police officers leaving the force to join armed militia groups. Without institutions, administrative power remains fragile.
Has Kabila’s government allowed for the creation of a vibrant civil society?
Muiti: He has neither promoted nor prevented civil society from existing. It is something that is beyond his mind because he cannot imagine that a civil society can exist and he would not allow for something to become a counterweight to his power.
Yet Civil Society is a privileged partner in this country. We do exist. And the government has given us permission to function as a civilian organisation. This characterises the potential partnership between civil society and government. When the government has failed, it is civil society which can build schools and health centres.
Was Civil Society consulted when Kabila proposed an amendment earlier this year which would remove from the constitution a clause that a candidate needs to win a minimum of 51 per cent to avoid a runoff to the elections?
Muiti: Civil Society was not consulted and if it had been forwarded for a referendum, it would not have been allowed. In North Kivu, a petition was sent to Kinshasa, with 100,000 signatories, saying that we did not agree with the proposal. But the new law came into effect regardless since we were not part of the process.
We later did a proper analysis of the political climate and realised that Kabila had in effect put himself at a disadvantage. If the opposition unified, and produced one candidate as a challenger to Kabila, it would have meant that he could have been toppled quite easily.
But the opposition was unable to unify. Does this mean that the opposition has potentially missed an opportunity to topple Kabila?
Muiti: I can’t say that they have lost an opportunity, but yes, Kabila is now the favourite to win these elections. And again, this comes back to my original point that we have a problem with our leadership.
If opposition parties had formed a united front, they would have certainly won this election. They failed to recognise the opportunity presented to them. But it is worth mentioning that our politics are complicated, and Kabila might have even created some of these candidates running in these elections.
Finally, for someone looking into the DRC as the country holds these elections, how would you rate the level of democratic culture in your country?
Muiti: We have to consider that we have taken a step, and all journeys need a first step.
In our case, this first step was freedom of speech and this has developed and has since moved into selecting our representatives. Even though holding elections does not automatically translate into “a democracy” as such, it is however one of the markers that demonstrate we are moving towards ‘a democracy’. But there is still a fair way to go before we get “there”.
But I must add that there are many people who have been left out, especially women. If we talk about democracy and consider the representation and participation of women, then a “democracy” is still very far from reality. If we still talk about ourselves on the basis of ethnicity and tribes, rather than as Congolese citizens, and do not apply the law and allow impunity to exist, then we cannot consider ourselves a “democracy”.
I believe that we have just made the first step on a journey of a thousand steps that we still have to cross.