By Francine Mukwaya, UK Representative, Friends of the Congo
On Monday, January 19th, Congolese citizens rose up to contest the latest maneuver by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to prolong President Joseph Kabila’s stay in power. According to Congo’s constitution, the president can only serve two five-year terms and Joseph Kabila’s second five-year term ends on December 19, 2016.
Throughout 2014, supporters of Kabila floated the idea of amending the constitution so he could run for a third term but a fierce push back from inside (Catholic Church, civil society, and political opposition) and outside (U.S., UN, EU, Belgium and France) the DRC forced Kabila’s supporters to shelve the idea and explore other avenues for keeping their man in power. In addition to the internal and external pressures, the downfall of President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso in October 2014 sent a strong message that changing the constitution is a risky venture. Blaise Compaore was driven out of power by a popular uprising on October 31, 2014 when he tried to change the country’s constitution to remain in power.
The latest scheme devised by members of Kabila’s political party (PPRD) and Presidential Majority coalition is: to push through the Congolese parliament an electoral law that would ultimately allow Kabila to stay in power beyond 2016. Article 8 of the law makes the completion of a national census a prerequisite for holding Presidential elections. Analysts believe it would take about four years to complete the census. These four years would run beyond December 19, 2016; the date that Kabila’s second term comes to a constitutional end. Opposition figures, youth and Congolese civil society at-large strongly pushed back on this feature of the law. Nonetheless, the Congolese National Assembly passed the law on Saturday, January 17th and sent it to the Senate for passage.
Congolese opposition figures and youth descended into the streets from Monday, January 19th to Thursday, January 22nd with the aim of occupying the Senate in the capital city of Kinshasa. They were met with fierce and lethal resistance from Kabila’s security forces. Youth and opposition-led marches ensued in Goma, Bukavu and Mbandaka. The government’s clamp down was brutal. They arrested opposition figures, teargassed people in the streets, and fired live rounds of bullets into crowds. After four days of continuous demonstrations, the International Federation of Human Rights said, a total of 42 people were killed. Human Rights watch reported similar numbers claiming 36 dead and 21 by security forces.
On Friday, January 23rd, the Congolese Senate voted to remove the clause in the electoral law that would allow President Kabila to use the census as a back door rationale for remaining in power beyond 2016. The President of the Senate, Leon Kengo Wa Dondo said that it was because people went into the streets, that the Senate voted to remove the toxic article in the electoral law. He noted “we listened to the streets, that is why today’s vote was a historic one.” The amendments made by the Senate to the law then required that the law be passed on to a mixed chamber so that the Senate and National Assembly’s versions of the law could be reconciled. The pressure was increasing on the Kabila regime as the Catholic Church voiced concerns about the grave actions on the part of the Kabila regime while Western diplomats went into high gear in an attempt to calm tensions.
On Saturday, January 24th, the President of the National Assembly told the press that the Senate amendments would be accepted. On Sunday, January 25th the National Assembly voted on the law and accepted the changes made by the Senate. The population claimed a victory and the general sentiment was expressed in the Lingala phrase “Bazo Pola Bazo Ndima” in English means, they [Kabila regime] lost and have accepted their defeat.
The central matter of concern is far from resolved. The Congolese people have no doubt that Kabila wants to remain in power through whatever means necessary. Although, the people have claimed a victory, vigilance is paramount as the process unfolds, and the country moves toward the constitutionally mandated end of Joseph Kabila’s tenure as president on December 19, 2016.
A heavy price was paid last week with the loss of life. However, the veil of fear was pierced and future demonstrations are likely in order to protect the constitution, assure that Kabila leaves power per the law of the land and organize Presidential elections in 2016.
The youth movement is maturing with its savvy use of new media technologies. It is also strengthening its network inside and outside the country. The youth shared the cell phone numbers of the Senators and National Assembly members and mobilized Congolese inside and outside the DRC to call and send text messages to the members of parliament demanding that they scrap the electoral law. The usage of social media by the youth prompted the government to shut down the Internet and SMS system last week (wireless Internet, SMS and Facebook have yet to be restored). Via twitter, Congolese youth created the hashtag #Telema, a Lingala word meaning “stand up” which served as a rallying cry for young Congolese inside and outside the country. We also created a website with the same name (www.Telema.org), in order to provide support to the youth on the ground.
The people have demonstrated that the power is in their hands and not the politicians. The battle is not for or against one law or the other but rather for a new Congo, a Congo where the interests of the people are prioritized and protected by their leaders. Our fight is to have a say in the decision-making process in our country, and ultimately control and determine the affairs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.