/ 30 January 2015

DRC protests brew anger and grief

Deadly force: Police opened fire to disperse about 30 000 demonstrators
Deadly force: Police opened fire to disperse about 30 000 demonstrators

Arms crossed and hands on shoulders, Hortense Basila let out a moan that rose from deep inside and filled her eyes with tears. “My child!” she cried. “When will I see him again? Oh my God. May they give me my child back. My son, my Christian. We are poor people. What have we done?” 

Christian (24) was shot in the head and killed during four days of violent antigovernment protests that rocked the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last week. He had not been involved in the demonstration but had gone out to buy medicine when he was caught in the crossfire. 

Basila rose from a plastic chair under a tree in her dusty front yard and staggered forward, arms stretched wide as if pleading. A friend moved in close to console her, saying softly: “Stop crying. You told us to be united. You are a believer. Don’t lose your faith. Ask God to strengthen you.” 

The single mother slumped to the floor, her back against the wall of her three-room concrete house in the impoverished Ngiri-Ngiri neighbourhood of the capital, Kinshasa. “My child that I loved too much,” she continued to sob, speaking French. “I had 12 children but he was one of my best. He was not a politician. He was someone trying to manage his life.” 

Protests over parliamentary Bill
The nationwide unrest was sparked by a parliamentary Bill seen as a ploy to extend the rule of the DRC’s divisive president, Joseph Kabila. At least 42 people were killed by security forces, according to the International Federation of Human Rights, whereas the government put the death toll at 14 including one police officer. Panicked authorities cut off internet access for two days. 

The week of turmoil in sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country prompted some to draw parallels with last year’s revolution in Burkina Faso. But, by last Friday, the DRC’s senate appeared to bow to the protests, scrapping plans for a national census that would have made it necessary to postpone the 2016 presidential election and in effect keep Kabila in power for years. 

Senate president Léon Kengo wa Dondo said: “We have listened to the street. That is why the vote today is a historic vote.” 

Hundreds of students took to the streets to celebrate, but none of it could comfort Basila, who was still waiting to see her son’s body four days after his death. 

Another son, Luxene (19), and a friend, Bolonda Matunona (37), tried to gain access to the body at a hospital but were arrested and have not been seen since, say family members, who fear the pair will be tortured. 

Christian, an unemployed security guard and bricklayer, attended church regularly and enjoyed judo, said Basila. “He did not belong to any political party. We are poor: we plant vegetables, we sell maize and oil, and eat. We don’t know anything about politics. All he was trying to do was survive and enjoy life.” 

Last Monday Christian awoke feeling ill with hypertension. He told his grandmother he was going out to get medicine from the local chemist. As street demonstrations erupted in what is an opposition stronghold, he was hit in the head by a police bullet. Christian had been taken to a medical centre and was about to be moved to a hospital but, according to his sister, his body was then abandoned because of more police shooting. 

Basila said: “May God forgive the police officer. I can’t condemn him. I’m feeling pain. I feel in danger. I’ve lost all desire to live in my own country. The government is responsible now. I don’t have any money and my child was innocent. The government has to take care of the funeral fees.” 

Asked for her views on Kabila, she replied: “That’s not my problem. I have lost my child. All the rest is bullshit.” 

Extending term limit
Kabila (43), a former taxi driver, has been dubbed an “accidental president” after taking power in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent. He won a second five-year mandate at disputed elections in 2011 but is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term next year. 

With several African leaders nearing their term limits, notably Paul Kagame in neighbouring Rwanda, the war of attrition in this vast, mineral-rich nation is being closely watched across the continent. Congolese security forces used brutal tactics to crush dissent during and after the last election and it seems little has changed. 

Opposition MP Martin Fayulu, one of the organisers of last Monday’s demonstrations, said police had opened fire after a crowd he estimated at 30 000 refused to stop marching towards them. His shirt was stained with blood when people near him were shot. “No protester was armed but when they saw us coming, they started shooting,” he said. “A police officer warned me that they don’t want to arrest you, they want to injure you badly, or put you in a car and abuse you. I had a shirt with the name of my party on it. I removed it and wore only an undershirt.” 

Fayulu, leader of the small Commitment for Citizenship and Democracy party, believes that despite Friday’s setback in the senate, Kabila will try other methods to buy time in office, such as organising local elections and dividing opposition provinces.  

Last year Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, was forced from power after 27 years when he tried to change the Constitution to extend his mandate. 

Fayulu said: “That’s what we are aiming for. People are saying the Congolese are not like Burkina Faso but they have demonstrated. The international community needs to take the lead in putting the two sides together. The Constitution should be respected. We cannot continue to kill people.”

The United States, France and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon have called on Kabila’s government to show restraint in handling the protests and urged the presidential elections to be held on schedule.  

Last Friday, life in Kinshasa, a dilapidated tropical capital of nine-million people, returned to something like normal although armed soldiers and police crowded into pickup trucks outside the Parliament building. 

Albert Moleka, Cabinet director of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the biggest opposition party, put the week’s death toll at 48. He also believes the senate vote will not end the instability. He fears local elections will be used as an excuse to allow Kabila’s term limit to slide. “His camp doesn’t have one strategy but one objective: Kabila must stay. For how long even they don’t know.”  

The government has predicted economic growth of 10.4% this year, one of the highest rates in the world, but this has only intensified frustrations among millions of unemployed people. 

Describing the public mood, Moleka continued: “Anger. It’s a general condition. Extreme poverty, no job creation. This is the failure of the regime. If they don’t get their act together, it could be another Burkina Faso very soon. Kabila made his sprint too early; it’s a marathon, not 100m.” 

Asked whether the president would choose fight or flight in such a crisis, Moleka replied: “Two weeks ago I would have told you I think Kabila will value his own life. But after what happened this week, you have to look at how many casualties there were. I would say that 48 dead changes a lot of things; you can’t tell me 48 dead is equal to one article of the law. I think he’s going to fight to the end.” 

Government spokesperson Lambert Mende claimed that such death tolls were wildly exaggerated for political gain. “It is a game here whenever such events occur,” he said. “Opposition and NGOs take opportunities to discredit the government.” 

He denied that police had opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. “It is a lie. They died within private property that they were looting, or when the police were repelling them trying to invade the Parliament.” 

Mende denied that Kabila has ambitions to cling to power beyond next year. “It is a false accusation. President Kabila has never told me he wants to run for a third term. It’s written in the Constitution that no one can run three times. He says he will respect the Constitution. “You think we are in Burkina Faso? Kabila will end his term in 2016. That is all. He was elected for five years and that is what he will serve. People are dreaming. It is the petty politics of the opposition seeking attention.” – © Guardian News and Media 2015