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Congolese youth look to chart a new path in the heart of Africa

December 23, 2016

by Kambale Musavuli

One year ago. on Dec. 15, 2015, in the capital city of Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila’s security forces kidnapped youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji, coordinator of Quatrième Voie (The Fourth Way in English) and Il Est Temps (The Time Is Now). Mr. Kalonji was incommunicado for 134 days, during which time he was held in a hole and tortured. He did not know whether he would live or die.

A protester is nabbed on Dec. 19, the day President Kabila was supposed to step down, by military police in Goma in mineral-rich Eastern Congo, where most of more than 6 million people have been killed as Congo’s great wealth is plundered. Congolese resisting Kabila’s unconstitutional effort to cling to power beyond his term are up against government forces backed by the U.S. and other Western powers shooting live ammunition at them. – Photo: Al-Jazeera

Youth leaders inside and outside of the Democratic Republic of the Congo quickly mobilized to call attention to the capture and disappearance of Mr. Kalonji. After months of pressure, in the wake of rumors of his death, the government finally produced Mr. Kalonji and transferred him from the personal prison of Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (ANR in French) to the general prison of Makala.

When he arrived at the Makala prison, he joined fellow youth activists who had been imprisoned for almost a year. Both he and the other youth prisoners were ultimately released during the spring and summer of 2016.

Mr. Kalonji’s case represents the crux of the biggest challenge that president Kabila faces – courageous, educated, Congolese youth who are willing to put their lives on the line to fundamentally transform the socio-political landscape of the Congo.

Jean-Marie Kalonji, a 29-year-old human rights activist, holds a degree in International Law from Université Libre de Kinshasa (ULK). He was part of the January 2015 #Telema uprisings that reversed the attempt by President Kabila to extend his stay in power via an electoral law that would require a census before the holding of elections.

According to human rights groups, the Kabila regime’s security forces killed 42 people and injured and arrested hundreds. Friends of the Congo visited a number of the injured youth at the hospital of the University of Kinshasa.

The youth were riddled with bullets. One young woman had a bullet wound in her groin and a young man had a bullet penetrate his back and exited through his chest. Despite the fact that they were suffering from serious injuries, these youth were resolute about getting back in the streets, once healed, so they could pressure President Kabila to step down on Dec. 19 per the country’s Constitution.

Mr. Kalonji’s case represents the crux of the biggest challenge that president Kabila faces – courageous, educated, Congolese youth who are willing to put their lives on the line to fundamentally transform the socio-political landscape of the Congo.

Although respect for the Constitution is a critical aim of the youth and others in civil society, it is not their entire pursuit. Most Congolese do not know what is in the Constitution and certainly did not read its tenets before voting for it in 2006. Some do not know what a Constitution is.

What people know is that there was an agreement for President Kabila to leave on a particular date and he is refusing to relinquish power. The Congolese people have suffered under his regime from negligence, disdain, contempt, corruption and the usual coterie of horrid social ills that leave Congo at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

Jean-Marie Kalonji and a significant segment of Congolese youth believe that Kabila was imposed on them, first by a war of aggression by Congo’s neighbors and subsequently by policies from Europe and the United States. When Joseph Kabila appropriated the 2011 elections and still received the backing of Western nations, it sent a signal that they were complicit in the continued suffering of the Congolese people.

A young protester, shot with real bullets, bravely stays on the street with his comrades. Another victim lies on the ground behind him. – Photo: Reuters

When then United States Ambassador to the DR Congo James Entwistle announced on Feb. 15, 2012, the U.S. endorsement of the stolen elections, it sent a clear signal to the Congolese people that they would have to contend with the tyrannical regime for yet another half-decade backed by international legitimacy.

The path forward for many Congolese youth is clear. They want to be free from tyranny more than the Kabila regime wants to repress them and deprive them of their God-given life pursuits.

Although there is much ado about sanctions and pressure from the European Union and the United States, youth like Jean Marie Kalonji do not hold out hope for an external solution. They see the ultimate solution coming from their own agency as social justice advocates and an informed Congolese citizenry who seek to fundamentally and radically transform their society.

Should Washington or London seek to bring support, the youth are clear that the policy of supporting tyrants in the region must end. U.S. support of authoritarian regimes such as Rwanda and Uganda has undermined democracy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Rep. Ed Royce’s letter to President Obama should inspire a fundamental change in U.S. policy not only towards Rwanda but other “friendly tyrants” that the U.S. supports in Africa.

The path forward for many Congolese youth is clear. They want to be free from tyranny more than the Kabila regime wants to repress them and deprive them of their God-given life pursuits.

In the Congo, the youth are prepared for a sustained civil disobedience undertaking to cripple and ultimately remove an oppressive system that not only kills them but also squelches their aspirations and hopes for a dignified life.

Ultimately, it is through the agency of the Congolese youth and their vision for a new society that lasting change in a new Congo will happen. The youth have been engaged in a beautiful and sublime struggle for peace, justice and human dignity that will not only have an impact on a region encircled by strongmen but it will reverberate throughout the entire African continent.

Courageous youth intensify anti-dictatorship protests

On Monday, Dec. 19, just before midnight, Congolese youth intensified their courageous stance for peace, justice and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They descended into the streets beating pans, blowing whistles and chanting to signal the departure of Joseph Kabila.

This providential date of Dec. 19 was the last day Joseph Kabila was to serve as president of the DRC per the country’s Constitution. Unfortunately, President Kabila has demonstrated that he is determined to remain in power by any means necessary, including ordering his security forces to execute innocent civilians.

Peacekeepers patrol the streets of Kinshasa during demonstrations against President Kabila’ refusal to step down at the end of his term. Human rights groups and the U.N. say they have evidence that 26 people were killed on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 50 injured and, in recent days, as many as 600 arrested. – Photo: Thomas Mukoya, Reuters

Leading up to Dec. 19, the Kabila regime has disappeared youth, arrested and driven political opponents into exile, deployed police and military throughout the country among the civilian population, shut down media and on Sunday night blocked social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. On Tuesday, 26 lives were lost in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi alone. The numbers killed, injured and jailed throughout the country are still being verified.

In spite of the increased repressive measures, the population, especially the youth, are determined to rid themselves of a system and a regime that has demonstrated little respect for the country’s laws and great disdain for the people. Kabila’s government has delivered little in regard to employment, health, education and security, especially in the Beni territory, where the population are victims of incessant lethal attacks and assassinations.

Due to what the Congolese people face daily, the youth are resolute about bringing about fundamental change in the Congo. Their aim is not merely to rid themselves of the Kabila regime and the feckless political class but to create a new political culture where leaders prioritize the needs and aspirations of the people over their pecuniary personal interests and those of external powers.

Dec. 19 was the end of Joseph Kabila’s constitutional mandate, but the date also served as a seminal moment in the youth social justice push in the country. The youth no longer recognize Joseph Kabila as president of the DRC. The Badibanga government promulgated by Mr. Kabila has no legitimacy whatsoever among the population, particularly the youth. In fact, a key segment of the youth is calling for a robust resistance movement, grounded in non-violent, disruptive, civil disobedience and direct actions.

Join in solidarity with the youth who are undertaking a sublime and dignified struggle for lasting change in the heart of Africa.

Take four actions right now to support the Congolese youth

  1. Make a financial contribution to help sustain the youth’s ongoing actions inside the Congo.
  2. Update your social media profile(s) and share images and stories from youth inside the country by using #Telema.
  3. Encourage your family, friends, loved ones and others in your network to support the Congo youth movement.
  4. Appeal to your organization(s) to send a solidarity statement supporting the #Telema social justice movement in the D.R. Congo.

Kambale Musavuli, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a social entrepreneur and an international human rights advocate. He serves as the national spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo, a group that raises global consciousness about the situation in the Congo and provides support to local institutions in the Congo. He can be reached at kambale@friendsofthecongo.org.

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