In the tradition of liberation theology, faith leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo called on the Congolese people to stand up (#Telema) and reclaim their country. They appealed to the population to participate in a peaceful march throughout the country on Sunday, December 31st, 2017. They instructed the people to march in their local neighborhoods while reciting bible verses and incantations. Civil society, citizens movements formations and the opposition all responded to the call from the faith leaders.
The primary demand of the faith leaders is for Joseph Kabila - who has overstayed his constitutional mandate which expired on December 19, 2016 - to declare that he will not run in the next elections. In addition, they called for the unconditional release of political prisoners, the return of exiled political figures, opening of media that have been shuttered, along with a number of other demands to ultimately ease the tense political climate.
A more radical call came from the Congolese youth, civil society and the opposition. They want Kabila to step down. They have no faith that he will organize elections and even if he does, they believe that the elections will certainly be rigged.
Sunday's march is a result of a year of frustration for the faith leaders, particularly Catholic Church leaders belonging to the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO in French). They facilitated talks between Joseph Kabila and opposition that resulted in a New Year's Eve deal on December 31, 2016. The deal gave Kabila an additional year to organize elections by December 2017. The CENCO was widely seen as the entity that prevented a clash between the Kabila regime and the Congolese people in December of 2016.
The United States under the leadership of President Barack Obama and other Western leaders had put enormous pressure on the opposition to abort a planned demonstration at the end of Kabila's term (December 19, 2016) if he did not step down. To the chagrin of many Congolese, The Obama Administration had pushed for Kabila to organize elections in 2017, even though Kabila’s term expired in December of 2016. It appears that the Obama Administration took the path of least resistance – let Kabila stay and have the next Administration deal with the issue - with less than a couple months left in Obama’s presidency.
CENCO stepped in to be the arbitrator between the opposition and the Kabila regime. However, another year has passed and Kabila refused to organize elections per the December 31, 2016 deal. Kabila spent the past year strengthening his hand by arresting certain opposition figures and buying off others. One of the major weaknesses of the Congolese political class is that it lacks any clear political ideology and can wind up on either side at any moment – opposition or majority – depending on the offer from the regime.
The Trump Administration has pursued a similar policy path to the Obama Administration. After US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley visited the Congo in October, the U.S. called for elections to be held in 2018 with Kabila remaining as President. Although the electoral commission finally published an electoral calendar that set the election date for December 2018, the people have very little faith that elections will be held and even if they are held, they will likely be rigged in favor of Kabila's presidential majority coalition.
The major regional and international bodies (United Nations, European Union, African Union and Southern African Development Community - SADC) have aligned with the December 2018 calendar putting them at odds with the masses of Congolese who want to see Kabila gone and a new electoral commission set up to organize free and fair elections, which are impossible to organize under Kabila and the current electoral commission. SADC has been a key player led by Jacob Zuma who has been a staunch supporter of Joseph Kabila, many believe in large part because of economic interest his family has in Congo. Kabila granted Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma a R100 billion oil fortune in the northeast of the Congo.
The signal these regional and continental bodies, along with the West, have sent is that as long as elections are held, they will be satisfied even if Kabila's majority coalition rigs the results and maintain the same set of actors in power. The Congo holds the distinction of having every one of its elected officials at the federal level staying in office beyond their legal mandates. Renowned Congolese medical doctor and moral voice for the Congo, Dr Denis Mukwege says, all elected institutions in the country are illegal. Lacking legitimacy among the people, the Kabila regime has ruled by fear and force. For all intents and purposes, millions of people are being held hostage by an illegal regime that has militarized public space throughout the country.
Early reports from the New Year’s eve march reinforce the nature of the repressive rule by the Kabila regime. In an attempt to prevent the march, security forces and tanks were dispatched in major cities; roadblocks were set-up; tanks blocked entrance to churches in some areas; in other areas police were stationed to prevent access to houses of worship; and some church doors were sealed and/or locked by the security forces.
For those who succeeded in making it to church, the brutality was raw and naked. Parishioners were met with tear gas fired inside the church, stun grenades, live bullets, choir boys were arrested and pastors were beaten and jailed. The brutality and massive demonstration of force against unarmed civilians left little doubt that we are dealing with a people under occupation by an illegal, illegitimate military regime. Major media outlets have reported three dead and many arrested.
Meanwhile the organizers of the march have claimed about a dozen dead, fourteen seriously injured and about 20 people arrested including two pastors and many churches ransacked and damaged. Video and photo documentation of the repression is slowly surfacing due to the fact the government issued a decree the night before to all major telecommunications operators to shut down Internet and SMS services across the country.
Faith leaders and people of conscience throughout Africa should be outraged that 80 million people in the heart of the continent are facing such depraved brutality from a regime that has surpassed its constitutional mandate and lacks legitimacy among the people. In spite of the Kabila regime’s repression and the brutality, the people are as determined as ever to rid themselves of Kabila and his accomplices. They have responded to the faith leaders’ call to take their destiny into their own hands. The New Year Eve’s events have only strengthened the resolve of the people to resist until a new order is installed in the Congo by the masses of Congolese.