I received an email recently from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The violences (sic) that have started at the beginning of this week have continued up to now and it is reported that five people died only yesterday. The Internet was established only today but in town there is no activity.
Communications like these force me to cast aside writer's malaise and try once again to examine events in Congo and explain the convoluted and psychotic forces operating there to interested readers.
Has President Joseph Kabila finally revealed his true colors to the world? At least 36 people, including a police officer, were killed in demonstrations against proposed changes to the constitution. The changes would require a national census before the 2016 presidential elections. Political opposition leaders say the changes were aimed at extending President Kabila's term beyond the constitutionally mandated two terms.
Kabila assumed office in in 2001, ten days after the assassination of his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Before Laurent Kabila, there was Joseph Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko) who staged a coup against President Joseph Kasavubu in 1965. Kasavubu's Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, instrumental in forging Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960, was assassinated in 1961.
Images: Mobutu's former palace dining room in Goma, now the Provincial Capitol and street scene in Goma near the palace grounds (Photos: G. Nienaber)
Whether Lumumba was directly killed by the CIA, Britain's M16, or Congolese actors aided by Belgium, the inconvenient Lumumba was eliminated. Since Mobutu, it has been difficult for Congo's leaders to stay alive, let alone retain power. It is reasonable to assume the younger Kabila's proposed census could never be completed before 2016. Congo is an impoverished nation, with no roads, and no access to remote villages in a landscape the size of Western Europe.
It was a smart move on Kabila's part to suggest the census to buy time.
The United States is expressing muted interest in the violence that has been ramping up as protests spread.
Demonstrations were held in cities across the country, including Kinshasa, Bukavu, Bunia, Goma, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka, and Uvira. In Kinshasa, protesters demonstrated on January 19, 20, and 21 near the Palais du Peuple parliament building, around the University of Kinshasa, and in Bandal, Kalamu, Kasa-vubu, Kimbanseke, Lemba, Limete, Makala, Masina, Matete, Ndjili, and Ngaba communes.
Village in Congo (Photo:G. Nienaber)
I realize the names mean nothing to readers who have never been to Congo. But names offer a sense of place to start a conversation about Congo. These are villages and cities populated with people living in a country where politicians, rebel armies, mercenaries and western interests control the world's most valuable natural resources. The Congolese have no personal wealth at all. Average income in Congo is $288 per year. Do the simple math. This is less than a dollar a day.
Human Rights Watch, and other press accounts say at least four were killed by government security forces in the Provincial Capitol of Goma. Add the five we know about from my friend's email and it as at least nine there. Then, remember this is Congo, and we will never know the true numbers. HRW documented a number of instances in which police or Republican Guard soldiers took away the bodies of those shot in an apparent attempt to remove evidence.
HRW announced on Tuesday that on January 26 the president of the human rights organization Synergie Congo Culture et Développement (Congo Culture and Development Synergy) was in the custody of Congo's national intelligence agency. Christopher Ngoyi Mutamba was involved in mobilizing public participation in demonstrations against proposed changes to the electoral law, on January 12 and during the week of January 19, in the capital, Kinshasa. He has been missing since January 21.
A State Department Press Release issued on Sunday urged Kabila to sign legislation passed by the Congolese Assembly on Friday that requires elections to be completed no later than December 2016. This would seem to mitigate the conflicts, but Kabila has not indicated that he would accept the compromise. There is still uncertainty over the timing of the elections, including whether presidential polls will be held by the end of Kabila's second five-year term next year. Protests continue at this writing and the government has blocked the Internet and social messaging forums.
After the 2006 presidential elections, HRW published an extensive report, "We Will Crush You." The report documented evidence that Kabila's was using violence and intimidation to eliminate political opposition in the country's first democratically held elections in over 40 years. After his victory, Kabila stated for all to hear that he would be "severe" in governing Congo. The reprisals were especially severe in eastern Congo, where former General Laurent Nkunda's CNDP army was leading an insurgency against Kabila's regime. I wanted to use the adjective "brutal" to describe Kabila's actions, but the report speaks for itself.
Kabila was not just focused on the CNDP. One could argue justification of reprisals against an insurgency, no matter how deep grass roots sympathy anchored the rebellion.
But the truth is another matter. Congolese state security forces killed an estimated 500 people and detained about 1,000 more, many of whom were tortured, after Joseph Kabila took office in 2006, according to reports from Human Rights Watch and others. The victims were political opponents.
The question is why HRW so systematically went after the CNDP in 2006 and its reincarnation, the M23, in 2012? During both insurgencies, press reports said that it was Congolese troops committing many if not most of the atrocities that are a by-product of war. Even the Oscar nominated movie, Virunga, which was filmed only with the cooperation of the Kabila government, skips over the root causes of the conflict. Let's remember the 60,000 who vanished from an IDP camp, documented in the movie, without a blink from the filmmakers. Had the IDP issue been exposed or pursued during filming, it is certain the documentary would never have been made. Kabila would have "crushed" it. Many were fleeing the Congo army.
So now, we find HRW and the U.S. State Department crying crocodile tears over Kabila's actions. Like the calculated actions of a psychopath, Kabila had telegraphed his intentions while he was carefully grooming the international press, NGOs, and filmmakers to ignore his pathological behavior against the opposition. Kabila successfully triangulated his relationships in order to justify vilification of anyone who successfully protested his regime.
Most people in the West just don't care. We are not that "into" Congo. Only when there is a gruesome war, punctuated by rape and atrocity, does it become interesting. Only when the piercing screams of women and children penetrate the silence do we tune in to brief and incomplete news reports. We believe the psychopath because he has gathered a cheerleading international press corps to circle the palace, while the United Nations functions as the defacto palace guard.
Will the Congolese face another violent year, as Kabila makes good on his 2006 promise to "crush" opposition? Or, will Kabila sign the new legislation? A dictator ruling over a democracy is a dangerous entity. It offers nothing but cognitive dissonance. Let the people decide.