Congo-Kinshasa: Young Congolese Look to Chart a New Path

22 December 2016
guest column

A year ago in Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila's security forces kidnapped youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji, coordinator of "Quatrième Voie" (the Fourth Way) and "Il Est Temps" (The Time is Now). For 134 days, Mr. Kalonji was held incommunicado and tortured, not knowing whether he would live or die.

Youth leaders quickly mobilized to call attention to his capture and disappearance. After months of pressure and rumours suggesting that he was dead, the government finally produced Mr. Kalonji and transferred him from the prison of Congo's National Intelligence Agency (ANR) to the general prison of Makala.

When he arrived at Makala, he joined fellow youth activists who had been there for almost a year. Both he and the others were ultimately released during the spring and summer of this year.

Mr. Kalonji's case represents the biggest challenge that President Joseph Kabila faces: courageous, educated Congolese youth who are willing to put their lives on the line to transform fundamentally the socio-political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jean-Marie Kalonji, 29, holds a degree in international law from Université Chrétienne Cardinal Malula Université. He was part of the January 2015 #Telema uprisings that reversed the attempt by President Kabila to extend his stay in power through an electoral law that would require a census before the holding of elections.

According to human rights groups, Kabila's security forces killed 42 people and injured and arrested hundreds during that uprising. Friends of the Congo visited a number of the injured youths at the hospital of the University of Kinshasa. One young woman had a bullet wound in her groin and a young man had a bullet penetrate his back and exit through his chest. Despite suffering serious injuries, these youth were resolute about getting back to the streets so they could pressure Kabila to step down this month, as the country's constitution required.

Although getting the Government to respect the Constitution is a critical aim of the youth and others in civil society, it is not their only objective. 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 even know what a Constitution is.

But what people do know is that there was an agreement for President Kabila to leave on a particular date, December 19, and that he has refused to relinquish power. The Congolese people have suffered under his regime from negligence, disdain, contempt, corruption and the usual coterie of 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 President Kabila was imposed on them, first in a war of aggression waged by Congo's neighbors and subsequently by policies dictated from Europe and the United States.

When Mr. Kabila appropriated the 2011 elections and still received the backing of Western nations, it sent a signal that they were complicit in the people's suffering. When the then United States Ambassador to the DR Congo, James Entwistle, announced in February 2012 that the US endorsed the stolen election, it sent a clear signal to people that they would have to contend with the regime for yet another five years.

Although there is debate about sanctions and other pressure from the European Union and the United States, youth like Kalonji do not hold out hope for an external solution. They see the ultimate solution being in their hands and those of an informed Congolese citizenry who seek to fundamentally and radically transform their society.

If Washington or London do give their support, the youth also want an end to Western support to the authoritarian regimes, such as those in Rwanda and Uganda, which have undermined democracy in the Great Lakes Region.

Young people are prepared for a sustained civil disobedience campaign to remove an oppressive system. Ultimately it is through their agency, and their vision for a new Congo, that lasting change will happen.

Kambale Musavuli is a Congolese 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 and provides support to institutions in the country.

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