What is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has experienced turbulence and conflict for centuries, and most of its 85 million people remain desperately poor. Yet it is, potentially, one of the world’s richest countries, and its scientists and health professionals have achieved successes against Ebola, one of the infectious diseases the world most feared prior to Covid-19.In a conversation with AllAfrica’s Tami Hultman, Jeanine Mabunda Lioko, the first woman President of the National Assembly – outlined the challenges the country faces and what she sees as the way through them.
Her responsibilities are daunting. The weight of DRC’s troubled history hangs heavy on anyone trying to govern it. Treated as a personal plantation by King Leopold ll, beginning in the late 1880s, the region endured brutal forced labor to extract its mineral wealth for the Belgian king’s coffers. After years of uprisings and campaigns for democracy, the country became independent in 1960, but its sorrows persisted. Occupying a central strategic section of Africa nearly the size of western Europe, the DRC was used as a pawn during the Cold War. Despite vast deposits of gold, diamonds and high-demand minerals needed for mobile devices, aircraft and other modern technologies, as many as three-quarters of the population still lives on less than two dollars a day. Congo’s rivers could generate 100,000 MW of hydro-power – a potential supply exceeded only by China and Russia – yet only about 20 percent of its people, mostly in cities, have access to electricity.
In the last decade, the DRC has suffered several outbreaks of Ebola. Its most recent – the tenth – was in an area of eastern Congo that is also plagued by a long-running war. Fighting among militia groups and between militias and the army is fueled by a complex set of factors, including competition for ‘conflict minerals’. As many as six million people are estimated to have died as a result, and a similar number have been displaced. The costs of conflicts in the DRC are among the most under-covered media stories of this century.
And yet, the examples of dedicated Congolese have inspired anyone paying attention. In December 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who for decades has treated those injured in the fighting, particularly women and girls who were raped. “With this Nobel Peace Prize,” he said, “I call on the world to be a witness.”
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently paid an emotional tribute to the thousands of Congolese doctors, nurses and technical specialists who daily risked their lives battling Ebola in a war zone, as well as to the United Nations peacekeeping contingent that tries to protect them. Now, the structures and practices that defeated Ebola, including testing and contact tracing, are being deployed to combat Covid-19, which should, Tedros said, be a lesson to the world. It’s ‘a lame excuse”, he said to complain that contact tracing is too difficult, when Congolese people are doing it amid armed attacks.
Facing all those problems as head of the National Assembly, Mabunda brings the experience of serving as special representative on sexual violence for then-President Joseph Kabila. Four months after her appointment, a high-ranking Congolese general was sentenced to10 years in prison for war crimes including rape, torture, and murder – a precedent that gave human rights activists hope. After she worked to ban the recruitment of child soldiers into the DRC military, the country was removed in 2017 from the United Nations list of armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers – only the second delisting since the list was started.
Among her challenges are a divided government. She leads the legislative arm, which is dominated by her party. The country’s president, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, is from the main opposition party. Although the election results were disputed, his presidency marks the DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power. In the month since this conversation, political rivalries have sometimes burst into disputes in the Assembly, but Mabunda has continued to exhibit a calm assurance that she is in the right place at the right time.
All countries are facing enormous challenges now, and Democratic Republic of Congo has had more than its share -- floods and locusts and conflict and, in the health area, not only Covid-19 and Ebola, but also the resurgence of malaria and other diseases that are preventable in normal times. But you've also made progress, including curbing Ebola in the middle of conflict. Would you talk about how you see this moment in your country, both the problems and the possibilities?
Yes, I will focus first on Covid-19, because it is occupying every country in the world. The surprising lesson is that Africa was expected to have higher levels of infection early, and with a weak system of hospitals. But for whatever reason, in the beginning, there was more resilience in Africa. Countries took measures, perhaps partly because of past histories of epidemics, Ebola, and malaria and whatever. But I cannot speak in place of doctors.
In any case, Covid-19 creates a very big threat and a big challenge for us. If Covid-19 is a health threat in Europe or in the United States, in Africa the main threat to reducing it is that people cannot allow themselves to stay in lockdown for many months. We do live on a daily basis. Parents have to go out of the home to find food for their kids. It's very difficult - when you have so much of the population with weak purchasing power - to tell them that they have to lock down to face Covid-19. Even if we are in partial lockdown, we must have acceptable economic responses.
The world will not be the same after this.
It's true also that we must remain focused. We should not say, “Well, figures are less dramatic than expected,” because we have seen in other countries that when you undervalue the impact of Covid-19, it can rebound on you. What will be important for us is the obligation to stay vigilant, to realize that the world will not be the same after this.
We have to envision changes in our habits - habits of learning, habits of communal transport, habits of conferences and doing business. So we have to be very focused.
You have been both personally and professionally engaged in promoting the role of women. Can you say something about the role of women and young people in your country today?
I think that African women have a great role, in general, because they are the link between many stakeholders. They are at the grassroots of the communities. When, for example, we discovered that there was too much competition in price for sanitary equipment like masks, women discovered that with our printed wax fabrics, we can make masks. So we have a grassroots initiative coming from women to make masks from African fabrics, easily and less costly than throwaway masks. Men didn't think about that. We have seen that this allows people with low budget power to get access to masks. This is an initiative that is typically women-oriented.
And it is science-based as well. Studies show that if a significant number of people wear masks, even in close quarters, the rates of infection go down.
Would you comment on the role of women and young people in peacebuilding, which is important for achieving your goals.
It's a fight I have been very inspired about for many years. We have seen, for example, in the parliament, that year after year, election after election, women tried to get access to the National Assembly. It's very hard.
But when women are there, it creates more of a sense of unity. It's not as confrontational. I will give you an example. When I arrived at the office of the Parliament, we were seven members, of which two are women - one in charge of Treasury and myself as the head of the executive office of the National Assembly. People were a little bit scared to see women in these positions at first. We had real difficulty in getting dialogue with the opposition, because opposition was claiming that given the number of seats they held, they should have more seats in the executive office of the National Assembly. It was the source of many tensions, to a point where they decided to leave the National Assembly, because they were frustrated about the weight and the level of representatives of the opposition, compared to some other parties of our Coalition.
It was not an easy task to get them back. I decided not to listen to political rules or political practice. We started meeting them and explaining to them why it is good for them to be there - that it was not my goal for the executive office to show that the opposition is not there. Yes, we have 337 seats as a majority, and they have 93 seats as opposition. But these 93 seats is for me as important as the 337. By discussion and by dialogue and being patient and being able to be resilient, even if they are a little bit violent in terms of language they use, we were able to get them back in the role they have in the National Assembly. And we were able to compensate for what they considered was their loss, by giving them additional advantage; we gave them the Human Rights Commission. It's quite unusual, because usually the party in power will secure the Human Rights Commission.
I was blamed for that [by the majority coalition], but the opposition gave them the good surprise to allow the position to a young emerging woman, who is Christelle Vuanga. So she's the President of the Human Rights Commission, and she’s from the opposition. This is how women can change the narrative. We don't have to do politics like they do. We have to use our own ways and convince them that it's different, but it can also work.
Do you think those same principles that women can bring - of tolerance, of discussion, of negotiation and respect - can apply to building peace in the larger communities outside the assembly?
Yes, because most of the conflict that we've seen in eastern Congo, before it came to international awareness and Dr. Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize, at the forefront of this fight for peace you found women. Their motivation was to say, “We want peace. We want peace. We don't want our sisters to be raped again. We don't want our kids to be kidnapped to be used as child soldiers.”
Women are good peace builders; they have less ego.
That's how they work to build peace here. If soldiers come, you have women in the middle, saying, “We will not accept fighting anymore. We will not accept a dispute. We will not accept violence. We will sit and discuss an issue that makes a difference.” That's how I see that women are good peace builders. There is less ego in them. They are not there just to see whether they have more money or more weapons or more flashy cars. They are there to make sure that everybody can make a living, and all the stakeholders in the community can find a place.
Do you feel that as time goes on, your position becomes easier, it becomes easier to do what you need to do as President of the Assembly? Do people eventually accept you because of your competence and the way you work?
I would lie if I say that it's easy, because it's the first time in history that we have a woman at the head of the National Assembly. Maybe it will still be difficult, and that we will not be able to reach our goals. But, more and more, we are engaging our battles and respect comes.
And I have colleagues around me to support the executive office, to be able to deliver what we are here for - for the population of DRC. But it's true that it is not easy. If you have a different position in some issue, they will say “she's conflictual”, where they will say a man “has strong leadership”. You see! It took time to let them know that I'm not just there to make it look nice. I'm really prepared to do a serious job, and you have to take me seriously.
So after a while I think they understand that initiative, and they don't take it as too much for their ego. We can have a different point of view that is just a different of view. There is the institution of presidency. There is the institution of Justice. And there is the legislative, which is the National Assembly. So, yes, I think we are very vigilant about the principle that we have a constitution.
Sometimes it's not easy to convince even the highest level that we have to stick to the Constitution and that maybe if I have - or if MP's of the National Assembly have - a different point of view, it's not personal, it's institutional, and it's not a woman defying men, but it's saying I'm a ‘normal’ politician.
Norway decided to upgrade their diplomatic representation and establish a full embassy in DRC at the end of the year. Do you think that is an indication that the international community is taking the DRC more seriously and perhaps will pay more attention?
I hope so, because there has been a narrative about the DRC being a conflict country, being a country where women were raped, where a former president would not leave - not respect the Constitution. But out of all the African countries, we have the surprise of DRC, because we had this election; we had a peaceful change of power. It can create another kind of example in the region.
In my Bantu culture, there are examples of a ‘strong man’. If you look at Angola; if you look at Uganda; if you look at Rwanda; if you look at Burundi, you can have your own point of view about the leadership in those countries. In our culture, the culture of the leader is very strong. People were thinking that, especially DRC, we will have difficulties in going to the next step; in going to a transition of power; and in pursuing peace. Yet it has happened.
There are few changes of power in our region. There has been a change of power in Angola, but it has been among the same party members. But in DRC, a former opponent took power as president. He is surrounded by those elected in peace from the party of the former president - creating an interesting and unique coalition.
So, yes, I think that the international community will have a different look at us. It's an opportunity for us to show, as a country, that we did not change power by conflict. If you look before, we had no living president leave office. Since the sixties, you have not seen a DRC president staying alive in his own country. We had [the first Prime Minister Patrice] Lumumba assassinated . We had Mobutu [Sese Seko, who seized power in a 1960 coup] who was expelled in a violent manner. We had [President Laurent-Désiré] Kabila assassinated [in 2001]. We have only [former] President [Joseph] Kabila who is alive. That is part of the history book of DRC. It is a tremendous change of culture about the quality of power.
You have been kind to take time for this conversation. Is there anything else you would like to say?
I think that we are in a very interesting time for DRC. Coalition is not a very easy exercise. You have to be very agile. It's like a wedding, where the relationship is difficult - sometimes there is tension, and sometimes people prefer to retain tension.
But I would like to invite the people to find a world where there is no tension, where there is more community of view to serve the people of Congo, because they deserve it. I hope - I really hope - that we will be able to make a difference in terms of job creation, in terms of a bold and resilient economy, and in terms of keeping the legacy of cohesion as a nation [bordering] nine countries.
We cannot change our frontiers, and we have to live at peace with other countries. But to live at peace, we have to work. Our security forces have to be trained. They have to be staffed. They have to work to keep the peace, especially in eastern Congo, which is a very sensitive part of our country, but one of the most beautiful. This is why we have to protect it and to save it: the people, the economy, the biodiversity. Our country would not be the same without it.
So let's hope that by the exchange of political leadership, we can accomplish things for the population - so that they don't say, “Why do we have politicians? Why don't we live in peace?” They really deserve to live the dividends of peace.
And with the wealth of resources and people in the DRC, you have the potential to deliver prosperity for all.
Yes, if we are disciplined and united.