By David Kode
On Saturday 5th October, police in Democratic Republic of Congo reportedly used tear gas and armoured vehicles to break up a demonstration organised by members of the opposition, who were gathering in spite of an official ban on protest in place since 22 September.
The country is in political crisis since authorities extended the mandate of the current president, Joseph Kabila, by more than a year and a half beyond what was supposed to be the end of his last term. This subverts the country’s constitution and puts it on a path already taken by its neighbours Burundi, Congo Brazzaville and Rwanda. The implications for the trajectory of democracy in DRC are severe.
A generation of African leaders that came to power in the late 1990s and early 2000s are failing to step down, research from CIVICUS and others has highlighted. A challenge to President Kabila would be a source of hope that this trend can be reversed. An extension of his term only serves to embolden other leaders looking to cling to power.
The coming weeks leading to 19 December – when President Kabila’s mandate was due to expire - are crucial. More protests calling for a democratic transition and for President Kabila to step down are expected to take place. Security forces will almost certainly respond with violence to silence dissent, and the victims will be peaceful protesters, representatives of civil society and members of the political opposition.
The African Union must learn lessons from Burundi, take a bold stand, condemn any form of violence and call for President Kabila and members of his government to respect democracy in line with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
After all, it was the African Union that declared 2016 as the year of Human Rights. Meaningful action will increase the credibility and legitimacy of the African Union in resolving African crises and it is crucially important for African leaders, intellectuals and civil society to jointly ensure the rights of Congolese people are not violated.
Recently, 185 civil society organisations based in 33 African countries endorsed an urgent letter addressed to President Joseph Kabila urging him to respect the rights of Congolese people to assemble, associate and express themselves after protests held on 19 September were violently dispersed with deadly consequences. The protests took place when the electoral commission (CENI) missed the constitutional deadline to announce the date for the next elections.
In the aftermath of the protests, the government confirmed that 17 people, including three police officers, were killed. Civil society groups and opposition parties argued that the number of protesters killed was much higher. Four more people lost their lives as the headquarters of three opposition parties were set alight at night on 19 September.
This violent crackdown was at once the culmination of months of attacks on civil society, and a grim harbinger of rights violations to come.
CENI announced several days after this crackdown that due to technical and logistical constraints, it will not be able to organise elections in 2016. This extension, CENI argued, is to ensure that about 10 million people not currently on the country’s electoral register will are captured in the system before elections are held.
This decision was made following a national dialogue between the government and smaller opposition parties. But major opposition parties and civil society groups reject the decision and argue that it is a calculated plan to extend the mandate of President Kabila.
They have described the decision to postpone the elections as a “silent coup” on the constitution. The youth movement Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA) has led calls for change and criticised President Kabila for defying the constitution has published a picture of President Kabila online with the caption “au revoir, bye bye 19 December 2016”. Fourteen members of LUCHA were detained the week before last.
President Kabila has ruled the DRC for 15 years since taking over following the assassination of his father in 2001, and following disputed elections in 2006 and 2011.There were questions about the credibility of the election in 2011, and it was only accepted by the population after President Kabila promised to respect the constitution and step down after his mandate ends.
On 18 October 2016 a court in the DRC affirmed CENI’s decision to postpone elections due in November 2016 to April 2018.
ATTACKS ON CIVIL SOCIETY
Space for civil society in Africa often contracts in the run up to elections. CIVICUS has over the last two years monitored sustained attacks and restrictions against civil society groups, human rights defenders and members of the political opposition who express concerns over changes in the DRC’s electoral law, the need to hold elections and the extension of the mandate of President Kabila. The new CIVICUS Monitor rates civic space in the DRC as repressed.
Between 19th and 21st January 2015, dozens of protesters were killed and more than 300 were arrested. Human rights defender Christopher Ngoyi Mutamba was arrested and initially detained in a secret location for monitoring human rights violations committed during the protests. He was only released in August 2016.
Youth groups including Filimbi and LUCHA have been accused of planning insurrections and their members, including Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala, harassed, arrested and detained for lengthy periods – simply for holding peaceful gatherings and calling on the DRC authorities to respect the constitution on the issue of presidential term limits and elections.
Both activists were released in August 2016 after spending 17 months in jail but the charges of ‘association with an organisation formed to incite people to take up arms against the state’ and ‘conspiracy against the head of state’ against them remain, making them susceptible to arrests in the future.
THE AU MUST ACT
Following the recent violence, the UN expressed concerns over the use of force by the government to silence dissenting views and noted that since the protests over the proposal to extend the mandate of President Kabila began, the authorities have arrested thousands of protesters and approximately 225 protests have been repressed or prevented from taking place.
The US has imposed sanctions on two prominent members of the Kabila regime and more sanctions will follow from the European Union. Like in Burundi, sanctions, while laudable, have not achieved the desired results.
The next few months are crucial for the DRC - violence in the East persists and brutal repression of protests will not only reverse any gains made since the end of the civil war, but lead the country along the path of instability. The AU must publicly and unequivocally call on the leaders of DRC to respect democracy, condemn any form of repression against citizens, and adopt measures to prevent escalation of violence.
David Kode is a Senior Policy & Research Officer at CIVICUS' Policy and Research Unit. Prior to joining CIVICUS, he worked with UNICEF South Africa in the Office of the Deputy Representative.