Congolese Youth Fight Against President’s Attempt to Extend Term Limits
With more than 40 dead after protests against Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to stay in power, Friends of the Congo representatives and a Congolese youth organizer discuss what’s at stake for the country’s citizens
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Last month, massive protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted because citizens are saying no to the government’s attempt to prolong the country’s current president Joseph Kabila’s stay in power. Constitutionally, he’s reached his term limit after serving two five-year terms, and according to Human Rights Watch, 40 protesters were killed during said protests. And they’re even accusing security forces of using excessive force and then trying to remove evidence.
Now joining us in-studio to unpack all of this are our guests.
To my right is Maurice Carney. He is the executive director and cofounder of Friends of the Congo.
Sitting next to him is Kambale Musavuli. He is a student coordinator and spokesperson for Friends of the Congo.
And finally is our guest Ben Kabamba. He is the coordinator for Youth for a New Society, a youth-led grassroots organization in the Congo. And he’s also an administrator for FILIMBI, a coalition of youth organizations throughout the country.
Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.
I should say that Ben is a French speaker, so he’s going to force me to have to live up to my last name and practice my French here.
Alright. So let’s first start off with you, Kambale. And I want to talk about how the government has been trying to prolong President Kabila’s stay in power. Can you just describe for us what’s actually going on?
KAMBALE MUSAVULI, NATIONAL SPOKESPERSON, FRIENDS OF THE CONGO: Yes. The Congolese are hoping that by 2016, President Kabila would not be in power, that will be the end of his second term. But for the past couple of years, they’ve been trying to find a way to constitutionally extend his terms. The Congolese Constitution says that the Congolese president can only have two terms, so in 2016 that will be the end. So they’ve played with a few tactics. One that we saw unfold which has caused the mass protest was to introduce a section in the electoral law that will make the census of the country happen before the presidential election. So if we are in 2015 and we have a census, it will take too long, way past 2016, to have the presidential election, which will extend, de facto, his presidency. So, because of that, we’ve seen people demonstrating that. And, of course, they want to continue to do so, because he does want to latch on to power. He does not want to leave in 2016. And the Congolese people are rising up and saying that they want a new leadership in the country that serves the interest of the people.
DESVARIEUX: Maurice, you just came back from the Congo, and you did this fact-finding mission as I stated in the introduction. Forty people have died. This is according to Human Rights Watch. What did you find when you went out there?
MAURICE CARNEY, EXEC. DIR. AND COFOUNDER, FRIENDS OF THE CONGO: Well, we had the opportunity to visit the hospitals. Those students who participated in the demonstrations were injured. So we went and talked to them and delivered supplies to them.
We saw that the story, the narrative that the government was telling, they were sharing that the people who were involved in the protests were burning and looting and then didn’t mention anything at all about those who had died. There’s this cover of propaganda, let’s say, in the country. If you’re living in the Congo and watching television, you wouldn’t know anything about the people who had died. You wouldn’t know anything about the security forces who had fired up on these innocent students.
So we witnessed those who had been injured as a result of live bullets being fired upon them by the security forces. We saw the bravery and the courage of the students, those who were injured, and even those on the campuses. They’re like, we’re ready to get back in the streets to defend democracy, we’re ready to get back in the streets to assure that there’s a peaceful transition in the country and that we as Congolese have the opportunity to choose another leader that can serve our interests.
So what we witnessed was a situation where you had young people, civil society, who were high in spirits in spite of the repressive environment, saw young people who were communicating with each other in spite of the fact that the government shut down the internet, shutdown SMS, shutdown social media. The youth were still in communication with each other organizing, hosting forums, mobilizing, and being very vigilant. So those are some of what we observed during our stay.
DESVARIEUX: And we have the pleasure of having one of those youth members with us. Ben, I’m going to switch over French.
[SUBTITLED TRANSL.] What happened with your organization? You were arrested, correct? What happened?
BEN KABAMBA, PRESIDENT, YOUTH FOR A NEW SOCIETY [SUBTITLED TRANSL.]: What happened is that this is one of the consequences of an oppressed society over the course of many years and the people. We have the impression that slavery still exists in the Congo under this current government. When they wanted to extend the president’s term, for example, we refused. We couldn’t take it any longer, and the anger is still there. So we planned to go to the parliament.
We sent directly to the People’s House. We’re the people. We wanted to go to Parliament in order to keep the parliamentarians from voting on the law. When we arrived, the military and police were there, and they kept us from moving forward. We marched. And during the March, the security forces fired on the people. When we saw that people were dying, we changed our strategy and decided that we were going to shut down the entire city. We mobilized throughout the city. And the city was chaotic. People were killed. They fired into the crowd. The presidential guard fired into the crowd. The police fired into the crowd. And the number of dead was a lot more than 42. But we were are going with 42 because right now those are the numbers that have been officially reported by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
But the government is speaking of only 11 dead while the NGOs have counted 42 dead. We are in the process of getting more accurate estimates. The community has become very engaged. There were a lot of demonstrations–mothers, youth, children. All were in the streets. Three days in certain neighborhoods, four days in others, and five days in others. There were large demonstrations at the University of Kinshasa especially.
DESVARIEUX: How many people?
KABAMBA: The university has more than 30,000 students, and most of them participated in the march. And now the students are victims of a terrible repression on the part of the government. The government is targeting students. Students are disappearing, and they have arrested students. And they are doing the same thing that drove us into the streets. Therefore, we will soon be back in the streets.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Perfect. Let’s talk a bit about the response in the Diaspora, ’cause these images were so powerful of people who were shot. And what was the Diaspora’s response, Kambale, to seeing these type of images?
MUSAVULI: Yeah. And this was similar to 2011 election, where the Congolese Diaspora took to the streets around the world when the result of the elections declare Kabila as the winner. At the time, the Congolese Diaspora did not think that actually Kabila won in 2011.
So this time it was the same. It was that we saw the cry of our brothers or sisters, our family members, who were saying that look at what is actually happening in the country. And we start mobilizing, using a hashtag. The hashtag was TELEMA. Youth organized to create even a website called TELEMA.org, where they were sharing information. And then, with the hashtag, people could put pictures or information that we were receiving in case of our organization. Since we were in communication with people on the ground, we will get the information–before even the media published–to share with the international community. Some journalists started following how the Diaspora was mobilizing. Even now in the aftermath of the protest, the Diaspora has been collecting funds to support those who are wounded on the ground and sending the money to FILIMBI, so that they can actually help those who are wounded. So it was key on the inside and on the outside to be able to communicate with each other.
This is the reason also why the government shut off social media. When they shut off the internet and they turn it back on, they did not–they blocked Facebook and they blocked Twitter. It’s because they knew that’s how the Diaspora has been able to communicate with those on the ground. And on the ground, the youth used their cell phones to communicate. Like, what’s up [incompr.] internet connection as well to share photos and videos, and they completely shut that off so people will not be able to communicate.
So the Diaspora pressure did work. And, actually, this is the first time I’ve seen many Congolese in the Diaspora watch a live Senate debate online, because when the law, the electoral law, bill, was passed in the National Assembly, it went to the Senate. They actually had a live stream of the Senate debate. And the Diaspora was watching. I could see some messages on the TELEMA hashtag of those who were watching what they were saying.
DESVARIEUX: So they were engaged.
MUSAVULI: Very engaged into that. And they are going to continue to be engaged, because we have suffered for so long. You know, we’ve had millions of death, over 6 million Congolese dead due to the war, a government that does not represent the people. The Congolese people inside and outside of the Congo, they want a new beginning, and they want 2016 to be a mark of new change on the African continent and in the country.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. I mean, if it wasn’t for social media–and to be honest with you, if we didn’t know you guys, we probably wouldn’t know of this story, because there has just been no news about this in the Western press. But I’m sure there has been within the administration–the Obama administration let’s talk about specifically. What has been the response of the United States government? What is their role in all of this? Maurice?
CARNEY: Well, it’s important to share that this Kabila regime and Kabila himself, it’s the same Kabila that the U.S. government supported in 2006. It’s the same Kabila the U.S. government supported in 2011 when he appropriated the elections. So Kabila has had the tremendous support from the Obama administration. But as the Kambale shared, as a result of pressure from the outside, as a result of pressure inside the country, we now see the administration shifting to where the people have always been and now calling for accountability on the part of the Kabila administration.
DESVARIEUX: How do we know that’s not more than rhetoric, though?
CARNEY: Well, the special envoy to the Great Lakes region Russ Feingold and Secretary of State John Kerry, they both went to Congo in May and demanded that Kabila respect the Constitution. Even if it is rhetoric, the Congolese people, those organizing, can latch on to that rhetoric and hold the administration accountable. U.S. population can hold the administration accountable for its rhetoric. We should be rightly skeptical based on U.S. policy in the Congo. I mean, from day one, from 1884 right up [to] today, the U.S. has been on the wrong side of history in the Congo.
So the Obama administration, especially President Obama himself, whose signature legislation when he was senator was on the Congo–he passed legislation called PL109-456, Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act, where it called–the big elements in his law called for accountability for the leaders in the region, in Rwanda, in Uganda, and in the Congo.
So the administration has an opportunity to adhere to the legislation that President Obama himself passed. So we’re hoping, and with pressure, that that will happen.
Left to its own devices, as we know, the U.S. functions in terms of foreign policy, it will side with the dictators, it will side with the strongmen, it will side against the people, it will side against democracy. So there’s an opportunity here with a proper light being shone on the situation, with the proper pressure being placed on the administration from the American public, where the mobilization has taken place among the Congolese youth and the Congolese society overall for the United States to actually do the right thing.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Ben, I want to bring you back into the conversation. [SUBTITLED TRANSL.] So let’s switch back to French. What are your long-term and then short-term goals?
KABAMBA: Short-term what we want to do is, after the protests, the government depicted the young Congolese students as outlaws that are in the streets. The government arrested them under the pretext of sedition. But the government refused to show the officers that shot into the crowd. The government is well aware that people were killed. They were killed by bullets. It was the military and the police who killed them. But on TV the protesters were painted as outlaws. Those soldiers and policemen must be held accountable.
That’s why we plan to hold a press conference demanding that the government do that, that it recognize the perpetrators. If they refuse, we’ll say publicly that the government is currently killing its own citizens. We’re also conducting investigations into how many people have been killed and injured. Long-term, we hope to educate people. We’re trying to teach people in the hopes they better understand their role as in the community, as well as understand the importance of the Congolese nation in Africa at large. It’s one of the most important countries in human history in all sectors: in mining, water, even lumber. The Congo is among the most important countries.
DESVARIEUX: It’s a very rich country.
KABAMBA: It’s very, very rich, and the people should be rich. But there’s a system that was put in place that aims to suppress the population in order to keep them impoverished and alienated. So the work that we plan on doing in the long term is to help the population get an education and to elevate the nation’s position. Because when the Congo finally rises, and when all of Africa finally rises, all of humanity will rise. There’s poverty everywhere in the world, but the Congo has plenty to give to those who are poor and who want to live in the Congo.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. That’s really well said. I think we’re going to end this segment there. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.
MUSAVULI: Yes. Thank you.
CARNEY: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.