DR Congo: Tensions boil over into mass student protests against Kabila

Over the last couple of days Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been rocked by a series of protests against the weak, reactionary and corrupt government of Joseph Kabila. Through mass mobilisations, the predominantly student movement has dispelled any notion of the democratic credentials of the Kabila regime and has exposed its true dictatorial nature.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations was an attempt by Kabila to extend his stay in office past the 2016 deadline. According the 2006 constitution, the president is barred from occupying office for more than two 5-year terms. Kabila’s second term is due to end in 2016. Initially the ruling coalition were in favour of amending the Constitution to allow Kabila to run for office again. Subsequently the regime changed its mind and wanted to amend the Electoral Act instead, under the pretext of conducting a census in order to compile an electoral roll.

Joseph kabilaJoseph kabilaClearly an election without an electoral roll is not democratic. The last time a census was carried out was in 1984. But this was no concern for Kabila in his previous election campaigns. Thus his proposal to conduct a census this time around was correctly seen as a manoeuvre. Kabila has had 14 years to conduct a census, but has waited until the very end of his term in office. Furthermore the regime, together with the United Nations mission in the DRC, known by the acronym MONUSCU, is planning a major military offensive against the Rwandan FDLR rebels in the East of the country. The DRC is a massive, backward country almost two-thirds the size of Western Europe. To conduct a census here with its very poor infrastructure is an enormous undertaking in the best of situations, let alone when it is mired in conflict.

Some reports suggests that a census under these conditions could take as long as four years to complete. To do so in a war zone would be almost impossible. If the regime had been successful in pushing through an amendment for a census, it would have effectively meant that Kabila had extended his stay in office for years. The problem for Kabila though was that everybody in the streets of Kinshasa saw through this farce.

Mass protests

On Monday 19 January 2015, police fired tear gas grenades and clashed with thousands of   students and youth activists at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN) who were protesting against amendments to the Electoral Act. During the previous weekend the lower house of parliament voted in favour of the amendment-act and passed it to the Senate for ‘’debate’’. This infuriated thousands of UNIKIN students who took to the streets. And the third largest party in parliament, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), called for the ‘’mass occupation of parliament.’’

Adr-congo massive brawl erupted in the city centre between demonstrators and security forces. The  Grand Market, the central market in the city, was the scene of a fierce battle between police and protesters who defended themselves with stones, bottles and other projectiles. In the district of Lemba, police opened fire with live ammunition on protesters. Soon, protests spread throughout the city. Plumes of black smoke from burning tyres were billowing into the air where army helicopters were patrolling. On the campus of UNIKIN buses were set alight. Four kilometers from there protesters blocked the roads with burning tires and makeshift barricades. Near parliament, all gatherings of people were attacked with tear gas grenades and live fire by police and presidential guard soldiers. The area around the Palais du Peuple (National Assembly) was completely cordoned off by hundreds of police and soldiers.

A student from the Higher Institute of Applied Techniques (ISTA) described the fatal shooting of one of his classmates: ‘’When we were marching toward the Palais de Peuple, the police blocked the road so we couldn’t pass. They started dispersing us by firing live bullets into the crowd. That was when one of our friends was hit and died. The Republican Guard then came and took his body away. We were all angry and started throwing rocks. Then the police and the Republican Guard started firing at us so we all started to flee.’’

Schools were deserted throughout the city. The police also barricaded the offices of the UNC and its leader, Vital Kamerhe who was once an ally of Kabila, was not allowed to leave the offices.

Thousands of kilometers away, in the eastern city of Goma, there were also reports of clashes between security forces and protesters. Tear gas was fired and Reuters reported that at least two people were hit with live ammunition. There were also demonstrations and protests in Bukavu, in South Kivu province.

On Tuesday 20 January protests continued for a second day. The regime cut off mobile internet services in Kinshasa and blocked text messaging. South Africa’s mobile telecommunication giant Vodacom confirmed that it acted under instruction from the government. The streets of the capital were patrolled by heavily armed soldiers and police. At the University of Kinshasa and in the southern part of the city students were mobilising massively. Clashes erupted in Ngaba in the south of the city. Massive crowds also occupied the road to the airport, causing mass disruption of flights. Air France latter cancelled all flights to Kinshasa. ‘’We won’t stop until they have withdrawn this law,’’ one student said. “We are tired of Kabila. He has to go!’’,  another added. Protests also erupted in Bukavu on Tuesday. On the same day youths destroyed a government building in Ngaba and made off with police weapons.  

By Wednesday 21 January the death toll after three consecutive days of protest had reached 42 people according to a report by Reuters - almost three times the number given by the government. Gunfire rang out at Kinshasa University where protesting students were shouting ‘’Kabila get out!’’. Here we can clearly see how, in the space of three days and under the hammer blows of events, the demands which started as the rejection of a piece of legislation, have been transformed into a rejection of the regime.

In another neighbourhood youths destroyed a police vehicle after they were attacked by police. Security forces again clashed with protesters in Matete and Limite neighbourhoods. In the district of Ndjili a police mobile unit was destroyed by students who were chanting slogans against the notorious Kinshasa police chief, General Celestin Kanyama. There were also witness reports that the presidential guard opened fire in a ward of Mama Yemo hospital in Kinshasa and injured three people.

Demonstrations were held in cities and towns across the country, including Bukavu, Bunia, Uvira, Lubumbashi and Mbandaka as the momentum of the protests shifted dramatically to the East of the country. In Goma a mass demonstration erupted to demand the release of 12 protesters who were arrested on Tuesday. According to several witnesses on the site protesters barricaded roads and suffered a severe crackdown by the security forces who carried out arbitrary arrests of university and high school students. In the neighbouring city of Bukavu students erected barricades on the national highway that leads from Independence Square to the Higher Institute of Medical Services in the city centre. The police attacked the protesters with tear gas and the protesters responded by attacking and ransacking the police station.

For the entire week banks, schools and many businesses were closed in Kinshasa. The only area of the city which had not been hit by the protests is the Gombe district where Kabila has his residence and where most government offices and embassies are located. In this posh neighbourhood, which is an entirely different world to the squalid conditions in the rest of the city, things seemed fairly calm and restive.  

Kabila clinging to power

Kabila was installed as president by army generals and corrupt politicians after his father, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001. In two successive elections in 2006 and 2011 he was returned to office in elections which were characterized by open vote rigging and heavy fraud.

The current situation can be traced back to September 2014 when rumours began to circulate in Kinshasa that Kabila was looking for ways to extend his stay in office. These rumours soon became fact when Kabila loyalists began campaigning for another term in office.  On 14 September 2014  there were clashes in Kinshasa, although on a smaller scale than now. Then, in December 2014 Kabila announced the formation of a new government which was clearly an attempt to broaden his political base ahead of the current constitutional crisis. Through bribery he brought members from two opposition parties into his government including Evariste Boshab of the People’s Party for the Reconstruction and Democracy who has subsequently been agitating openly for a constitutional amendment to allow Kabila to stand for a third term.

Capitalist nightmare

In one of those instances of irony of which history is so full, these protests coincided with the 54th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s anti-colonial hero and first prime minister. At the same time that the weak capitalist leaders were paying lip service to Lumumba while being in the pocket of Chinese and American capitalists, the student movement has completely unmasked the true nature of these people. The central government is particularly weak and is being kept in place through a network of deals, arrangements, patronage, bribery and corruption involving local tribal leaders, regional powers and ultimately the big (and not so big) imperial powers of China, America, Australia and South Africa.

It is these powers, not Kabila, which ultimately decide the fate of the millions of Congolese people. Sometimes these powers cooperate when the benefit is mutual. But for the most part there are all kind of struggles and power politics involved, including using rival armed groups as proxies for the continued looting of this mineral rich country. In fact it is completely incorrect to speak of the ‘’sovereign integrity’’ of this tragic land.  After 55 years of nominal ‘’independence’’, the country is much more under the jackboot of imperialism than ever before.

The demand for democratic rights in itself is of course reason enough for popular uprisings. Over the last year the manipulation of the law to keep unpopular leaders in office have been the trigger for mass movements and even revolutions in many African countries, particularly in the West of the continent. The DRC is no exception. Similar conditions create similar results.  But these protests are in the last analysis a direct result of the dire living conditions of the masses. In the scattered reports which have come out of the protests there are numerous reports of economic demands like employment and an end to poverty in such a potentially rich country.

Despite its natural resources the country remains one of the poorest in the world. According to the World Bank, the country has more than 80 million hectares of arable land and over 1100 minerals and precious metals. But decades of brutal dictatorship under Mobutu and the systematic looting of its resources by rival imperialist groups have plunged the country into an abyss of abject poverty and backwardness. The country ranks second to last on the UN’s Development Index. The per capita income of US$220 per year is among the lowest in the world. More than two million people are internally displaced after years of wars and destruction. Sexual violence rates are the highest in the world. To add insult to injury, after the 2008 world economic meltdown, the regime and the World Bank imposed a ‘’restrictive monetary policy’’ and ‘’fiscal discipline’’, i.e., vicious austerity measures on people who are already living in the dire poverty. In this way, the poorest people in the world had to pay for the crisis of capitalism.

Role of the students

drc-protestThe students have been the main force behind the present protests. The epicentre of the protests is the University of Kinshasa, followed by other universities in Goma and Bukavu. In a country where the trade union movement is very weak due to the enormous backwardness of the country and decades of brutal repression by the Mobutu regime, the universities are very important places to organize against the regime.

But the movement of the students lacks a clear revolutionary programme based on the interests of the students, workers, poor peasants and other oppressed layers in society. The result is that some reactionary, tribal, pre-capitalist and capitalist figures of the opposition can attach themselves to the movement for their own selfish interests. For example, three days into the protests, all of a sudden some reactionary figures and organisations like Étienne Tshisekedi (who is in Brussels!), the European Union, the US State Department and other opposition figures began to speak out against the regime and were hypocritically calling for an end to ‘’violence’’ and respect for the ‘’rule of law’’. In fact, it is no longer in the interests of Western Imperialism for Kabila to extend his stay in office since he has been openly leaning towards China over the last period. Therefore the danger is that in the absence of a revolutionary programme, progressive movements such as this can easily be hijacked by reactionary elements..    

The regime buckles under pressure

Despite all the hardships, killings, mass arrests and attacks by the police and the army which took place, the regime still could not put an end to the protests. This points firstly to the weakness of the government and secondly, to the fact that the masses had lost their fear for the Kabila regime. This was confirmed on Wednesday when the government showed signs of strain. The interior minister suddenly announced that the controversial bill was only a ‘’draft’’ and was subject to change. There were briefly rumours that top generals were about to ditch Kabila, but this was quickly denied.

In the heat of the events massive cracks began to emerge in the regime. There have been significant splits, including opposition coming from Kabila’s home province of the mineral rich Katanga province. There, the governor, Moise Katumbi, has distanced himself from Kabila. Kabila also faced dissent from within his own ruling coalition where powerful figures like Kengo wa Dondo and Christophe Lutundula also distanced themselves from the changes to the Electoral Act.  

On Thursday, the streets of Kinshasa were calmer and internet access was available, although there were still clashes in Goma. The Senate, which was meeting to discuss the controversial Bill, decided to postpone voting on it until Friday 23 January.

Then, in a dramatic turn of events on Friday, under the threat of a countrywide popular uprising, the Senate buckled under pressure and amended the Electoral Bill by dropping the controversial Clause 8 which would have required a census to be held before the elections in 2016. ‘’We have discarded the census and identification so that we can move towards good elections in peace and so we can respect the constitutional timetable and our laws. We have listened to the streets. That is why the vote today is an historic vote’’, said Senate president Leon Kengo in a live televised address. He also conceded that the previous clause would have ‘’exceeded the timeframe prescribed by the constitution’’. Furthermore, the Senate enshrined the constitutional election period of 2016 into law. The Senate rules now require the compilation of an electoral roll based on a collection of geographic data. A census will be held after the elections.

This turn of events is a major blow for Kabila and shows the weakness of the regime. It is also an outright victory for the protesters. The Congolese people, led by the heroic students are making their voices heard loud and clear. The biggest conquest is that the masses have experienced their strength. This movement in the heart of central Africa has joined the inspiring revolutionary movements in West Africa which have shaken the region to its core. This is a lightning flash illuminating the way forward for the Congolese revolution. On its own, and within the artificial boundaries of the DRC there no solution for the plight of the people of DR Congo. Genuine emancipation from imperialism, hunger, homelessness and poverty can only come through socialist revolution on a regional and ultimately on a continent-wide basis. The major problems of the people of Africa can only begin to be solved on the basis of an All African Union of Socialist Republics and the struggle for the global overthrow of capitalism.