What are you scared about, Joseph Kabila

Being a pro-democracy, nonviolent youth activist is a dangerous thing in some countries. Like in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kinshasa street scene (FredR, via Flickr CC).

On Sunday afternoon activists from Senegal’s Y’en a Marre (We’re Fed Up) movement and Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) along with several journalists and Congolese activists were detained after a press conference just outside of Kinshasa. The local NGO Filimbi invited the activists to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a series of workshops and events. The exact charges or reason for the arrests are unclear.

In DRC during the past few months, citizens have hit the streets en masse in opposition to legislative changes that call for a census before the 2016 election. Many see this as a means for President Joseph Kabila to stay in office beyond his two-term limit because it would take some time to organize a national census. Demonstrations have been violent with hundreds of arrests and more than 40 deaths.

Apparently, just the presence of the West African activists was threatening to the Kabila government. The Y’en a Marre protest movement emerged onto the scene in early 2011. The founders—consisting of youth activists led by a collective of some of Senegal’s most famous rappers and journalists—first organized protests to denounce injustice and inequality in the country. The movement gained popularity when then 85-year-old two-term president Abdoulaye Wade proposed changes to the constitution that would have ensured his success in the next elections by reducing the number of votes needed to win an election from 51 percent to 25 percent. The changes would have also established the post of vice-president, to which many claimed Wade intended to nominate his son Karim, thus creating a family dynasty. Wade responded to the massive protests by withdrawing the proposed changes, yet he moved forward with his controversial bid for a third term. Y’en a Marre and other citizen coalitions turned their energy toward defeating Wade at the ballot box. The collective used the tools they had at hand—their popularity, their microphones, and their access to the media. They took to the streets to reach out to the population by conducting community meetings and handing out flyers. They also created strategic media campaigns consisting of a series of songs, videos, and concerts, which also included a voter registration campaign and a get-out-and-vote campaign titled Ma carte mon arme (my card my weapon) and Juni Juni votes (thousands and thousands of votes).

Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) formed during the summer of 2013, to struggle against bad governance and to improve social conditions in Burkina Faso. When they formed the goal of Balai Citoyen was to struggle against the ruling party’s attempt to change the constitution to allow 27-year President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term. The name Balai Citoyen signifies the need to sweep the political scene clean. The musicians at the head of the primarily youth-led Burkinabe movement are rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams K. Their movement gained popularity in October 2014 with the citizen uprising that ultimately Campaore to resign.

There are clear similarities between Y’en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen. Both groups assert a pro-democratic and non-violent position and both call for the participation of the population to create change through protests. According to Smockey, “like the movement Y’en a Marre of Senegal, Le Balai Citoyen will be the voice to denounce bad governance.”

Y’en a Marre’s ultimate objective has been to cultivate a Nouveau Type de Senegalais (NTS), or new type of Senegalese citizen, one with a heightened sense of civic responsibility. Increasingly they assert the desire to effect continental change. While the Arab Spring left regional instability and insecurity in its wake as weapons and fighters have traveled across the Sahel, the Y’en a Marre protest movement is having a different type of regional impact as the rappers have traveled and connected with other activists across Africa. These new nonviolent, pro-democracy movements have slowly and quietly gained momentum over the past three years. According to Aliou Sane, one of Y’en a Marre’s spokespeople who is among those arrested in DRC, “The countries of West Africa all suffer from similar problems relating to governance and leadership.”

The two groups have been successful because of their direct messaging to the people but more importantly because they emphasize peaceful protest. In 2011 journalist and coordinator of the movement and also detained in DRC, Fadel Barro, stated, “we did not want the Arab Spring. We always wanted non-violence. We wanted to defeat Wade in elections, we did not want our country in flames.”

Y’en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen have always acted in accordance with the law. All of their activities in DRC have been public with activists regularly updating Facebook and tweeting their whereabouts. They made it clear that they believe in working through democratic institutions. The government of DRC therefore has nothing to fear other than the spread of ideas. The international community should press for the immediate release of these activists who have always offered an alternative to violence.


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