One year ago, on December 15, 2015 in the capital Kinshasa, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila’s security forces kidnapped youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji, the coordinator of “Quatrième Voie” (the Fourth Way in English) and “Il Est Temps” (The Time is Now). Kalonji was detained for 134 days during which time he was held in a hole and tortured. He did not know whether he would live or die.
Youth leaders inside and outside of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) quickly mobilized to call attention to the capture and disappearance of Kalonji. After months of pressure, in the wake of rumors of his death, the government finally produced Kalonji and transferred him from the personal prison of Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (ANR in French) to the general prison of Makala. When he arrived at Makala, he joined fellow youth activists who had been imprisoned for almost a year. They were all eventually released during Spring and Summer of 2016.
Kalonji’s case represents the crux of what is Kabila greatest challenge: courageous, educated, Congolese youth who are willing to put their lives on the line to fundamentally transform the DRC. Jean-Marie Kalonji is only 29 years old, works as a human rights activist and holds a degree in International Law from Université Libre de Kinshasa. He was part of the January 2015 #Telema uprisings that openly challenged the attempt by Kabila to extend his stay in power via a change in the electoral law.
At that time, human rights groups allege that security forces killed 42 people and injured and arrested hundreds. Friends of the Congo visited a number of the injured youth at the hospital of the University of Kinshasa. The youth were riddled with bullets. One young woman had a bullet wound in her groin and a young man had a bullet penetrate his back and exited through his chest. Despite the fact that they were suffering from serious injuries, these young people were resolute about getting back in the streets, once healed, so they could continue pressuring President Kabila to step down.
Although respect for the constitution is a critical aim of the youth and others in civil society, it is not their entire pursuit. Most Congolese do not know what a constitution is, what is in it and certainly did not read its tenets before voting for it in 2006. What people know is that there was an agreement for President Kabila to leave on a particular date and he is refusing to relinquish power. The Congolese people have suffered under his regime from negligence, disdain, contempt, corruption and the usual coterie of horrid social ills that leave the DRC at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.
Jean-Marie Kalonji and a significant segment of Congolese youth believe that Kabila was imposed on them, first by a war of aggression by Congo’s neighbors, and subsequently through policies from Europe and the United States. When Joseph Kabila stole the 2011 elections and still received the backing of Western nations, it sent a signal that they were complicit in the continued suffering of the Congolese people. When the-then United States Ambassador to the DR Congo, James Entwistle, announced on February 15, 2012, that the US would endorse the stolen elections, it sent a clear signal to the Congolese people that they would have to contend with the tyrannical regime for yet another half decade, backed by internationally legitimacy.
The path forward for many Congolese youth is clear. They want to be free from tyranny more than the Kabila regime wants to repress them and deprive them from living life fully. Although there is much ado about sanctions and pressure from the European Union and the United States, the youth do not hold out hope for an external solution. They see the ultimate solution coming from their own agency as social justice advocates and an informed Congolese citizenry who seek to fundamentally and radically transform their society.
Should Washington or London seek to bring support, young people are clear the policy of supporting tyrants in the region must end. US support of authoritarian regimes in Rwanda and Uganda has undermined democracy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Representative Ed Royce’s letter to President Obama should inspire a fundamental change in US policy not only towards Rwanda but other “friendly tyrants” that the US support in Africa.
In the Congo, the youth are prepared for a sustained civil disobedience undertaking to cripple and ultimately remove an oppressive system that not only kills them but also squelches their aspirations and hopes for a dignified life.
Ultimately, it is through the agency of the Congolese youth and their vision for a new society, a new Congo that lasting change will happen. The youth have been engaged in a beautiful and sublime struggle for peace, justice and human dignity that will not only have an impact on a region encircled by strongmen but it will reverberate throughout the entire African continent.