Kinshasa headache

The harsh realities of resistance for a new generation in Joseph Kabila’s Congo.

Still from Kinshasa Makambo.

As Christian Lumu Lukusa, a youth leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS in French), leaves the house for the umpteenth protests in 2016 against the then fifteen-year rule of President Joseph Kabila, his mother shouts: “Lumumba died trying to free this land, and you think you will succeed?” Christian is one of the three Congolese activists followed by Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi for his documentary, Kinshasa Makambo (loosely meaning Kinshasa Headache), between 2016 and early 2017.

Christian’s mother has reason to be apprehensive about her son’s involvement in activism. After all, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the DRC, died a violent death at the hands of a conspiracy of colonialists and their Congolese allies.

A while after Hamadi stopped filming, in August 2018, Kabila finally (and to the surprise of many) announced via his Minister of information Lambert Mende that he would not run for president again; almost two years beyond his constitutional mandate.

According to the DRC’s constitution, Kabila was supposed to organize elections and relinquish power to a new president on December 20, 2016. However, he refused to give up the reins of power, using fear, intimidation, brute force and the perversion of Congo’s Constitutional Court to hold on to the presidency. Hundreds have been killed by Kabila’s security forces, several hundred jailed through arbitrary arrests, and others have been driven into exile. The Kabila regime has beefed up its security forces, expanded the intelligence network and militarized public space throughout the country, especially in the capital Kinshasa in order to secure his hold on power.

Apart from Christian, the two other male activists followed by Hamadi are: Ben Kabamba, who recently returned to the Congo from exile in the United States and Jean Marie Kalonji, released from prison after enduring eight months of torture and uncertainty about whether he would live or die. The immediate goal of the youth was to spark a mass uprising to remove Joseph Kabila from power if he refused to step down by December 20, 2016.

Kinshasa Makambo unfolds in Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa. It is a mega-city with an estimated population of 11 million inhabitants. While following the youth leaders up-close with camera in-hand, Hamadi not only captures the dangerous protest environment that the activists have to navigate but he also provides a glimpse into the dilapidated garbage-filled streets lined by open trench sewers that make routine daily movement and living difficult at best. Hamadi at great risk to himself embeds with the three youth leaders during secret meetings, preparations for demonstrations, and while they are in the midst of protests dodging live bullets and teargas from Congo’s security forces.

In January 2015, the Congolese youth rose up in a spontaneous outburst to resist an electoral law that would require a census before organizing the 2016 elections, hence delaying the elections by at least four years. Since these 2015 uprisings, the Kabila regime has systematically cracked down on youth in Kinshasa and elsewhere in the Congo. Human Rights Watch reported that the regime has gone as far as recruiting former M23 rebels and giving them shoot-to-kill orders against unarmed demonstrators in Kinshasa. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner’s latest report on political repression in the DRC that documents killings and human rights violations by the security forces; the right to peaceful assembly has been severely restricted. The UNHRC report document 47 killings by security forces during 2017, which included women and children. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “the systematic suppression of demonstrations, including through the use of disproportionate force, is a serious breach of international human rights law and the laws of the DRC.

In addition to the repressive and violent conditions created by Kabila’s security forces, Hamadi provides some keen insights into the human and organizational challenges faced by the Congolese youth. Without exception, the youth family members either counsel them to abandon their protests or curtail their desires to descend into the streets. He brings to the fore the incredible courage and fortitude demonstrated by Ben, Jean Marie and Christian as they confront the Kabila regime.

Whether intentional or not Hamadi reveals some of the cleavages that plague the protestors, whether it was the generational gap between the older Etienne Tshisekedi (who died during filming) of UDPS and the youth, or tactical differences between those in civil society and political parties. In addition, the youth delve into intense debates about methods of resistance—whether to use violent or non-violent means to respond to the violence of Kabila’s security forces. Also, the efficacy of social media activism is brought into question by activist Christian in one of the exchanges among the youth. (“You are not going to change the regime by Facebook.”)

In spite of the critique and sense of betrayal from the youth about Tshisekedi’s tactics, until he died, at 84, he still represented the moral authority of the opposition. At the same, that he was still the major leader of the opposition at such an advanced age, provide a glimpse into the crisis of leadership among Congo’s political class in general and the opposition in particular. It is in part, this absence of political leaders who truly embody the aspirations and interests of the masses that has enabled Kabila to maintain his hold on power. One only has to look to key Tshisekedi comrades like Joseph Olenghankoy and Bruno Tshibala, who were quickly coopted by Kabila soon after Tshisekedi’s death in 2017 and are now part of Kabila’s Common Front for the Congo (FCC in French), the so-called electoral coalition.

A shortcoming of the film, which the filmmaker himself acknowledged in a recent interview is the lack of female representation among the protagonists. Also, Hamadi could have provided some historical background of the political environment and personal background of the three youth leaders. For example, in the case of Ben who was one of the key organizers of the March 15, 2015 conference in Kinshasa and was repressed by the Kabila government, resulting in his fleeing into exile and the arrests of two of his comrades, Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala. This is valuable information that would help to contextualize Ben’s return to Kinshasa and the role he has played in the overall youth movement in the Congo.

Kinshasa Makambo introduces the more radical elements of Congo’s social justice struggle to a global audience. To the extent that the struggle has been presented to the world, it is usually by individuals who appear comfortable with imperialism and the neoliberal order. Hamadi offers up the radical underbelly of Congo’s social justice movement that is anti-imperialist and critical of the established neoliberal order.

Kinshasa Makambo also reveals the weakness of the Congolese youth movement and its inability to mobilize the masses of Congolese for radical change. This point is best captured in an exchange between Ben and Jean Marie when Ben makes a proposal, which Jean Marie characterizes as superficial. Jean Marie attempts to convince Ben that the only way they are going to succeed is to mobilize the people in the streets. The youth ultimately failed to mobilize the people to unseat Kabila at the end of his constitutional mandate in December 2016. By the end of the film, Ben returns to exile and Christian is snatched up by Kabila’s security forces and has been incarcerated since November 2017.

In Kinshasa Makambo, Dieudo Hamadi elevates the agency of the Congolese youth—both technically by not using a narrator and in content—struggling to fulfill the ideals and promises for the Congo that were articulated by Patrice Lumumba over a half century ago of a free and liberated Congo. It is a welcomed lens through which Congo can be viewed by the rest of the world.

Further Reading