I remember a professor at the University of Lubumbashi who, after a long conversation on the Congolese ‘state’, shared his thought on Burkina Faso and the end of Blaise Compaoré’s regime. It was November 2014 and the political atmosphere in the African Great Lakes Region had been palpably tense for a few weeks, as if the good old ‘winds of change’ were returning from a long and regrettable break. The events in Burkina Faso, combined with the various presidential elections scheduled between 2015 to 2017 across the region, gave the trip a sense of occurring during the “quiet before the storm”. As Burkinabe former President Compaoré fled his country to Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco, I thought, with a hidden but delightful interior smile, ‘could this happen to Kabila’? The Political Science professor looked at me, burst into a loud laugh and after a short pause said: “I am not exactly sure why Kabila would have to go…. It took him so many years to start building everything he’s done, if he leaves now, who will continue his work? Here in the Congo you know very well political leaders when they get a grip on power, [they] just destroy everything their predecessors have done so they can start anew and leave their own mark on the political landscape”.
I paused too, thinking he might have a point but, then, I replied in asking if it would always be possible in the Congo to bypass, ignore or brutally shut down the people’s wishes? Well, I suppose the past two days have brought me an answer, and thankfully for this world’s sad state of affairs, the answer is a loud no.
It is also, sadly, a bloody and messy no. Despite EUPOL having spent millions in reforming the national police through a complex Security Sector Reform programme in the Congo, it seems that money did not produce the expected respect for ‘due process’ and the ‘rule of law,’ given the PNC’s use of live ammunition against demonstrators (who were not all peaceful, but most certainly unarmed), killing about 40 in the skirmishes in Goma and Kinshasa. The Mayor of Goma himself, whom I met and seemed deceptively modern and open-minded, called the demonstrators ‘criminals’ and let his police clash with rioting students. The government swiftly ordered a communication ‘black out’ and ordered all companies to block Internet access and SMS signal, most likely in an attempt to prevent the documentation of police violence and impede demonstrations whose organizers have used social networks to gather support under the #Telema (‘raise up’ in Lingala) rallying cry.
Through a mix of personal memories and information from the media, I recall the widespread looting of 1991 and 1993 when the cities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kisangani among others, suddenly turned into deserted, desolated, ghostly places where revolt gave way to fear and ultimately left Mobutu in power. I think about the so hopeful Congolese people who gathered and waited patiently for the 1991 Conference Nationale Souveraine to deliver on its promises of a multi-party system and democracy, only to see, again, a triumphant Mobutu, using the opportunity to his own private advantage. I remembered the fear of the Spring of 1997 as the AFDL walked towards Kinshasa in a military move no one could believe was really happening. I remember the assassinations, the swirling inflation, the fear, and the end of an era as all the 30 year-old green symbols of Zaïre and its ‘Leopard’ vanished in the blink of an eye. I remember a Tutsi friend of my parents arriving at our home in Kinshasa, traumatized from the Rwandan genocide, and I still feel the creepy echo of war along my spine. I remember the numerous failed attempts at bringing peace and quiet in the Kivus, Ituri, and Katanga. We went from one monarch to another, from one bloodshed to another, from scandal to scandal, from deaths to more deaths. As Jason Stearns pointed out, this time it’s different: the students have taken the lead, Kabila’s PPRD is internally weakened and the Senate stepped up in amending the controversial article 8.
Oh! How many times have I heard how the Congolese don’t rise up and shine because they are too scared, have I endlessly witnessed cynical people who claim democracy isn’t for Africans, and criticized the Congo’s apathetic people and their love for nothing more than beer and lutuku. Apparently, despite bullets and brutality, they also would love to see change happen. No one can predict if this new upsurge of pro-change movement will last long enough for the country to get a chance to witness the beginning of genuine democratic turnaround and to recover from a century and a half of exploitation and war, but this past week will be remembered as those days the state listened to the people and today I am particularly proud. I am proud to be a Congolaise too.