Congo: Forty two killed during street protests in January

Senate quashes Kabila’s plan to extend presidency

The plan of Congo-Kinshasa’s president, Joseph Kabila, to extend his rule was met by mass protests in January. Police and military using live ammunition were deployed and 42 protesters were killed. But the mostly youthful protest movement forced parliament to retreat.

Under the current constitution, Kabila cannot stand in the elections to be held in 2016, as a president can only hold office for two periods. The regime therefore proposed a census, estimated to take several years, postponing the presidential elections, as a first step towards Kabila staying on for a third period.

Established opposition parties and students therefore planned demonstrations when the bill was being debated in the thoroughly corrupt parliament, controlled by Kabila. Mass demonstrations started in Kinshasa on January 19, when one chamber of Parliament adopted the proposal. Police and military, backed by helicopters, were deployed against the street protests, which were dominated by students and young people. Some of the fiercest clashes took place at the University of Kinshasa.

In an attempt to stop the protests, the Senate – the upper house of Parliament – amended the bill on the census, not linking it to the elections. Opposition parties then called off the demonstrations, but the youth continued. They feared, rightly, that the retreat was a manoeuvre and demanded that Kabila should resign.

The demonstrations continued for four days. They quickly spread to Goma and Bukavu in Kivu in eastern Congo. Again there the police intervened very brutally, and many fled across the border to Rwanda.

It was the harsh repression that put an end to the movement. On the second day, the government closed down the Internet and blocked text messages. Mass arrests were carried out, and three weeks later over 300 people were still detained.

According to Human Rights organisations, a total of 42 people were killed by police and elite soldiers. But there are also other sources saying that over one hundred demonstrators were killed.

What will happen with Kabila?

That the Senate suddenly backed off was an unexpected success.

"This is the first time that you’ve seen popular pressure in the streets of Kinshasa having a dramatic impact on policy," Jason Stearns, a Congo expert at the Rift Valley Institute told Reuters.

It remains to be seen how Kabila and his supporters will proceed. Politicians are well aware of what happened to Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso last October when he tried to extend his mandate and was toppled by mass protests. At the same time, Congolese activists in Sweden emphasise that Kabila has stronger backing than Compaoré from multinationals and governments internationally.

Joseph Kabila took over when his father, Laurent, was assassinated in 2001. Since then he has "won" elections in 2006 and 2011, through various forms of electoral fraud. The imperialist powers who are plundering the country of raw materials – the US, China and European countries – have seen Kabila as a solid partner and accepted the bogus election results. Imperialism, multinational mining companies such as Glencore, Freeport McMoRan and AngloGold and governments in the region, who participated in the wars in Congo, are constantly engaged in a battle for Congo’s riches.

Plan A for the regime is that Kabila shall remain. Meanwhile, several established politicians have tried to launch themselves as alternatives. Not least is Katanga’s wealthy governor, Moïse Katumbi, who is presented in the international media as a stable successor. Katumbi has profiled himself as the multinational mining companies’ candidate, at the same time as he tried to win local support by criticising the government’s violence against demonstrators. But the majority of the population lack a real alternative that can stop wars and the plundering of the country. The opposition parties are corrupt undemocratic apparatus.

"I don’t see this as being [an indication of] massive support for the opposition…I think it’s more [one of] massive opposition to Kabila staying in power", commented a former director of OSISA, an NGO working for democratic elections in Southern Africa.

"Dangerously volatile"

The International Crisis Group – a Brussels-based analysis group of former politicians – describes Congo-Kinshasa (official name Democratic Republic of Congo) as "dangerously volatile." According to the UN index, the country is the world’s second least developed, only Niger is worse. The average income is $390 per year – one dollar and six cents per day. Since it is an average, many people have much less.

Mass poverty explains how militias can recruit soldiers, a large part of them children. These militias are then linked to, and funded through, exploitation, trafficking and smuggling of commodities. Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt and produces more copper than any other country in Africa. It also has large reserves of gold, uranium and hundreds of other minerals. 95 percent of export earnings come from raw materials.

The multinationals have driven a shameless campaign against the government’s proposals for modest increases in companies’ taxes to the state. After threats of reduced investments, the government has backed down. The state’s share in new projects is now proposed to be 10 percent, down from 30 in the original proposal. The fee for the gold mines stops at six per cent. The country’s government remains in the hands of those who exploit minerals, with China playing an increasingly important role.

Militias and regional power struggle

The latest plans for disarming the many militias, primarily in eastern Congo, have almost completely stalled. The plans were drawn up after the rebel army, M23, was defeated militarily in November 2013. It was seen as an important victory, since only one year earlier, M23 had threatened to march from the east and take Kinshasa. However, the agreement signed in February 2014 (PSCF, Peace and Security Agreement) has completely failed.

M23 has not been demobilised as planned. As in previous cases, the ex-combatants ended up in camps with no future and sometimes starvation conditions, ending up with many being enlisted in other armed groups.

The Congolese army, FARDC, and the UN force, MONUSC, are both seen by much of the population as corrupt and incapable. Generals in the state army, supposed to stop the violence, are themselves responsible for massacres and rape.

After the M23, the next target was the Hutu militia, FDLR, originating from Rwanda. MONUSC was equipped with an extra "intervention brigade" for these battles. But the brigade has barely been used in the one and a half years that have passed. A planned offensive was recently postponed.

The FARDC prioritised fighting another militia, the ADF. Alongside this, the conflict between MONUSC and Kinshasa has developed further, with the government openly calling for the UN to reduce its military strength in the country – today at 22,000 soldiers.

That nothing happened against the FDLR has reinforced the regional tensions. Rwanda has twice invaded Congo to try to crush the FDLR and is very critical of both the FARC and MONUSC. Rwanda is backed by the governments of Uganda and Kenya. Other regional powers such as South Africa, Angola and Zimbawe support Kabila’s government.

Basically, these conflicts are battles over the spoils and transport routes for Congo’s natural resources. South Africa has also signed a major contract for hydropower from the Congo river.

The demonstrations in January could be the start of an escalating opposition from below, without ties to established parties and with the youth at its head. A new movement is a prerequisite for breaking with imperialist exploitation and the constant wars that have killed up to eight million people in the last 20 years. In such a mass movement, the demand for nationalisation of all natural resources and the building of a revolutionary socialist party are decisive ingredients.

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February 2015