DRC: the story of a time bomb waiting to explode


After several days of violent demonstrations, the dictates of everyday life re-imposed themselves in Kinshasa: the traffic slowly built up again and businesses reopened their shutters.

But the tension in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is no less palpable: police officers are patrolling the main streets of the city, ready to disperse any small groups attempting to regather.

Gunshots were reportedly heard at the University of Kinshasa when security forces stormed the campus in a crackdown on students calling for Kabila to "get out".

The decision to block internet and text messaging services, to stymie the coordination of protests, and to interrupt the broadcasting of Radio France Internationale (RFI), heightened the tensions, and most of the schools in Kinshasa remained closed.

There is still controversy over the number of deaths: the authorities have only acknowledged five victims whilst a Congolese human rights organisation reported 28 deaths and other sources set the figure at around 40.

Protests also broke out in other parts of the country. In Goma, police used tear gas to break up a demonstration of around a hundred students. Mbandaka, in Equateur, and Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, were the scenes of peaceful demonstrations against the new electoral law.

The uncontrollable violence that broke out at certain demonstrations, with groups of young people playing cat and mouse with the police and looting businesses, not only alarmed the authorities but also shook the opposition, which had very little, if any hold over the rioters, and no security.

The opposition deputy Clément Kanku appealed to Kinshasans not to engage in acts of vandalism, and insisted that it was time the government listened to the voice of the people.

The European Union and MONUSCO expressed concern over the risk of destabilisation in the country and the archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo called on the Congolese authorities and political leaders "not to kills their fellow citizens".

The prelate reiterated his condemnation of the electoral bill being considered by the Senate.

If passed, the law would require that a census be conducted before presidential and legislative elections can be held, a process that could take years and would allow President Joseph Kabila to remain in office beyond the end of his term in 2016.

[Editor’s note: On Sunday, MPs agreed to remove a contentious provision in the proposed law that required the completion of a vast census before the 2016 election.]


An untimely political manoeuvre

That the reaction came as a surprise, no one could credibly claim.

For months now, the plans to extend President Kabila’s rule have not only been rousing discontent among the opposition, they have also been stirring division among the Presidential Majority.

There has been no shortage of warnings from key members of the ruling coalition, and the intelligence services had cautioned that the slightest spark could trigger an explosion of public outrage.

The announcement of a probable "shift" in the election date sufficed.

Although the force of the explosion is hardly surprising, it begs the question, why such discontent, such a strong desire for change, when the current ruler has probably done more than any other, since independence, to reconstruct and modernise the country?

There has, indeed, been a communication deficit, a lack of charisma, a lack of eloquence.

But the fact remains that the glorious growth figures, the oft-cited macroeconomic indicators, have not been able to camouflage the growing inequalities, the arrogance of the nouveaux riches who have nothing to envy the predators of days gone by.

In some respects, the Congo of today is reminiscent of the France of Marie Antoinette: Louis XVI was not the worst of kings and people lived somewhat better under his reign.

But revolutions do not break out at the bottom of the abyss, in the darkest hour of war and misery when survival is the only imperative.

They break out when the masses, their heads barely out of the water, discover that those governing them live in outrageous luxury and have accumulated wealth beyond all reason.

In Congo too, progress has been made, albeit very slow, but it has widened inequalities rather than narrowing them; the feeling of poverty, the sense of exclusion, have been heightened, especially among the young people who have studied, at great sacrifice, yet still find themselves without work or prospects.

With its ten million inhabitants facing new taxes and regulations before being given a chance to lift themselves out of poverty, Kinshasa, a city in transition, is a time bomb waiting to explode.

The regime, responding to public frustrations, asked for a little more time, and the street has given its reply.


This article is a combination of two texts initially published on Colette Braeckman’s blog.