A big prison

by Reagan Mwanaweka

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Rebecca Kabuo, 23, would like to finish her degree in psychology and maybe even get a doctorate. But instead of working in the peace and quiet of the University, she often finds herself in prison in Goma, a city near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her crime? She wants President Joseph Kabila to stand by the constitution and to hand power down to a legitimate successor. That should have happened during the December 2016 election, when Kabila wasn't legally allowed to be a candidate. But instead, ever since then the government has been treading water and Kabila has avoided handing over power.

Rebecca Kabuo and her fellow campaigners from the movement “Fight for Change” (Lucha) want to halt the erosion of democracy. Lucha was founded by one young woman and four men in 2012. They were enraged at the state’s failure to provide basics like electricity and water for its population. Experts argue that Congo could tap into its extensive rivers and lakes to produce enough hydroelectricity to cover its own needs and even export to other African countries.

Increasing numbers of young people from Congolese big cities have joined Lucha. They hold peaceful demonstrations, organising sit-ins in front of the offices of those in power and educating the population about their rights. “Kabila isn’t the only problem,” says Kabuo. “People need electricity, water, hospitals, good schools and universities.”

Congolese people have suffered for decades. Peace hasn’t returned to the east of the country since the Rwandan genocide back in 1994 spilled over its shared border. Goma, the capital city of the North-Kivu province, lies directly next to Rwanda. Violence has shaken up the region: Militias kill men, women and children, and whole villages are looted. The state and the U.N.’s blue helmets are not able to effectively shield the population. Investors are intimidated and fail to create businesses or jobs, leaving the majority of the population without work.

Goma’s residents could make a decent living from tourism, if only peace would return. Lake Kivu in the south and the Masisi mountains in the east, make for a picture-postcard landscape. The Virunga national park in the north, near Goma, is Africa’s oldest nature reserve. Its biodiversity is rich and it is home to endangered mountain gorillas. But few tourists show up, often put off by the prospect of local militias. As a result locals can’t profit from the wealth of nature on their doorstep. Most find it difficult to get enough food for themselves and their families or to access education for their children.

The activist Kabuo is deeply saddened that Congo numbers among the world’s poorest nations. She knows that it could be otherwise: The country’s soils are rich in gold, copper, uranium and coltan, highly sought after by the electronics industry. But when these resources are mined, it is not the population who prospers, Kabuo complains, but rather whoever is in power, whoever stifles criticism.

Police, the military and the secret services violently quell demonstrations, even peaceful events organised by church goers. “But that doesn’t frighten me anymore. I know that our country’s government is bad. We need to act,” says Kabuo, adding that they need to fight on as Congo is already “one big prison”.

Economist Patient Rafiki from the Saint Joseph University in Goma underscored a rule that applies worldwide: “Conduct good politics and then you get a good economy”. But, neither case applies in Congo. Before the latest economic crisis came along, some two years ago, the exchange rate was one US dollar to 920 Congolese francs. But now the Congolese currency has seen its value halved, with one dollar worth 1,600 francs.

“Life has become very difficult,” says a teacher from a secondary school in Goma, who declined to give his name out of fear of retaliation. He has witnessed his earnings tumble from the equivalent of around one hundred dollars to 59 dollars. Like all state employees, he gets his pay in francs but has to pay for many basic goods in dollars. Even local market sellers often ask for dollars. Once the teacher's wife went to buy charcoal and some groceries. Short of money, she came home from the market with nothing but charcoal. A few months earlier, she had bought all the essentials with their income. “I often get in debt to cover our daily needs,” says the teacher.

Market sellers are also affected because they have to pay fruit and vegetable suppliers in dollars. "I used to be able to feed my daughter and send her to school, but I can’t anymore," says Adisa Sifa. She reports that she will not get rid of her goods because buyers don’t want to pay higher prices. If she lowers the quantity or the quality, the customers get angry and leave.

In this already tough economic backdrop, the government in Kinshasa has decreed that the Schengen house will be closed. Until recently, Congolese could go there to apply for visas to travel to European Union countries. Now they have to apply for their visas at the European embassies abroad, which means making a costly journey each time.

A diplomatic conflict is ongoing between the Congo and Western powers. The European Union has put sanctions on some Congolese personalities, who it accuses of violating human rights. Belgium, formerly a colonial power in the Congo, has cut development aid. Those in power in Kinshasa speak of "European interference" in Congolese politics.

According to the economist Rafiki, the diplomatic spat will further dampen the economy. “It will lead to the closure of more than 300 agricultural cooperatives financed by Belgium, for example, and many of them depended on locals for training or helping with the harvest.”

And of course, it is mainly entrepreneurs, traders, artists and human rights activists who suffer from the lack of access to visas. Some analysts suggest that Congo is seeking to reduce links to Europe, to consolidate the position of those in the top jobs. Europe is perceived as a supporter of all those who oppose the regime. The economist Rafiki criticizes the government's strategy: "The leadership of the Congo should refrain from this showdown, because in the end, the citizens are the big losers.”

On the other hand, he argues for an economic embargo on the Congo, even though the population would be hurt in the process. "But it’s already suffering," he explains. He is convinced that by triggering a possible popular revolt, an embargo could convince the powerful to give in.

Sociologist Justin Mwanatabu of the University for Peace and Conflict Management in Goma says that the regime has failed to learn from the past. In his view, President Joseph Kabila is making similar mistakes to Mobutu Sese Seko at the end of his reign. The former dictator left behind a country with a miserable economy and a plummeting currency.

Given the harsh reality facing many Congolese, many ask why they don’t do more to challenge their leaders. Of course, fear of shooting or poverty may prevent many from taking to the streets. But, does that fully explain this reluctance to fight back? The sociologist Mwanatabu blames in part Congo’s long-standing customs: “One is afraid of the chiefs and therefore we submit to them, in spite of everything.”

And some in the country doubt if real change would follow Kabila's final departure. Would the new rulers really wipe out corruption and clean up the government? In any case, observers warn that Kabila’s political opposition also has its problems. After all, most of them hail from the current president’s circle.

When regime change comes about, Congo needs a leader from beyond the usual political circles, argues Fidel Bafilemba, an independent researcher. Activists like Rebecca Kabuo would back someone from civil society.

She, for one, has lost faith in the political class. Although the government promised elections on December 23, 2018, doubts are widespread. Similar promises were made, and broken, in 2016 and 2017. But Kabuo will continue to fight for a country that is truly democratic and fair; she and her Lucha movement remain undaunted by threats.

And this determination is new in the history of the country, says sociologist Mwanatabu. For him, this is "a good thing”. Even if not all young people share Luchas’ determination today, who knows what tomorrow will look like.

Aus dem Französischen von Caroline Härdter

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