President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) should no longer be in power. In December 2016, his Constitutional two-term limit ended but was extended for one year to “implement confidence-building measures and organize elections” by the end of 2017. Instead, political opposition and peaceful protests have been suppressed, culminating in violent national crackdowns at Catholic churches throughout the country, killing and wounding dozens on December 31, 2017 and January 21, 2018. With no clear indication that President Kabila will relinquish control, certain protections will continue to be flouted unless the international community intervenes. Protections at risk include peaceful assembly, expression, and worship, which are embedded within the DRC’s Constitution, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
On December 31, 2016, Catholic Church leaders and Congolese officials signed the “New Year’s Eve” agreement, meant to ensure a peaceful transition of power one year later in 2017, still beyond Kabila’s Constitutional two-term limit. It became apparent that the President had no real intention of stepping down. The National Follow-up Council (CNSA) and the electoral commission (CENI) excluded political opposition members from election meetings. In June 2017, National Bishops Conference of Congo (CENCO) called for the Congolese to “stand up” and “take [their] destiny into their own hands.” When that appeal was ignored, those bishops called for nation-wide demonstrations on December 31, 2017.
When those nation-wide peaceful protests did take place, the government met them with gunfire and arrests, first on December 31, 2017, and a few weeks later on January 21, 2018. The number of mortalities is unverified but is in the range of dozens, with even more injured or arrested, including women, children, and the elderly. What makes these attacks even more egregious is that they occurred at places of worship throughout the country. On the morning of the December 31 attack, security forces surrounded at least 134 Catholic parishes in Kinshasa, erected roadblocks, and forced the Congolese to show identification to attend church. According to witnesses, the attacks came with little warning and with little regard to who was in the crossfire. One priest in Kinshasa reported that the police fired teargas on demonstrators immediately after Mass and began firing live ammunition on Christians who were instructed to kneel and start singing hymns by demonstration leaders. A victim of the January 2018 attack included a sixteen-year-old girl who was shot from an armored vehicle at a church entrance, a twenty-four year-old woman studying to be a nun, and a man who was shot while trying to help a nun pick up a shoe that fell off while escaping teargas. The DRC responded as it has in the past: by publicly downplaying the number of casualties while temporarily cutting off internet and phone messaging services to hamper efforts to verify deaths and arrests.
All the while, President Kabila has shown little interest in protecting peaceful demonstration and worship. In the wake of the January 21 attack, Kabila held his first press conference in five years and did not answer when questioned on his intention to run for a third term. While political opposition and the right to freedom of thought, religion, assembly, and expression is protected within the DRC’s Constitution and the African Charter, Kabila is reportedly interested in “reframing the legality” around these demonstrations. The president apparently “burst out in laughter” when he saw “those who pretend[ed] to defend the constitution.”
As civil society expresses fears that Kabila is attempting to “establish a dictatorship,” the international community must assert its collective power to combat President Kabila’s crackdown on democracy. The DRC must be pressured to abide by its obligations within the African Charter, which has specific provisions that protect against arbitrary detention and ensure freedom of association and freedom of assembly. These same principles are embedded within the ICCPR, whose Preamble establishes that “freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights.” The international community should look to Belgium as an example, which enacted economic pressure by diverting twenty-five million euro worth of development initiatives within the DRC to civil society and humanitarian aid instead. For democracy in the DRC to survive, democratic leaders must tie future bilateral cooperation with free and fair elections this year.