The past three days has seen the worst protests in Kinshasa since the controversial elections three years ago. The violence was sparked by a proposed electoral law that links the electoral process to the census, which could delay national elections by several years and illegally prolong President Kabila’s stay in power (he has to step down in 2016).
Dozens of protesters have been killed (42, according to FIDH, 20 according to HRW) by the police and presidential guard units, and the government briefly shut down internet, social media, and SMS services across the whole country. Violent protests were also reported in the eastern cities of Bukavu and Goma. While violence continued in Goma on Thursday, the streets of Kinshasa were calmer and internet service (albeit very slow) had been re-established. The senate met today, but President Kengo wa Dondo said he would give the Political, Administrative, and Legal Commission more time to debate the law before voting tomorrow. Will this just be like protests in 2011 and 2012, when despite blatantly rigged elections, protests fizzled out in the face of severe repression? (An essay I wrote about this here). While I think this round of protests is indeed likely to dwindle, there are different dynamics afoot.
1. Splits within the elite: This is the big change in the past year––not the street protests, but divisions among elites. As Jack Goldstone, an expert on mass mobilization, suggests: “It is a truism that
fiscally and militarily sound states that enjoy the support of united elites are largely
invulnerable to revolution from below.”
That unity now appears to be cracking. The main reason for that is Kabila’s term limits. Members of his presidential coalition (including stalwarts like Pierre Lumbi, Olivier Kamitatu, Christophe Lutundula, and Kengo wa Dondo) have all come out publicly against constitutional revisions. More importantly, the governor of mineral-rich Katanga, Moise Katumbi, seems to be parting ways with Kabila, and could rally Katangan heavyweights like Kyungu wa Kumwanza behind him. That would strike Kabila, who is from Katanga, at the heart of his political and military power base, and poses a security threat unlike any of the current opposition members.
Kabila has now backed off a constitutional change to his term limits and seems to be opting for a strategie de glissement (i.e. playing for time). That was the purpose of the proposed electoral law. It now remains to be seen whether this approach––in other words, giving Kabila a few more years in power––will provoke similar internal dissent as constitutional revisions.
2. A changing protest dynamic: In 2011, the protests centered around UDPS strongholds in Kinshasa––Limete and Masina, in particular. This time, the UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi––who has been in medical treatment in Brussels for months––waited until Tuesday afternoon to weigh in on the protests, and his secretary-general in Kinshasa did not initially throw his weight behind protests organized by other opposition parties.
Instead, students are now playing a much more important role than in 2011. The epicenter of the protests has been at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), which has been stormed by presidential guards and police. There are over 30,000 students at the university, and hundreds of thousands of students across the country. In Bukavu, too, university students were at the forefront of demonstrations organized yesterday. In the past, the political fervor of university campuses has often been tempered when student bodies have been co-opted by political elites. This time that seems to be different.
In general, the protests seems to be more decentralized, lacking one single leader or political organization. Some have also remarked that the relative absence of Tshisekedi and the rise of easterners such as Moise Katumbi and Vital Kamerhe has papered over ethnic tensions that sometimes divide protestors.
The protests also appear to be more targeted: Protesters have attacked Transco buses, which were purchased by the government, looted the office of the head of Kabila’s PPRDD party, Evariste Boshab, and were beginning an operation called “Toyebi Ndako” (We Know Your House”) that aimed at picketing the houses of MP belonging to Kabila’s coalition. Of course, some of the protests also degenerated into looting.
3. The rise of social media: There is a reason why the government shut down internet and social media across the country. Smart phone ownership has been exploding in the Congo. In the past days, we have seen pictures and videos emerge from across the country of police and presidential guard members firing on protesters. Some of the pictures can be found on this opposition site (warning: some are graphic), others are posted with the hashtag #telema (“stand up”) on Twitter. An audio recording of police orders to fire on students has been posted (analysts Jean-Jacques Wondo argues this is police General Célestin Kanyama), and YouTube has been very active (a compilation of amateur videos here).
So where will this end? It is still unclear. The senate may decide to water down the electoral law, and even take out the controversial language linking the electoral process to the census. Or the backers of the bill could try to steamroll the current version through senate with bribes and threats.In any case, the fate of the protests lies both in the streets as well as in the political stratosphere.