Wednesday, 17 February 2016

DRC: The Price of Freedom

With regards to freedom of speech, gathering, expression DRC and Turkey are almost at eye level. Words are heavy in DRC, and every journalist, political activist knows that, because of word, because of sentence, you can be sued, you can be demonized by pro-government media and you can even land in  prison. Different views are not tolerated. Critical minds are suppressed, intimidated. And it is not just going backwards, it is sliding backwards very very fast. 

In the last years especially, the free expression of thought has been made more difficult and newspapers, TV stations, journalists or authors critical of the government are subjected to financial and other penalties. By now, more journalists are incarcerated in DRC than in China. Arbitrary arrest and trials are common place. UN reports more than 100 political prisoners in DRC in 2015 and at the eve of new legislative and presidential election, tension is high.

The country's president, Mr Joseph Kabila has changed a lot since he came to power. In the beginning, he used to talk about being all embracing. No longer. It is not secret that he wants to reform the constitution in order to seek a third term and the opposition, worried about this concentration of power, is determined to do whatever it takes to bend Kabila, in respecting the constitution and leave power at the end of the year.

The opposition has multiplied calls for civic and calm protests around the country. Yesterday, a nationwide strike was observed, which it seems to be successful story for the opposition;  however, the success of the ''stand against Kabila'' will depend on its ability to find support among the rural population; many think nothing will change when they take the streets, no because of fear, but because of this collective depression, apathy. People feel demoralized, they lose the interests in politics and retreat to their private lives. The reason for the countrywide depression lies in the fundamentally changed view of the state, opposition and politics.

Over 10 ten years now, people in DRC become used to same rhetoric, the same circle of violence, and nothing happens. In 2006, several opposition, political activists, young and old took the streets, protesting Kabila's fraught electoral victory over Mr Jean Pierre Bemba. Many people were detained, imprisoned and killed. In 2011, the same circle repeated itself with Mr Etienne Tshisekedi. Every time, the West/US talked of sanctions but still nothing happened. And in a very hypocritical sense of ''déjá vu'', in 2016, the Obama's administration, through Obama's envoy in DRC, Thomas Perriello, Washington sings the lullaby of sanctions against Kabila and his cheerleaders, in any event that legislative and presidential election is not held this year.

The West/EU, it seems, wants stable regimes, and therefore it is not emphasizing human rights; they have become postponable issues( the case in point is: Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, where the West and US have turned a complete blind eye to human rights abuses, authoritarian regime for a facade of stability) But these are not postponable issues. There can be no stability without democracy.

For an amateur politician like Mr Kabila, who seems to have learned the lessons of heavy-handed government from old African dictators: Yoweri Museveni, Robert Mugabe, Eduardo Santos, Pierre Nkurunziza, civic participation and giving citizens a say have always been curiosities rather than crucial parts of democracy. That’s where his reliance on the security services to quell the protests with brutal force, stems from. 

Mindful of rising doubts about him in the West, Kabila may seek friends elsewhere. Dozens of oil contracts, hydropower, farming and mining projects worth billions of dollars are in the offing. Angola wants an agreement over oil off-the coastline it shares with DRC. China wants minerals for infrastructure contract worth $12 billion. Such things may win friends and give Kabila and his economy some respite, in case of sanctions. 

But also, Kabila may be able to pivot away from Western support. Donor contributions to DRC have declined in recent years, going from 42 percent of the country budge in 2010 to 19 percent in 2015, as mineral production has increased dramatically. As last year DRC is now Africa's largest Copper and Cobalt producer, though the recent commodity slump has dampened its ambitions somewhat.

The greatest strength of the opposition nationwide strike, its rarity, will unfortunately become its greatest weakness in the future, if the opposition cannot keep the momentum in one form or another until the legislative and Presidential elections. So far, the biggest opposition party – the UDPS – seems unable to use the nationwide strike to its advantage. Kabila has heard the warning bells; Kabila could even profit from the protests if he heeds the calls for more civic participation. That alone would represent an undeniable improvement in comparison to the current situation.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist
Political Analyst/Writer
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Agence France Photo: DRC President: Joseph Kabila, at Press Conference in 2011 presidential election