Millions of lives were lost in the wars that ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between 1996 and 2003. The formal end of war did not put an end to the chronic instability, exploitation and deadly armed conflict driven by local warlords, multinational corporations and political elites in neighbouring states.
Elections are scheduled for 23 December. But it is doubtful that incumbent president, Joseph Kabila will let go of the power he has held since his father’s assassination in 2001.
In January the military ruthlessly cracked down on peaceful protesters outside a Catholic church. At least five people died. Repression has continued since then. Young people have been detained, and in some cases killed.
Youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji, 32, has been abducted and detained on three occasions. He was tortured and beaten each time. New Frame spoke to Kalonji in the safety of Ghana. Prior to the interview he had been been in hiding for four months in the DRC.
Kalonji is a tall man with a full Afro and a beard. He spoke in French through a translator.
Kalonji stressed that “We are not allowed to organise....because we have a dictator who has not been able to organise elections for years”. He was particularly concerned about the young activists who have disappeared. “Luckily for some, you hear their stories," he says referring to the likes of Christian Lumu Lukusa, a youth activist who has been detained since 22 November 2017. "Many of them, you'll never even find out their names. In 2015, when they tried to change the Constitution, many youths had disappeared and they found a mass grave in Kinshasa of more than 200 bodies … They said it was … dead babies from the hospital, but we know that’s propaganda. They commit crimes against humanity, but the media doesn’t cover it.”
A harrowing history of oppression
The Congo was subject to an extraordinarily brutal form of colonialism, and oppression has continued after independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. The first prime minister Patrice Lumumba was removed by a violent US-backed coup, and executed. Mobutu Sese Seko became president and held power for 32 years.
The massively corrupt autocrat was overthrown by Laurent Kabila in 1997, during which time the country spiralled deeper into a turbulent civil war. Kabila’s son, Joseph, 29 at the time, was elected as his successor in 2006.
There is a treasure trove of mineral wealth beneath the soil of the DRC, including copper and cobalt, for which demand is likely to increase significantly with new technological advancements, including electric vehicles.
Kalonji lamented that in most of the country’s rebel-riddled regions, natural resources are exploited for export. The extraction of raw materials from the Congo has a long and brutal history. In the late 1800s Belgium’s King Leopold II sought to enrich himself via the rubber business. Massive atrocities were committed against the Congolese to feed his insatiable appetite for the country's profit-generating resources.
Today the enrichment of some continues to be achieved at the cost of the devastation of the majority. According to a recent Amnesty International report, armed groups and government forces in the east of the country “continued to target civilians and engage in the illegal exploitation of natural resources with impunity”.
In August, Kabila, now 47, announced he would step down. In September he promised that the country would hold elections on 23 December after having successfully evaded them since 2015 for various reasons, including a supposed lack of money. He said the country would finance the elections itself to avoid ‘blackmail’ by foreign powers.
In October, the country’s parliament passed a law extending generous privileges to former presidents, some of which include housing, a diplomatic passport and a pension.
It is likely that Kabila is stepping down reluctantly because of international pressure, according to Kalonji. “There would have been a lot of tension if he had put his name forward as a candidate, and the possibility of war,” he said.
Kabila picked 57-year-old Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to stand as a candidate for his ruling coalition. Many consider Shadary a puppet who Kabila hopes to put in power to serve his interests.
A former interior minister, Shadary is under sanctions from the European Union for his alleged role in the use of live ammunition against protesters, and other human rights violations.
“There is a lot of torture and massacres. They don’t want you to be too critical of Kabila or Africans will really know what is going on in the country,” said Kalonji.
“The regime is scared of the media because they are trying to paint this picture that they are trying their best to do what’s in the best interest of the people. Thanks to media coverage, they don’t kill arrested youths. If they did, people would ask what happened.
“They torture them, but at least we know they are alive and … we can then start gradually working on how to get them out,” said the translator. Kalonji added that “99% of the time, you don’t know why you are arrested, your family doesn’t know where you are … You don’t know why you are arrested until the trial, and you usually don’t have representation."
Kalonji was first arrested in December 2015 for agitating for electoral change. “I was abducted [on campus] and put in a dungeon, and they tortured me for a week. I was not allowed to shower for a month. For three months, no one knew where I was until my family went on national television and said if I am dead, then they must produce a body,” he said.
He was detained at the Military Detection of Anti-Patriotic Activities camp. “An agent told me that even the man who is in charge of the military camp cannot free me because he got a specific instruction from the president saying Kalonji must be held here,” he said.
Youth groups called for Kalonji to either be charged or released. He was eventually released in August 2016 along with 40 other political prisoners. His story was never made public because he didn’t represent the interests of the current regime, he said.
Kalonji was arrested again twice in 2017, as was his lawyer. After various international civil organisations and activists got involved, both were released. Kalonji was not arrested for long on some occasions because of international pressure, but when he was imprisoned, he was tortured.
During his arrest in July 2017, the whereabouts of his detention place were known because his brother secretly followed the military convoy that nabbed him.
Kalonji was last arrested in September 2017 while he was on his way to go clean a clinic. He had become a thorn in the side of the authorities, and he ran when military personnel tried to stop him. They immediately arrested him.
With his first arrest, the military stripped him, left him in his underwear and lined a string of other dissidents up in the streets of Kinshasa. He was tortured and beaten with an object that hit his right knee like lightning bolts. He could not walk comfortably for some time.
“They put him underground in a dungeon in only his underwear where there was no air, just smoke, and he couldn’t breathe so he started screaming out from the dungeon for somebody to help him and they just left him there for four days,” said an unflinching translator.
He was also made to sleep in the communal toilet with a small window. Cells were often cramped, with a cell for 25 people housing up to 125 inmates.
“When people would come they would use the bathroom whichever way they wanted and we were sleeping right there. We had to use the plastic bottles to pee or shit, we had no beds so we slept on the floor, and people were sleeping on top of each other,” he said.
Kalonji said he couldn’t use the bathroom or eat because of the stench and for three months, he was subjected to continuous questioning.
Kalonji questions why some military personnel speak English in the French-speaking country and questions where the DRC gets the money and the guns in a country where the average person makes $300 (just more than R4 000) a year.
Today, Kalonji lives in hiding and there are only a handful of people who know where he lives. The translator said this is because there are people who might also be infiltrated within his own group who may mistakenly mention where he lives. Through a clenched jaw, Kalonji answers tersely when asked about his family.
“We know that at any point, his life can be in danger,” said his translator.
After a pregnant pause, Kalonji explained with a deep frown that he still does not understand why he is a threat, but he knows that the youth want a change of system.
“The one time he was being tortured and what came from that is that he basically couldn’t be bought … that whatever ideals he was fighting for, no matter what they proposed to him as a solution, he fundamentally wanted change, not necessarily to be bought off so they see him as somebody who poses a threat to the regime and place because he is not somebody who can be convinced otherwise,” said the translator.
His translator told New Frame that Kalonji represents a threat because he is considered by the regime as one of the most radical voices of the youth.
“Because he has been arrested and tortured, the youth tend to revere him because he has given his body his mind, to the movement, sacrificed his life … where members of his family who raised him passed away and he couldn’t attend the funerals because he was arrested,” she said.
Kalonji said his imprisonment taught him about more ideals worth fighting for.
“In order for you to get the truth, you have to either be in the regime or in prison. For people in these jail cells, death is knocking at their door so they are coming out with the truth and are willing to share the truth with anyone who is coming in who has a possibility of coming out,” he said quietly.
Kalonji, who is also a co-ordinator at Quatrième Voie (Fourth Way), a youth citizen movement, is gradually making his way back into the community without fear of arrest, but for now he is focused more on grassroots mobilisation.
“We don’t have electricity majority of the time in DRC, so when they turn off the lights, we turn on the minds of the people by having them watch these documentaries of leaders and create these debates within communities so they understand they have a huge responsibility to change the conditions that they are living in – usually in hiding,” he said.
According to reports from Reporters Without Borders, journalists are at a constant risk. This is expected to worsen during the build-up to elections.
As recently as September, radio host and journalist Hassan Murhabazi went “missing” after talking on his show about Kabila’s intended successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Reporters Without Borders’ Africa desk called on DRC authorities to find him.
Al Jazeera later reported that he was found in “a very weak state”, with Reporters Without Borders confirming that he had been kidnapped.
Kalonji said Congolese people want a change of government and leaders who serve their interests. He said they are fatigued by the endless war and the conditions of the country.
“They have never had peace … so until the people of the DRC get to vote for a leader that represents their interests, they will continue to live in fear without the ability to mobilise,” said Kalonji.