Rumble in the Jungle: From the January 2015 riots to the #FrontCitoyen2016

Le dernier regard de Lumumba_Sapinart_cropped

‘Le Dernier Regard de Lumuba’, by Sapin

This is a guest blog written by Catherina Wilson, PhD student in the Connecting in Times of Duress research project.

One could argue that 2015 was for Sub-Saharan Africa what 2011 was for the North African countries: springtime. A couple of weeks ago Jeune Afrique published an article entitled 2015 in Africa viewed by Twitter: the 15 hashtags that marked the year. The article makes reference to uprisings in different, especially Francophone, African countries: #BurundiCoup, #BurkinaCoup, #Sassoufit vs #SassOui (Congo-Brazzaville), #LwiliVotes (Burkina again). To my surprise no reference was made to the uprisings in DR Congo in January 2015 and yet something important happened back then: the people stood up. In a recent article and blog, De Goede writes about the symbolism of Lumumba, (missed) opportunities of redemption and genuine independence. Are the uprisings in Kinshasa a first step to the redemption and independence that she describes? Or are they another chapter of the Congo Masquerade, “situations of disguise and concealment where actors make a show of being what they are not, where they can be both themselves and their opposites?”[1]

It has been a year since the Congolese Parliament tried to pass a census bill that would have de facto extended president Kabila’s time in office. It has been a year since the Congolese population, in response to this and to surprise of many, stood up and took it to the streets. Popular hashtags during the uprising were #Telema and #Simama, respectively ‘Stand Up’ in Lingala and Swahili. The events of October 2014 in Burkina Faso had inspired many and on 19 January 2015 riots erupted at different locations in DR Congo, most notably in Kinshasa and Goma. Officially twenty-seven people lost their lives[2], unofficial sources talk about higher death tolls. Next to the lost souls, what must be remembered is the people’s determination and victory: Their voices were heard and the law was not amended.

It has been a year since the uprising and the central African giant is rumbling. The real impact of what started in January 2015 is still to be seen. As from that date the country has not stood still. In 2015 two civil society movements came to light, Filimbi (‘whistle’) in Kinshasa and La Lucha (‘Lutte pour le Changement’) in Goma. In March they held a press conference where members of other civil movements in Francophone Africa, most notably Senegal’s “Y’en a marre” and Burkina’s “Balai Citoyen” were invited. The Congolese government denounced the subversive nature of the event and arrested its participants. The guests from abroad were freed after a couple of days, their Congolese counterparts were less lucky, the civil militants Yves Makwambala and Fred Bauma, most notably, have been incarcerated since without trial.

In July 2015, the government split up the country into twenty-six provinces. Even if long due the splitting is precipitated, allowing Kabila to get rid of adversaries and to install allies, at least for the time being. Within the Congolese political class there has been a lot of rumbling too. Seven politicians stepped out of the Presidential majority to form the G7 in September.[3] They were later joined by Moïse Katumbi, Katanga’s governor, who stepped out of Kabila’s PPRD party. Katumbi has turned into one of Kabila’s biggest contenders. The head of the CENI, the organ that organizes the elections, resigned in October due to health reasons, leaving the commission acephalous just over a year from the elections. More recently (political and civil) opposition leaders gathered on the symbolic Ile de Gorée in Senegal in mid-December and a week later in Brussels, on December 19, to give birth to the Front Citoyen 2016. The date of the launch was symbolic, by December 19, 2016 Congo should have a new president. #FrontCitoyen2016 is an initiative of the civil movement Filimbi, whose leaders live in exile, but which enjoys the endorsement of some of the opposition ‘tenors’ (including Katumbi). The Front Citoyen has two goals: (1) that elections will be held within the stipulated time frame in the Constitution and (2) that the Constitution is respected with regards to the number of mandates.[4] The movement was launched in Kinshasa a couple of weeks after it was launched in Brussels.

Lumumba’s “death,” writes De Goede, “has become almost like an original sin of independent Congo from which people seek redemption ever since.” Since Independence, the Congolese have been faced with several redemptory moments and at every reprisal the image of Lumumba emerges. The wheel of time has turned and the Congolese are facing yet another opportunity of redemption. And again, they are using  “the imagery of Lumumba to claim the agency to establish democracy, good governance and [maybe] the true, genuine freedom that Lumumba represents.” In the image below and in the image at the top, two artists make reference to the iconic character. On his Facebook page, the Congolese rap artist Lexxus Legal posts a picture of himself together with his Burkinabé counterpart Smockey (one of the founders of Balai Citoyen). In the accompanying comment he identifies himself with Lumumba and Smockey with Sankara. The Congolese popular painter Sapin Makengele recently signed a painting entitled “Le Dernier Regard de Lumumba.” In it Lumumba looks at his murderers with taciturn urgency, he knows what is awaiting him. Do his murderers also acknowledge the future consequences of their imminent act? The figure of Lumumba hovers permanently over Congo’s history, is it a mere coincidence that Lexxus and Sapin make allusion to him now or are they claiming agency?

Screenshot lumumba and sankara

I believe one can, and should, be optimistic. Last year during the Kinshasa uprising, the people did send a strong message to the government and if one looks at 2015 in retrospective, the élan did not die in January 2015. But optimism should not bedazzle an attempt to sit back and objectivize. The Congolese people are observing carefully, they are weary and sceptic; The danger of it being a politically inspired theater is not discarded. Yet there is also hope. Facebook has offered a platform for discussion where people exchange ideas and complaints. Even if redemption might not be attained, let’s hope that this opportunity will not turn into another missed opportunity. Let’s hope that which started with the uprisings a year ago will not turn into another chapter of the Congo Masquerade, but rather that it will give birth to something new.

[1] Trefon, T. (2011) Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure. Zed Books.


[3] Because his PPRD party does not have the sole majority, Kabila needs the independent politicians who form part of the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP) in order to govern the country. It goes almost without saying that the majority is fragilized by those who step out of it.