The Sober Day After: On the Relationship Between Crowds and Parties in DRC

On Monday September 19th, Kinshasa and other cities across DRC were the scenes of mass popular uprisings against President Kabila’s bid to illegally maintain power. Protestors took to the streets in order to denounce the government’s failure to organize elections by the September 19th constitutionally-mandated deadline. The state security services responded with bullets and mass arrests. All things told, Human Rights Watch has estimated that security forces fatally shot at least 50 civilians, while 6 police officers and one PPRD party official were killed by the crowd.

In response to this latest round of violence, Jason Stearns, head of the Congo Research Group, has asked whether the African Union, the United Nations, and other diplomats can wrest the momentum away from the streets, or whether the deaths of dozens of people, the torching of political party offices, and the lynching of policemen will spin out of control? His concern, in other words, is that a rift has opened between the political process and the politics of the streets.

Mr. Stearns is not the only commentator to have noted this apparent trend. In an interview with RFI, fellow Congo researcher Kris Berwouts argues that the September 19th protests, like those of January 2015, were a ‘spontaneous’ expression of popular outrage, which ‘did not depend only on the orders of the opposition or on civil society’. Berwouts speaks of ‘strong pressure from below’ as well as a ‘loss of moral authority’ on the part of institutionalized political actors and a ‘climate of self-help’, all of which are resulting in increased political polarization between the people and the politicians.

Arguing the opposite position, Congolese military and political analyst Jean-Jacques Wondo told Le Point Afrique last week that the ‘link’ between the opposition and the street is ‘strong’. In his view, since Etienne Tshisekedi’s return to DRC in July, the population has sought ‘une cohesion et une dynamique commune’ with political actors. In fact, Wondo goes as far as to argue that Tshisekedi is a national icon, ‘le seul homme politique capable de lancer un mot d’ordre qui sera suivi par une majorite des Congolais’ (‘the only politician capable of commanding the majority of Congolese people’).

So who is right? Have the people given up on the possibility of a peaceful negotiated (elite) solution, or, is Tshisekedi’s UDPS orchestrating popular revolt from above?

While there is some truth to both positions, neither view accurately reflects the present relationship between the people and the politicians in DRC. While Tshisekedi is presently leading the charge, his positon owes not to his own charisma, ideology or political platform, but to: a). the fact that he represents the popular Moise Katumbi in exile, and b). his refusal to partake in the highly unpopular AU-backed national dialogue. The ‘streets’, in other words, have leant Tshisekedi their voice for the time being, in the absence of a better candidate. The moment he enters the dialogue, however, his popular support will dry up and so too, sadly, will the popular struggle itself.

The Spontaneity of the Crowd

As political theorists have long argued, no ‘crowd’ is ever as spontaneous or irrational as it appears from the outside. Mass demonstrations require not only leadership, but finance, infrastructure and an organized communications strategy. Take, for instance, the Arab Spring, while fetishized by techy-liberals as a perfect example of a spontaneous, post-political, pro-democracy flash mob, recent research has in fact revealed that the most successful of the Arab Springs – Tunisia and Egypt – benefitted from the involvement of both organized labor and political Islam. In short, crowds don’t make movements parties do.

The same logic must also be applied to the September 19th protests. While news media images appear to show ‘hordes’ of angry Congolese youth ransacking Kinshasa without purpose, in reality the protests were highly organized. As Stearns himself points out, the protests were coordinated by the opposition political parties, principally the youth wing of the UDPS, with the help of Martin Fayulu’s Ecide, Frank Diongo’s MLP and Joseph Olengankoy’s Fonus. Not only did the opposition put out the initial call, but they also instructed their supporters to descend on downtown in small groups so as to make it more difficult for the security services to police the crowd.

Far from a spontaneous upsurge of popular dissent, the opposition parties had long planned to make September 19th a key moment in their fight against Kabila (and their planned rise to power). Behind the scenes, opposition politicians have been talking about September 19th, November 27th, and December 19th as key dates in the struggle against dictatorship since way back in December 2015 when the opposition parties first formed the Front Citoyen 2016. In June, representatives of the different opposition parties met at Genval were they worked out their differences and announced the formation of the Reassemblement united opposition platform. The founding document of the Reassemblement stresses September 19 and December 19th as the two key dates which the population must not ignore. Moreover, upon his return to DRC in July, Tshisekedi told a crowd of thousands in Kinshasa that September 19th was the first ‘red line’ which must not be crossed. He has since called for the Congolese people to maintain their mobilization until December 19th, once again sending a signal to the ‘crowd’ as to the pace and tempo of the popular struggle.

Also of relevance, during the lead up to September 19th, the UDPS was aided in their organizing efforts by human rights and pro-democracy activists like Filimbi, LUCHA and Civil Society. LUCHA, for instance, was present during the initial Reassemblement opposition conclave at Genval and all three groups were present at the second Reassemblement conclave which took place yesterday in Kinshasa. Indeed, the state’s attempts to infiltrate, divide and arrest activists from these organizations in the days leading up to September 19th clearly indicates the influence these organizations have over the urban youth of DRC.

While the protests of September 19th and 20th were much larger and more aggressive then were previous manifestations held earlier this year, they should not be confused with a spontaneous popular uprising. The demonstrations were planned over the course of months as part of the opposition’s efforts to force the president out of office.

UDPS: The Tip of the Spear?

None of this is to suggest, however, that the Congolese youth are mere dupes to the opposition’s game, far from it. Berwouts is correct to note a decline in the moral authority of the institutionalized political parties. The Congolese news media and blogosphere are filled with recriminations of all Congolese politicians, with Tshisekedi being a favorite target. To give but one example, earlier this week La Prosperite ran an article by Kajepa Molobi which called into question the popular notion that a face-to-face meeting between Kabila and Tshisekedi is the only solution to Congo’s woes. In this article, Molobi perfectly sums up the skepticism which has long surrounded the name Tshisekedi:

Incapable de tenir parole, donc de réaliser ses promesses, l’homme semble avoir résolu de se confiner dans un rôle d’opposant à tout pouvoir national, afin de n’avoir pas à gouverner et, conséquemment, à n’en rendre compte à aucun moment.  Ainsi, habilement, il a, depuis de très longues années, esquivé toute occasion qui se présente à lui de participer à la gouvernance du pays, préférant égoïstement demeurer, sa vie durant, en position de donneur de leçons, tout en vivant aux dépens de la République et aux frais de gens de bonne foi, abusés et illusionnés sans doute par le mystère et le mythe qu’il parvient à cultiver autour de lui.

For English-speakers, Molobi’s point, in a nut shell, is that Tshisekedi has earned the rather unfortunate reputation of a ‘permanent, professional antagonist’. Someone who opposes all forms of power while never accepting the challenge of governing himself, even as he lives off the largess of the state.

In fact, prior to Genval, no one outside of the UDPS party really considered Tshisekedi to be a viable threat to Kabila. The talk around town was of Moise Katumbi and the G7 alliance, particularly the question of whether or not Katumbi and Kamerhe could put aside their differences in order to form a united bloc against Kabila. While Tshisekedi and the UDPS were certainly courted by Katumbi and Kahmere in their bid to unseat the President, Tshisekedi’s participation in any opposition alliance was considered more supplementary then essential.

Tshisekedi, for his part, felt spurned by Katumbi’s (on again off again) alliance with Kamerhe and for this reason chose to pursue his own course of action, accepting (and then unaccepting) President Kabila’s offer to join in the preparatory meetings for a new national dialogue. This, in turn, confirmed in the minds of many Congolese that Tshisekedi was simply too old and too tired to put up much of a fight.

In short, prior to June, neither Tshisekedi nor the UDPS could leverage much popular support, even in their stronghold Kinshasa. For instance, they played almost no role in the January 2015 protests against proposed changes to the electoral law. That protest was led almost exclusively by networks of university students and, in fact, some commentators believed at the time that the absence of the UDPS from the political scene had allowed a usually divided student body to coalesce into one political bloc.

This all changed, in June, however, when Katumbi’s half-brother Raphael Katebe Katoto approached Tshisekedi with the possibility of forming an alliance with the G7 (what would become the Reassemblement). Katoto had previously worked alongside Tshisekedi in 2002 during the Sun City Peace talks when the two men jointly organized the l’Alliance pour la sauvegarde du dialogue (ASD). Katoto sought to use his close working relationship with Tshisekedi in order to convince the old stalwart to head up a coalition of opposition parties following Katumbi’s forced departure from DRC.

Tshisekedi has shrewdly used his agreement with Katoto and Katumbi in order to reinvigorate his public image. Tshisekedi has championed himself as the defender not only of the democratic process but of Katumbi in exile. Moreover, Tshisekedi’s alliance with the G7 has allowed him to take a hardline approach against the very national dialogue which he had earlier accepted. With a potential Katumbi presidency on the horizon and replete with new G7 financing, Tshisekedi no longer has the same incentive to talk. This, in turn, has rejuvenated Tshisekedi’s activist reputation, helping him to reach out to student and youth groups who had all but given up on the UDPS.

Tshisekedi’s newfound popularity is, however, tenuous at best. Outside of Kinshasa, especially in the Kivus and Katangas, Tshisekedi’s popularity remains entirely based on his alliance with Katumbi. During the September 19th rally in Goma, protestors made this perfectly clear holding up banners featuring the image of Moise’s face. What is more, while the September 19th protests continued the following day in Kinshasa in response to the military’s attack on UDPS’s headquarters, in the east things quickly cooled off. This is not to suggest, of course, that Goma residents were content to accept the violence of the Kabila regime, but, the truth of the matter is the Kabila-Tshisekedi tit-for-tat simply doesn’t play as well in the East as it does in Kinshasa.

Moreover, as we have already said, Tshisekedi’s present link to the streets is based in large measure on the relationship between the Reassemblement and civil society. Groups like LUCHA and Filimbi have been persuaded to join the UDPS cause owing to the latter’s broad-based coalition with the G7 and other opposition parties. That said, LUCHA has already sent representatives to the national dialogue and their main concerns are the revision of the electoral calendar and the rotation of office, not the UDPS’s place in any interim government. While they are at present backing Tshisekedi’s line that the interim regime should not be led by the president, if, or rather when, the talks break down into partisan bickering over the distribution of power, civil society is likely to part ways with UDPS.

Civil Society’s Impossible Choice

In sum, while Tshisekedi is presently leading the popular struggle against President Kabila, this should not be confused with popular support for Tshisekedi himself. Rather, the youth of DRC have chosen Tshisekedi as their leader in the interim for lack of a better option. The moment he enters the dialogue, however, and this looks increasingly likely, he will have difficult time distinguishing himself from Vital Kamerhe and the rest of the opportunistic opposition, especially when the discussion (inevitably) turns to partisan wrangling over who gets what in any power-sharing deal.

At this point, civil society will be faced with a difficult (if not impossible) choice: either back an unelected interim regime (which will likely include the President), or continue their mobilization in the hopes of disrupting the entire process (with no clear end in sight). Absent an alternative leader, however, the politics of the streets will likely fizzle out. Indeed, the sad truth of the matter is the UDPS’s recent resurgence may very well have blocked the emergence of a more radical youth movement devoid of the same predatory, partisan, instincts.

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