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Diaspora: Perspectives on post-election Democratic Republic of Congo

On 28th November 2011, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held the second ever democratic election of its existence. Locking horns were incumbent president Mr. Joseph Kabila and longstanding advocate of multi-party democracy Etienne Tshisekedi, leading the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). The run-up to what many saw as a pivotal event in the country's recent history was fraught with alleged human rights abuses and political repression, and the Ministry of Information closed down the four independent news outlets in the country, jailing their owners. Unsurprisingly, while it was reported that the majority of voters had chosen Tshisekedi, the 'independent' electoral commission, with the backing of the DRC's Supreme Court, announced Kabila as the presidential victor. Since then, NGOs assisting the electoral process, along with international observers, reports by the DRC opposition as a whole and revelations in the Congolese diaspora media, have all suggested that serious irregularities riddled the electoral process and that people's votes had largely been stolen. The Jimmy Carter Foundation unswervingly denounced the election as rigged, having sent numerous observers to monitor the election. The results of the election have largely been accepted by the international community, but a resounding counter to this acceptance has been the post-election action of DRC diasporic communities. To shed light on the complexity of the current dynamics of Congolese politics, I spoke with several members of the Congolese diaspora in Britain. Those kind enough to speak to me were Djoly Mpanzu, founder of the Africatime Sheffield African community group and local political activist; Sedouh LeGrand, doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham; and Kassa Makiese, a UDPS member currently in exile and seeking asylum in Sheffield. Many questions have been raised in diasporic DRC communities around President Kabila's ability to rebuild the Congolese nation, in part due to the failure of his 5 Chantiers policy, enacted on taking office five years ago. Sedouh believes that through aiming to rebuild social and communication infrastructures the policy won the support of a substantial number of people in the DRC communities in the UK. However, besides repairing some of the main public roads in the Congo, he affirmed that people strongly feel that Kabila has done very little, if anything, for the country. Sedouh rather sees Kabila's ten year reign as characterised by despotism, extreme corruption and embezzlement of public funds, complete destruction of social institutions and values, political assassinations and kidnappings, systematic rape of women and girls, massacres and genocide and extreme looting of natural resources. Above all, indicators of human development suggest that the DRC, despite its wealth in terms of minerals and many other natural resources, is now the poorest country in the world. Kabila's reputation is far from rosy. Despite extreme poverty, there has not been passive acceptance of Kabila's government. Ya Tshitshi (as Etienne Tshisekedi is known to his followers) has symbolically held his own inauguration ceremony - albeit at his residence in the borough of Limete in Kinshasa instead of the Martyrs Stadium due to security concerns - and maintains wide and loyal support. The ceremony, said Sedouh, was greeted with cheers in the Congo and the diaspora alike. The relative political power of the Congolese diaspora was emphasised by everyone I spoke to, detailing innovative forms of post-election Congolese activism. An element of this lies in the politicisation of the Congolese music scene. Musicians in the DRC have long been instruments for party propaganda, with many illicitly profiting from aligning themselves with the ruling party. Souokous legend Franco is one notorious example. Kabila has similarly bought musicians' support, but now such activities are met with a fierce response from the diaspora. Djoly explained that Congolese bands make their living almost exclusively from the shows they play abroad, particularly in Europe. So if these bands are supporting an 'illegitimate' regime, why perpetuate their careers and political influence by paying to see them live? This logic has seen boycotts of Kabila-praising bands worldwide which have been remarkably effective in undermining the musicians' credibility. Sedouh gave the example of the London-based group Les Combattants, who have 'banned' all musicians sympathetic to Kabila from leaving the DRC. Moreover, "any other political, social or cultural events that Les Combattants perceived to have the potential to take the diaspora's mind away from addressing the real political issues which have caused most of us to be exilic communities in the UK and beyond" have been met with aggression. Some 113 people were arrested during protests over the election result in London led by this group. To demonstrate the point further, Kassa pointed to the traumatic experience of Werra Son, from the band Wenje. Having crashed his car and subsequently broken his arm, he flew to Europe to get it seen to. But on landing, an enraged mob of Congolese protesters blocked every way out of the airport, chasing him all the way back into the check-out lounge. In startled desperation, he booked a flight to India for treatment, but was faced once more with a torrent of heckling from a marauding set of fans who would not allow him onto Indian soil. Sedouh suggests that the actions and methods used by Les Combattants can be seen as a diasporic manifestation of the post- Arab Spring trend of African political activism. Social media and the internet have played a big role in facilitating boycotts and spreading awareness of local forms of activism amongst the Congolese diaspora all over the world. Both Sedouh and Djoly commented that now, unlike in previous generations, there is a national political consciousness in the DRC and that the government needs to respect their decisions. Kassa was keen to emphasise that although it's generally true that people in the cities are more educated and critical of the government, rural populations are no less aware of political life, and are actively engaged in the happenings of a vast and infrastructurally dislocated country. Sedouh warned that "the international community should understand this new dynamic". This political consciousness, global activism, and frustration with the electoral outcome have resulted in diverse plans of action in the face of Kabila's continued rule in the DRC. Djoly fervently advocated an interventionist role for the UN and the re-assessment of the election results under a transitional government. Sedouh qualified this perspective by suggesting that consultation with the Congolese public was integral to a sustainable DRC. But Kassa, disillusioned with the role of the external agents in the DRC, saw the problem as needing a domestic solution. This, he claimed, relied on a level of mercenary activity to counter what is an authoritarian and militant state, suggesting there is "nothing you can do without weapons". With a straight face tinted with regret, he stood up and walked to the window to signal the end of the interview. But on looking outside he suddenly burst into giggles; he had just seen snow for the first time. As he ran outside, searching for the English vocabulary to express his wonder at the environment that had enveloped his new home, I was reminded of how contextually different and yet inter-connected we all are. Sam Parkin co-runs the University of Sheffield African Affairs Network, through which this article was made possible. To find out more about anything referenced in this article, visit africanaffairsnetwork.wordpress.com. )

Next article in issue 48

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