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Clampdown on activists in DR Congo

Patrice CiteraFebruary 25, 2016

Critics accuse DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila of clinging to power and delaying elections slated for the end of 2016. Rights activists campaigning for an end to Kabila's rule claim they are being intimidated.

Joseph Kabila
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Wandimoyi

Jonas Tshiombela, resident of Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has become more circumspect.

"My life is now restricted. I am no longer free to live my life as in the past. I can no longer hang out in bars or public spaces. I am reduced to going to work," he said.

Tshiombela heads an NGO called Nouvelle Societe Civile Congolaise (New Congolese Civil Society) which has just joined Front Citoyen (Citizens' Front), a group of political parties and associations opposed to President Joseph Kabila (pictured above).

Front Citoyen was formed to try and stop Kabila from clinging to power after his term ends later in 2016. Kabila has called for "national dialogue" to help ensure "peaceful elections" but the opposition says this is a strategy to circumvent the constitution and stand for a third elected five-year term.

Since his group joined Front Citoyen, Tshiombela has felt the need to take extra precautions for his own safety and that of his family. He told DW his child was recently approached by strangers while he was on his way to school. They wanted to know if he was Tshiombela' son. Tshiombela also said that two of his colleagues have received death threats from people he suspects are members of the DRC's intelligence service.

"Every time I move across the city, I have to inform a group of close friends, who must be aware of where I am, with whom and what I am doing," Tshiombela said.

Labor unrest

Opposition to Kabila's reluctance to step aside led to a one-day general strike earlier this month. Most shops and schools were closed on February 16, 2016. A stoppage by taxis and motorcycle taxis prevented people from getting to work. Kinshasa was eerily quiet on that day and the strike was referred to as "ville mort" (dead city).

Ausschreitungen in Kinshasa 21.01.2015
Violent clashes erupted in Kinshasa in January 2015 over planned changes to election lawImage: Reuters/J. R. N'Kengo

Meanwhile the group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday (23.02.2016) that DRC authorities had arbitrarily arrested eight youth activists. They were detained, along with 30 political opposition supporters, on, or around, February 16. Other activists who supported "ville mort" received text message threats from unknown phone numbers, HRW said.

HRW's senior Africa researcher Ida Sawyer described the latest arrests as "part of a growing crackdown on opponents of the government's attempts to delay elections and extend the president's term in office."

Residents of Kinshasa who spoke to DW said they were worried by the arrests and saw parallels in their country's past.

"I think it is a bad thing because in a democracy, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution. Kabila must stop these arrests; ever since he took power many things have started to look like they did in the Mobuto era," one resident said.

The Kinshasa resident was referring to Mobuto Sese Seko, the authoritarian ruler of what was then Zaire, who seized power in a coup in 1965. He governed the country for more than 30 years before being ousted in 1977.

Another Kinshasa resident told DW that "arresting people is a bad thing. A leader who arrests a lot of people can't lead anybody."

The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in DRC said they had documented more than 400 cases of rights violations, including 52 arrests, since the beginning of 2016. The head of UNJHRO in DRC, Jose Maria Aranaz, said rights violations "had exceeded the number during the January protests of last year."