This week, I interviewed Fred Bauma and Sylvain Saluseke, democracy activists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both were arrested by Congolese security forces on March 18, 2015. Sylvain was held over a month and Fred remained in prison until August 2016 (more on this here, here, here, here and here). In this interview, they address their strategy for democratization and the impending crisis as Congo reaches the end of its President’s term without having held an election.
I wanted to start by asking how you define the problem of Congo today?
It is not an easy question! I don’t know if there is a single problem or if it is so many problems. But I will describe the problem as LUCHA[Lutte pour le Changement] sees it.
Congo, as we know, is potentially a very rich country, in terms of mineral, agricultural and even ecological potential, but on one side we have so much wealth potential and on the other side, we have very poor population. One of the poorest in Africa and the world. In the beginning, people thought that the problem was about education. The level of education when the Belgian colonist left and there were at least two or three people who had graduated from college and there really wasn’t any leader who was prepared to lead the country. That may have been the problem at the beginning in 1960, but now we are over 50 year after independence. We have universities, we have people who have graduated, and the problems remain.
For me, the major problem in Congo is about the Congolese people: the typical Congolese and the way they think about the relationship between the population and the rulers. The people don’t feel themselves as watchmen for the rulers. They feel as if they are ready to have everything from the rulers and not hold them accountable. That is the major problem that led us to have a dictator for over 30 years. People were just accepting what he was doing, without having a consciousness that they have the power to change the things.
The other problem is leadership. On one side, we have people who don’t understand their own power and the way that they can influence their leadership and hold their leaders accountable. On the other hand, we have leadership that has no vision. They are involved in corruption and led by their personal interests instead of the community or national interest. This weakened population tends to let those guys continue to destroy the country without asking anything and the outcome of this situation is of course poverty and collapse of the country that we have, just because we cannot hold each other accountable.
Sylvain, is that how you would identify the problem as well?
Yeah, there is definitely a big portion to it to do with the lack of understanding of what accountability means and the belief—it’s the other side of that coin -– the wrong belief that I think that Mobutu was really preaching, to say, ‘le chef est chef.’ The population has been brought to the point of thinking that once you are a ruler or once you occupy a particular position and are seen as above the population, it’s a green light to do anything and everything that you want.
I was reading a book by one professor, George Ayittey, he was talking about the difference between socialism and the social fabric of Africa—the difference. As example, people tend to think that Africans in general are socialist or communist, he says no, its not like that. As example, he said, if you go back in African tradition when there was a ruler who was badly ruling his populations, because there was no voting system, per se, people exercised their rights by leaving that kingdom and going to live somewhere else. Even then, there was accountability—the system said if you cannot manage it properly, people will decide to just leave and go to live somewhere else. By wrongly interpreting that those who are ruling us have the freedom to do anything, l’homme Congolais (the Congolese man/person) today has reached a point where — is linked to an African aspect — of letting the rulers free. It’s like giving them a free pass. Back to the question of accountability, they hold the power in this new way of thinking and living, rather than the rulers have it.
When you come to the US, if you ask, what is the problem with Congo? You would hear policy people taking a very different approach. They would say it’s all the armed groups, it’s the lack of rule of law (which obviously links to accountability, but not exactly the way you’re describing it), but they would describe the crisis, and its always a crisis, that Congo is in now. And that’s the problem. It’s very interesting to hear you speak of the problem as a relationship and set of expectations between those who govern and those who are ruled, the populace. I wonder if in your opinion, if that problem becomes more acute when there is the pretense of democracy, even if its not working, that the set of expectations for what democracy will be is out of sync with how power actually functions.
Coming back to what he was saying, people describe the actual situation of Congo as the poverty, war, rule of law, but it is just a consequence or outcome of that relationship. I think that democracy, what people propose by democracy, is to bring a different system in which people have the power to control the rulers, maybe directly or through parliament. The idea of democracy is good, but in practice democracy may work only if the people who need to, who are the base of that democracy, are aware of their role. Otherwise you will have elections, but what has happened in Congo, for example, in past elections is that people are very poor and the rulers keep them in that poverty. For example, if I am a member of Parliament, I feel comfortable to go into a village and give medical supplies and things like that instead of trying to find a real solution to help the community respond to its health problems.
In that democracy, people are being kept in poverty so that they depend financially and materially on their ruler. So when it comes to elections, its just people present themselves like a family member or someone who gives food in order to be elected. We tend to have a democratic system, but it is still, ‘you give me your vote and I give you some money’, I buy your vote. Those people don’t sell an idea or a project, they use that poverty to buy the vote of people. That is not democracy in my opinion. But the idea of democracy is good. What we are working on is, as I said at the beginning, to change the relationship between people and power, and to help them understand that in an election and every day in life they need to understand their role in order to maintain that democracy. That is the only way that democracy can help to build stronger institutions and respond to all those crises that you described.
LUCHA and some of the other organizations you’ve been involved with are youth-based, but not as youth would be described in the US, as like 18 – 25, maybe young adult, but it includes – even Sylvain! — a broader generation. Its really an upcoming generation and larger embrace, I’m curious if the way that you speak about democracy and how you want to organize, which operates along a much longer timeline for change, does that appeal to younger people? Is it resonating?
So you said ‘even Sylvain,’ I am not 80 years old, I just want to put that out there!
I think what you mean to say is that if we take the DRC today, the average age today is 18 years old, I’m double that age today. The question is: Am I youth in my own country today? That question is important in two ways. One is that people of my generation, of my age whom today have done well, that could be probably leading some companies or playing a key role in corporations around Congo, and some who have not had those opportunities to reach that level, both of us are growing up in that space where we are transitioning from the Mobutus to the Kabilas. Now you also get the younger ones, who all they’ve known about Mobutu is what they’ve read or heard. All they’ve known their life is the Kabilas.
There are now these two generations, both of us we’ve lived basically the same thing and we’re both looking at what is going to happen in the future for both of us. Now when you look at the age of the rulers, this is true not only in Congo but across Africa, it’s very seldom that you find people of my age in high position of power in government unless if you’re the son of a president or your uncle is a minister. People of our generations we feel very much that we’re not in a position to influence power. We’re all part of this same millennial, as you say—we all tweet and we all use Facebook.
Fred, maybe you can respond to that question about how we view democracy, if we see it together?
Its interesting how expectations have changed from people who have grown up with Mobutu as the norm and after, and then people like you who have lived some part of your life in each of these, I want something different from this.
The interesting thing is if people of our generation understand democracy as we explain it. I think the big challenge is to educate people. Young people of our generation, most of us, for example, me, and people like me, the only thing we lived through was the end of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila and all the hope that came with what he called the guerre de liberation [war of liberation], and the way Joseph Kabila turned to dictatorship and in the beginning there was hope. Many of us had no experience of dictatorship under Mobutu, but we lived through the consequences by the end of Mobutu, in 1996 and after. We, me and my family, lived through war, displacement, leaving our home and things like that. We knew about that dream of freedom, of democracy by reading and studying in the school and those great idea that democracy is the power of the people by the people and blab blah, blah.
It is in living and seeing how the regime has transformed itself from hope of democracy to something really contrary that we see that maybe democracy is not just to call a regime a democratic regime and call an election. Maybe we have something to do in order to really bring about this thing called democracy. That is the beginning of what are going. Young people believe in democracy and understand the idea of democracy at a very global level. But the challenge we have actually and what we are working on is to bring them to understand their role in that democratic system. To let them take the next step. Yes, democracy is having institutions that control each other, but in those institutions there must also be those people who hold them all accountable.
One of the academic—I’m not a specialist—but in the academy, they draw presidents with limited power, a parliament with limited power, a court that can do…all the checks and balances. But in a system like DRC, the problem is systemic. The government that should control the parliament, is as corrupted as the parliament, and the courts that control both are also corrupted. We have, for example, a constitution that says that the president cannot run for another term, and we have a constitutional court in the case that he may violate the constitution, may judge him. But we have a system in which those checks and balances don’t function. The constitutional court which should control him is under his control. So he says, we need the constitutional court to take this decision, they take it; we need the parliament to do this…. There is theoretically a check and balance, but in reality there is no check and balance.
In that moment, the only institution–let me call it an institution– that can play the role of check and balance is the population. If the executive, the parliament and the judicial system fail, the only one who can bring them to respect what is written in the text is that last and biggest institution in a democratic system.
The challenge is to bring more and more people to understand that we have all those people in higher power, but we are the base of democracy and we have to play our role. Otherwise we will have institutions, but we will never have democracy.
Just adding on to that, that is the real challenge, as Fred says. How do we keep talking to all these young people despite their background and despite their aspirations to move to an understanding that they have to be part of the process. They shouldn’t just stay and watch things being done on their behalf. People do things because they are elected…They have to understand that actually they have a role to play, they have to be engaged, there is no other way we can express it better than that. Reaching out and telling them, you need to be engaged. We cannot talk about democracy without governance; you cannot talk about governance if there is no accountability; and you cannot be rooting for accountability if you don’t understand you own responsibilities.
For us, this comes down to very simple things, like, guys if you live in your house and outside your street, the drainage is blocked, what is forbidding you from getting two, three, four, five of you to unblock that drainage? Yes, we are looking up to the government to do something, but your responsibility goes beyond denouncing, you have to be action driven. That is how we try to frame democracy and participation together.
It’s a different mindset and a different way of thinking about one’s self.
I wanted to end the conversation with the two of you on what is going on politically now in Congo. There were supposed to be elections, for reasons of wanting to keep power but explained in terms of lack of time and lack of resources, elections did not take place. December 19th is a really critical moment. Can you explain what is happening and what you think will happen around the bend…if you can pull out your ability to see the future?
This is the question that everyone is asking. I would like to have the ability to see the future, but I cannot. But I think this is linked to the previous conversation that we had. Normally what should happen on December 19th is that the President would have to step down according to the constitution. One of the institutions that should make sure he leaves the office that day is that the constitutional court. We have a situation in which that constitutional court decided that he may stay in power as long as there is not a new president. That means he may stay in power until the time he wants…
…until he decides to call elections.
Until he decides to call elections…that is really incredible. But what will happen? What I’d like to see happen is that he himself says, ‘I’ve been in charge fifteen years, I’ve done my work, I have some results, I failed in some ways, my time is up—I have to go.’ And the constitution is clear. When the time is up, he has to go and let someone else continue. If there is no new president normally, it should be the president of the senate who takes his place. Because it is very simple: the president has to organize the election, and the electoral commission — normally an independent electoral commission — should call the elections ninety days before the end of his mandate and ten days after the election he should go out of office. The last day that should happen is December 19th.
He will not do that. It should be considered like an act of high treason, because he has a duty to organize the election. It is the basis of democracy to have elections at the end of his term. And he didn’t. In the case that we have high treason the president of the senate should take his place. We are in the same situation. So, we are asking him to leave and let the president of the senate take over.
He will not do it on purpose. He planned to stay in power and that is why he didn’t organize the election. What will happen is that people will organize themselves and go into the street to call him to step down. Of course, we know that he will respond with the military, sending tanks and soldiers into the road and maybe they will kill people as they did in September, as they did in January last year. Unfortunately, this is likely to happen in December.
I think this situation, this new crisis, another crisis after so many years may have so many consequences. I think that on December 19th many people will go in the street and we don’t know what will happen. It is the beginning of the collapse of the institutions. We have an economy, which is collapsing. We had a budget, a very small budget of 7 billion. I think it is now less than the budget of Harvard University.
…way less than Harvard [note: Harvard’s budget for 2016 is 4.8 billion USD].
Harvard has a bigger budget than Congo?
Yes, in Congo its for 70 million people.
It was 7 billion two years ago, and now it is 4 billion. We came from seven to four. It wasn’t enough at seven, and now four…? The principle financial institutions are falling down. One bank is down and some microfinance, which holds the money for those people who really don’t have money, just enough money to live with, has also gone bankrupt. There are more and more demonstrations in military families, military wives and some demobilized military in their camp…
…because they’re not being paid anymore?
They’re not being paid anymore … and the public administration, as well, they are not being paid. All these kind of social pressure on the government may bring the entire system to collapse. This may not happen on December 19th, but it will surely happen in the weeks or months to come if nothing is done to address things right now. Unfortunately, this will affect millions of lives. They will still have something to do in order to avoid that, but people don’t take it seriously. One day people in the world will start saying ‘never again’ as they said in Rwanda or eastern Europe, but they have a choice to avoid it. We are going into a new crisis and there will be a crisis. Maybe Kabila will stay in power after December 19th, but he will not be able to rule the country.
I think Fred has said much of it around December. There are just too many expectations of what will happen and no one knows for sure. It is important to remind people that before only looking at the violence that might start happening in December, there is a need to return to what we said earlier. There was an agreement out of the fighting, out of Sun City where everyone agreed and said, ‘guys lets make this together. This is our constitution and let’s move forward.’ The first elections were mired in controversies, everyone said, ‘this is the first time, nothing is perfect the first time, lets move on.’ The second elections in 2011, which were clearly very flawed, and people said, ‘you know what? This is his last term. Lets just accept it and then we’ll move on.’ We shouldn’t underestimate peoples’ ability to understand and appreciate those aspects of things. The reasons why we allowed the previous election results to continue, it’s not because people were feeling powerless, it’s just that people thought we need to build on something.
Right now we’re putting the constitution in brackets, and start looking for ‘lets go out and talk so we can see how we go forward’, that famous word, ‘glissement.’ It’s setting a very bad precedent and no one is calling it that. This can be avoided. December 19th can be avoided. Let the President step down. Let the constitution continue, let the president of the senate take over and we’ll do elections and then we’ll continue.
We were discussing yesterday something that I think is important. The question comes every day that I am here: ‘What do you think will happen on December 19th.’ We see deep in this question, ‘do you think people will demonstrate on December 19th’ ? And if you go far, the question is, ‘do you think people will be killed on December 19th’? Yes, if there are demonstrations, people will be killed, because that is what the government will do. The question should be, what can we do to avoid killing on December 19th? Because if we wait to see what will happen on December 19th, then on December 20th we will be counting and condemning in all those statements of foreign affairs, saying: we cannot believe, we cannot accept, we are deeply concerned, and so on…We are deeply concerned and people are still dying. If people are deeply concerned they should act.
Thank you both for your time. Bon chance, mes amis! You’re doing very important work.
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