Protests or Commemoration? Kinshasa police react violently to banned Christian march

On Thursday, Christian groups attempting to stage a banned march within the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were violently shut down by national police forces and street thugs.  The aim of the march was a complicated two-sided affair that left the Government of the DRC paranoid about violence and opposition on the same day that meetings were held to form the new government.

Christian groups claimed that the peace march was intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Christian March or Marche d’Ecoile that decried dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s authoritarian regime and which ended with 46 deaths, mostly priests and nuns.

However, AFP/Jeune Afrique has reported that march organizers also called on participants to “express ‘rejection of the election results’.”  Most media reports on the event have portrayed the march as a protest demonstration against the results of the November 2011 election.  For example, one Voice of America article does not even mention the 20th anniversary of the Christian March.

Regardless of their aims, would-be marchers gathered outside of Saint Joseph Cathedral early Thursday, only to be attacked by tear gas from police and strong fists from kuluna (street thugs, presumably paid by the police).  AFP reports that 7 people were arrested, 5 of which were priests and nuns.

Elsewhere in the city, churches were closed by police forces and kuluna beat up churchgoers who were gathering quietly in commemoration on church grounds, with no visible intention of marching.

Meanwhile, business went on as usual throughout most of Kinshasa.  While police and kuluna were quickly shutting down the banned march, most Kinois were moving freely to work, the market, and in-between.   The central Gombe market was its normal buzz of traders selling second-hand linens and plastic goods, all to the chorus of “Mai, mai,” coming from water sellers.

Two main questions arise from these events 

The Carter Center and the EU have condemned the DRC authorities for their brutal reaction to the march.  But before making such declarations, we have to ask two questions about what happened on 16 February 2012.

First, was the government justifiable in banning the march?  While the original pretext for the event was a commemoration of the Christian March, it would be naïve to think that political opposition wouldn’t be a part of the march, whether through direct instruction from the church or through cooption by opposition groups.  Additionally, talks regarding the leadership of the national parliament coincided with the march.

While freedom of speech is a part of the Congolese constitution, the government also has an imperative to protect the security of its citizens.  The march certainly could have spawned rioting in the capital city, with the political opposition and ruling parties sparing in the streets.  This was most likely a primary concern for the government when it decided to ban the march.  However, the numbers of police that were dispatched to prevent the event could have instead been used to maintain security while the march went on.

Secondly, was the government justified in its response to the would-be marchers?  The police response was harsh and underhanded.  Because the march was banned, those who were clearly preparing to march were lawbreakers; the police had a justifiable reason to arrest these individuals.  No one ever promised that civil disobedience would be easy or without consequences.

However, the spraying of tear gas into churches demonstrates the kind of police brutality that has persisted in DRC for …well, forever.  The closure of churches and radio stations demonstrates that DRC still has a long way to go before freedom of speech is a reality.  The employment of kuluna to beat up churchgoers shows that the police are aware that the eyes of the world are on them.  To keep their hands clean, they hired thugs to do the real dirty work.  All of these tactics demonstrate that there has been little progress in the rule of law and protection of human rights in Kinshasa.

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