How sticking to power can hurt an entire nation

“DR Congo’s political and constitutional crisis is plunging the country further into the abyss of poverty and lawlessness”, says Justin Mutabunga, lawyer in Bukavu and human rights defender. Interview with a man who got used to death threats.

“Every now and then you have these anonymous calls, telling you to stop working on this or that case if you don’t want to end up dead”, Justin Mutabunga explains. In 2011, when he promoted electoral transparency and tried to convince rural populations not to succumb to bribes by political leaders, he had to go into hiding for four months. He was lucky to survive.
Mutabunga works as a lawyer, but he is also as human rights defender working for SOS Information Juridique Multisectorielle, a legal aid organization based in Bukavu and supported by Cordaid. We talked with shortly after his visit to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.”

When President Kabila stayed in to power after his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in December 2016, people took to the streets and many were killed. What is the situation today?

“There have been many talks and attempts to convince Kabila to step down. They eventually resulted in the December Agreement which states elections will be held by the end of this year. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. But more importantly, this agreement in itself is still a violation of our constitution. Elections should have been held on December 19 last year and a new legitimate government should lead our country. Anyone who speaks out in favor of the constitution and human rights is immediately associated with the political opposition and treated accordingly. In many parts of the country human rights defenders and journalists have been harassed, imprisoned and even killed.”

What is the impact of the political deadlock on the country?

“It is forcing the whole country on its knees. Government and the complete ruling class have completely disconnected themselves from the country, enriching itself to the detriment of more or less 70 million people, many of whom are struggling to survive. They are forsaking their duties to protect and deliver. All public institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. Public finance control mechanisms have stopped during the political crisis. What does that mean? It means that in just a few years the state budget has tumbled from 9 billion US dollars to 4,5. For a country of approximately 70 million people. By comparison, the state budget of the Netherlands is approximately 260 billion euro, to run a country of about 17 million people. Inflation has skyrocketed, bancs and microfinance institutions have gone bankrupt. In 2016, a US dollar that changed to 900 Congolese francs is currently negotiated at 1,400 francs. Families have even less means to buy food than before, salaries of the middle class have become ridiculously insignificant. The Congolese people are forced to live in subhuman conditions. Nurses, doctors, teachers, even the police and the military have to survive with 60 dollars a month and even less and have to travel a day to go to a bank to access their money. And they are the lucky ones who even have a salary. People can’t survive like that and the country can’t either. Schooling, public health care and other public services simply collapsed. The judiciary, supposed to protect the weak, is not independent: it protects the elites and those who are strong. So it’s only logical that people peacefully express their frustration in the streets. But when they do they are being treated as political opponents and face brutal violence. Even their right to peacefully demonstrate and to express their misery is being crushed.”

“The Congolese people are forced to live in subhuman conditions.”

What has the highest priority, solving the political crisis or solving the economical and social crisis?

“Restoring the rule of law, abiding to the constitution and democratically electing new representatives comes first. Only this gives back legitimacy and accountability to those who are in power, gives the power of control to the people and stops public resources from being stolen.These are the foundations for a nation that protects the human dignity of its people, for a strong and functioning middle class and for an independent, non-partisan and unbribable judiciary system. Our constitution is one of the fairest and most just constitutions in the world. Let’s just put it into practice.”

The first, and last, fair and democratic elections were held in 2006 and put the current ruling parties in power. How would you qualify this ruling class?

“The ruling class has lost its connection with the Congolese people and therefore its legitimacy. They have been in power for so long they even forget why they were once elected. Their first goal is to enrich themselves and they use all the power they have to do just that, while the population is struggling to survive. The international community has many means at its disposal to stop this kleptocracy and to push for democratic reforms. One of them is to block their foreign bank accounts.”

“The ruling class has lost its connection with the Congolese people and therefore its legitimacy.”

What is Kabila’s strongest motive to cling to power?

“There may be many. As a young man and after 17 years as president of the republic I think he has no financial problems. And besides that, the constitution allows him to be senator for life. So I don’t think he has material motives. It may well be that he simply wishes to follow the example of his presidential counterparts in nearby countries like Congo Brazzaville, Burundi, Uganda or Zimbabwe. They all frantically cling to power. Only in Tanzania did the president step down peacefully. He accepted a very honorable and influential position as rector of the Dar Es Salaam university. If only Kabila followed this wise example.”

This month you addressed the 34th session of the UN Human Rights council. What was your message?

“We handed over our analyses of the human rights situation in DR Congo. And we underlined the necessity of the ruling powers to respect the constitution and organize elections as soon as possible but definitely not later than December of this year, in accordance with the CENCO agreement. We asked the international community to increase its pressure on the Kabila government to respect human rights and to stop treating journalists and human rights defenders as political opponents. This only further polarizes a country in crisis.”

2017 proves to be yet another tense year for DR Congo. What will be on your agenda?

“Our struggle is a peaceful one. We have no arms but the constitution and the international conventions ratified by our country. We will do our utmost to use them and make sure fair elections will be held. In the end we just want the Congolese people to live in dignity, not to be robbed and obstructed by just a few leaders who don’t understand that they must put the human person at the center of their concerns.”

“Our struggle is a peaceful one. We have no arms but the constitution and the international conventions ratified by our country.”

 

Justin Mutabunga talking about the electoral crisis in his country and its impact on ordinary Congolese citizens (in French): 

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