Armed with palm fronds and bibles, protestors defy intimidation again

Just three weeks after their last protest, Congolese in several major cities (Bukavu, Goma, Mbuji-Mayi, Kananga, Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and Kisangani, perhaps others) turned out for protests against the government after Sunday mass. The pictures were moving, once again: Barefoot priests leading parishioners, crosses held high, chanting the Lord’s Prayer and anti-Kabila slogans (this is one of the more moving videos). Well-trained, at the first sign of police, parishioners knelt, hands in the air, only dispersing when live bullets were fired and tear gas canisters landed in their midst.

It is difficult to gauge how large the protests were, but the papal nuncio’s initial report suggests that either the crowd or the repression were not as wide-spread: 13 parishes were disturbed by security forces this time in Kinshasa, as opposed to 134 last time. Nonetheless, MONUSCO said that at least 6 people were killed, the church said 208 people were arrested, while a human rights activist reported that at least 12 priests had been detained by the police.

What can we glean from today’s events:

  1. The frequency has picked up: There have been other protests with greater violence––the January 2015 and September 2016 protests in Kinshasa were more brutally repressed, although they were probably smaller. But they were relatively isolated: no other significant protest was organized within several months of those. This time it only took three weeks. That has to do with the second point:
  2. The Catholic Church has remained the backbone of the movement: This brings with it a formidable organizing infrastructure––millions of Congolese go to mass on Sunday. And many––although not all––of the priests are now openly encouraging their parishioners to protest. The government had harshly criticized the Catholic Church for stepping into politics––the minister of information called Cardinal Monsengwo “the apostle of insults,” while the cardinal called for mediocre leaders to resign and said the government had been barbaric in its crackdown.  Both French and Belgian Catholic leaders came out ahead of the march to express their solidarity with their Congolese counterparts; today, Pope Francis expressed his concern for the situation in the Congo during his trip to Peru, and asked for the faithful to pray for the Congolese.
  3. MONUSCO stepped up, in part: While in some places, MONUSCO was lambasted by protesters, elsewhere MONUSCO troops interposed themselves between protesters and security forces. The UN mission, whose mandate it up for renewal at the end of March, is increasingly torn between two parts of its mandate: protecting civilians and collaborating with the Congolese state.
  4. A broadening of the protests? La Libre Belgique suggested that the protests’ base was getting larger, drawing in protestants and Muslims. While it is true that a prominent protestant minister lambasted the government in a sermon last week, and the leader of Congolese Muslims asked the government not the ban the Catholics’ protest, it is not clear whether this actually led to a broadening of the participation. However, other Catholic parishes did become more active this time: In Mbuji Mayi, the bishop encouraged protests––an apparent shift in his position––and congregations in Goma and Kisangani were reported to be more engaged.
  5. Repression within limits: While brutal repression has made headlines, and rightly so, it is also apparent that the government is reluctant to go too far. None of the organizers of the march have been arrested thus far, opposition leaders are tear gassed by not detained, and the police has not resorted its erstwhile tactics of breaking up any group of ten or more people (probably because it would simply be impossible given the number of protesters).