Could Lwili reach Kinshasa? Lessons from the streets of Burkina Faso

The momentous events in Burkina Faso last week have reverberated across Africa, and nowhere more so than in the streets and halls of power in the Congo. The #Lwili (the burkinabé hashtag used for the protests) playbook is attractive to many in the opposition and civil society: A president tries to overstay his welcome and his term-limits by changing the constitution; the people rise up and force him out of power; the army joins them to send the president into exile. This sequence of events was played out in Burkina Faso, but also in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, and to a certain extent in Chile (1988) and the Philippines (1986).
Courtesy of @dieuson1, Burkina24

What are the chances that the scenes we witnessed in Ouagadougou will be replayed in Kinshasa? Of course, a lot depends on what happens over the next two years, and it is possible that the government does not try to change the constitution and holds free and fair elections. But let’s assume––not unreasonably––it doesn’t, and protests kick off.


As I (and many others) have argued before on this same subject, suffering does not a revolution make. Gene Sharp, who wrote what many consider the Bible on non-violent resistance, argues that protesters needs to undermine the regime by depriving it of legitimacy, access to resources, and internal cohesion. His writings on non-violent resistance have been translated into over 30 languages, and were used by the Serbian Otpor! democracy movement in 2000 and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2011.
But creating a strong movement with the right tactics isn’t enough. You need the appropriate structural conditions. In particular, many scholars––see here
and here for recent examples––highlight the importance of divided elites and military defections in the overthrow of a government. Erica Chenoweth, analyzing 323 different campaigns, concludes that over half of the successful non-violent movements relied on important military defections. This is what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and is what we are currently seeing in Burkina Faso.
What about the Congo?
What are the chances of creating a strong social movement that could prompt defections from the political or military elites?
Fragmentation is perhaps the most dominant feature of the Congolese social and political scene. Civil society, the ruling government, the political opposition, and the military are all extremely vivacious but also fragmented. Impressive mobilization has happened around important events––the Marche des Chrétiens saw hundreds of thousands in Kinshasa’s streets in 1992, and Tshisekedi was able to mobilize similar numbers during his election campaign in 2011. However, this mobilization has not been able to produce protracted change––in 1992, the protests forced Mobutu to reopen the Conférence national souveraine (CNS), but then proceeded to ignore the government produced by that national forum. And in 2011, the crowds were successfully dispersed as soon as riot police and the army began their brutal crackdown. In part, this is because of tactics. Tshisekedi––now in poor health and an octogenarian––has relied too much on his own legendary stature and not enough on the nuts-and-bolts of community organizing and grassroots mobilization. He has also struggled to shake the perception that his party is dominated by the Luba community, which has tense relations with other ethnic groups in the capital and elsewhere. Civil society and the political opposition have often relied too much on elite-based politicking and intrigue and not enough on civic education and mobilization.

The structure of society has also played a role, in particular the sustained efforts by both Mobutu and the Belgian administration to stamp out any rival source of legitimacy and organization. Student and labor unions that form the hub of resistance in other countries are internally divided in the Congo, with parts of their leadership co-opted by the government and factionalized. Ethnic-based organizations have flourished, in part due to the absence of other legitimate moral communities (for example, a rule of law enforced by the state), but in a country with at least 250 ethnic groups, this cannot amount to a structured resistance, and indeed many have argued that such ethnic loyalties have been part of a divide-and-rule strategy by those in power.

All of this is not to say that sustained civic resistance is not possible. The Catholic Church has become increasingly strident in its opposition to Kabila––despite its internal divisions––and the controversy over  a constitutional revision is becoming such a lightning rod that it could well forge a more cohesive civil society and opposition.

What about the internal cohesion of the regime? Here the Congo is different than Tunisia and Egypt, and perhaps Burkina, as well. The government has used weakness and fragmentation as a tool of power  since the Mobutu era. “In the land of dwarfs, the four foot tall man is a giant,” a diplomat recently told me. “It’s not that Kabila is strong. It’s that everyone else is weak.” There are 98 political parties in the national assembly, 45 of which only have one MP; various different nebulous networks gravitate around the president, but there is no ostensible political hierarchy. This makes governing extremely chaotic––as the protracted formation of a new government shows––but also prevents competing centers of power from emerging.

A similar situation obtains in the military, as well. Kabila’s main concern in the security sector has been his own personal security and the loyalty of those around him.
Since the integration of other belligerents into the army in 2003, the military
has become more of a means to co-opt commanders and less a body to execute Kabila’s security strategy.
This has produced a body with numerous competing patronage networks, none of which is internally cohesive. For example, in his inner circle, Kabila has relied on many officials from the Lunda community of southern Katanga for security. This has allowed him to counterbalance the influence of the Lubakat community on his decision-making, giving him more leeway––the Lunda and Lubakat are traditional rivals. This has been particularly striking in the last few years: Kalev Mutond is the head of the national intelligence service, and probably one of the five most powerful men in the country; General Jean-Claude Yav is the deputy head of military intelligence and Kabila’s trusted envoy on many matters related to armed groups in the East. Both men are relatively young, trusted by the president and have worked with him for many years, in contrast with many of the politicians around him. In addition to them, a newcomer, Richard Muyej, also Lunda, is now interior minister. His advisor, Professor Kaumba Lufunda, is the former national security advisor, also from the same community.
The second constituency, although it is far from a cohesive one, is ex-FAZ officers. Given that Kabila fought a war to oust Mobutu from power, it is striking that many key positions in the army are staffed by former commanders in Mobutu’s army.
This includes General Didier Etumba, the chief of staff of the army, as well as
his two deputies: Célestin Mbala and Dieudonné Amuli. But it is
questionable to what degree any of these general form a cohesive network. Many of them are driven by competing loyalties––ethnic, regional, personal, and historical.

Finally, one could speak of several other important networks: Congolese Tutsi commanders form an important constituency, both because of the threat they could represent in the East, but also because they constitute a relatively cohesive group. This includes the head of the national police service, General Charles Bisengimana, the head of the Bas-Congo military region General Jonas Padiri, and six other Tutsi generals in the army and the police. Finally, individual family friends such as General François Olenga (Kabila’s personal military advisor, from Maniema) and General Delphin Kahimbi (the head of military intelligence, from South Kivu are important allies for Kabila.
This situation makes it difficult to predict who, if anyone, could play the role that Lieutenant-Colonel Zida has played in Burkina Faso over the past few days. Kabila has been careful to make sure that no one person or network has
enough power to muscle him out of office.
In sum, both the regime and its opposition are characterized by fragmentation. This will make sustained mobilization difficult, but will also present an obstacle to any efforts at prolonged repression. This state of affairs renders it difficult to predict change, and creates opportunities for big surprises, as new alliances are formed and interests shift.

So will we be seeing #Lwili tweeted from the streets of Kinshasa some time soon? Perhaps. However,
it is useful to remember that in the past, African leaders have been relatively
successful in contesting their term limits––the score is still 7 (Uganda, Burkina 2003, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, and Togo) to 5 (Burkina, Senegal, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia) in their favor. Maybe Benin
and DR Congo could even the score board?