Students support opposition as presidential poll looms

Activists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, are locked in a battle with President Joseph Kabila’s administration over what they are describing as an attempt to extend his mandate beyond the official end of his second – and final – term in November. In the process, political organisers are drawing on a deep well of support among university students.

Although campuses in the DRC have historically housed some political opposition, human rights analysts say they have never before seen students so involved in activist efforts.

As if to underscore their point, a worried regime has jailed dozens of student protestors – including 26 more in mid-February – and taken steps to limit political organising on campuses. Following the February arrests, student leaders at five universities called for campus-wide strikes to protest against the government’s actions.

“Young people are the bearers of our struggle and those who understand our ideas are those who are educated,” said Micheline Mwendike, an organiser with Struggle for Change. Known as LUCHA, an acronym based on the group’s name in French – Lutte pour le Changement – it is now one of the country’s highest-profile political activist organisations.

“The role of students is visible, because they are the majority who understand the change we want and how to implement it,” she told University World News.

With the constitutionally mandated deadline for an election drawing closer, this emerging campus activism looks set to expand, despite the possible consequences for the country’s tertiary education institutions.

The backdrop

The central African country of more than 74 million people has 46 public universities, largely positioned in major towns, along with more than 100 private higher education institutions.

In the 2012 academic year, more than 210,000 students were enrolled in one or the other, according to the most recent statistics from the DRC ministry of higher education. There are also nearly 400 public and private technical training schools with more than 175,000 students.

Kabila took control of the mineral-rich, but widely impoverished country in January 2001, 10 days after his father Laurent – his predecessor as president – was assassinated. He was formally elected for the first time in 2006 and then again five years later.

Speculation began as early as 2014 that Kabila was interested in extending his stay beyond the constitutionally mandated two terms.

His regime’s intentions became more overt at the start of last year, when it began pushing a bill calling for a census to be conducted before any future votes. In the vast, sprawling DRC, that would have meant a delay of months, if not years, to an election that is supposed to happen before the November expiration of Kabila’s term.

Demonstrations erupt

As the National Assembly began adopting modifications to the law in late January, the capital Kinshasa exploded in demonstrations. And the University of Kinshasa – the country’s largest institution of higher learning – became a hub for protestors.

“The protests took on a dynamic of their own,” said Ida Sawyer, a senior Africa researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch in the DRC. “There was spontaneous mobilisation among students at the University of Kinshasa, in particular, but also across the city.”

The protests quickly turned violent and security forces killed more than 40 people – including six students from the University of Kinshasa and other area schools, according to Human Rights Watch, and wounded dozens and kidnapped five more. Security forces also fired teargas into student dormitories.

In a country where civil society groups have only fleetingly engaged students, the incident introduced the country’s campuses as a potent force in the DRC’s political landscape.

“If you look at the history of the DRC, the government has been on top of things,” said Kate Hixon, the Africa programme officer at Freedom House, a democratic advocacy group based in Washington DC in the United States.

Movements are “not normally able to get that big or have that impact. It was a surprise to everyone and showed that students were able to mobilise,” she said.

Systematic crackdown

What followed has been a systematic crackdown on political organisers. Dozens of people across the country have been arrested, including at least three University of Kinshasa students who are now on trial for insulting the president.

The administration hasn’t stopped with detentions and trials. Mwendike said authorities had closed student dormitories at the University of Kisangani in the north, and both she and Sawyer said there are expectations that student housing at other universities would also be shuttered.

“This is a strategy to isolate students from one another so that they do not unite to express their discontent,” Mwendike said. It also has the potential to interrupt students’ academic lives as they scramble to find new housing.

In past elections, the government has issued an outright ban on political activities on campuses, which activists said is also a possibility this time around.

In the meantime, Mwendike said it is suspected that security forces are paying students to inform on each other. Neither security officials nor the ministry of higher education responded to requests from University World News for comment.

Time is running out

Meanwhile, as it tries to silence its opposition, Kabila’s government has adopted a strategy commonly referred to as ‘glissement’ when it comes to the question of elections.

Translated as ‘sliding’ or ‘slipping’, the regime is now basically ignoring the need to organise a vote before the November deadline, allowing Kabila to slide into another term in office or risk creating a power vacuum if he is forced to step down.

But activists say it is still not too late to have an election, though time is running out. With opposition parties destabilised by the government, human rights groups said they expect their political organisers to turn increasingly to students for support as they continue to pressure the government.

LUCHA’s Mwendike said that’s exactly what they are doing – recruiting a broad-based coalition of students, civil servants and even unemployed people.

Students were a key component of a ‘dead cities’ strike in mid-February that called for a complete shutdown of business and academic activities. At least 26 students were arrested in the eastern city of Goma, and at the end of February six were still jailed.

That pushed student leaders to call for a continued strike on University of Goma campuses and to stage a sit-in outside the location where the detainees were being held.

Playing down campus politics

There are, however, some wings of the DRC higher education community that are eager to downplay the role of the university in the ongoing protests.

Professor Jean-Barnabé Milala Lungala, the rapporteur (coordinator of actions) for the professors’ association at the University of Kinshasa, said higher education institutions were not a place for protests.

“Regarding politics, it does not happen on campus,” he said, although he admitted “there is civic activity that is freely expressed in universities”. And while students may continue to be involved in protests, he did not expect any additional problems on campus.

Mwendike said LUCHA has not had any success extending its coalition within the public higher education sector to university administrators and professors, most of whom are government-appointed.

“They are often of a certain age, most are too conservative and they are often frozen in their analysis,” she said. That does not change her belief that DRC’s universities “are places where politics are active”.