Amnesty issues warning in wake of student killings

Calls for police-free university campuses in the wake of the killing by police of two students from the University of Kinshasa have coincided with a warning by Amnesty international about a “hostile political environment” ahead of election campaigning in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The students were gunned down during two protests in mid-November. According to an Amnesty International statement issued on 21 November, the police who fired the shots have been arrested and charged, but “officers higher up in the chain of command are yet to be held to account for deploying armed police officers to the university campus".

The statement warns that election campaigning for the long-overdue 23 December presidential elections “will take place in a hostile political environment that leaves little room for people to freely and safely exercise their human rights”.

“The authorities’ determination to silence dissent couldn’t be more evident through their ceaseless silencing of any kind of criticism or public demand, whether it touches on the country’s dire security situation, social grievances or the ongoing electoral process,” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, in the statement.

The late students are Hyacinthe Kimbafu, a graduate student studying informatics, and Rodrigue Eliwo, an undergraduate biology student. Kimbafu was wounded and died on 15 November in hospital. Eliwo was killed during a subsequent protest over Kimbafu’s death. At least seven other students were wounded.

Illegal use of live ammunition

The use of live ammunition has been widely condemned. Congolese Higher Education Minister Steve Mbikayi wrote on Twitter: "Live ammunition is outlawed on university sites. I demand an exemplary punishment for the police officers responsible for firing the fatal shots."

In an earlier statement, Nyanyuki described the use of live ammunition to disperse students on campus as “abhorrent and illegal” and called for a government investigation.

“We also urge the leadership of the university to listen to student concerns and allow future student protests to take place without involving the police in settling disputes on campus,” Nyanyuki said.

Calls for police-free campuses

Calls for the removal of police from campus also came from the Congolese Association for Access to Justice.

According to Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo, writing on the Global Ministries website, the University of Kinshasa has been under occupation by Congo's security forces and infiltrated by intelligence services of the regime of President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for 18 years, since the 19 January 2015 uprisings of the Telema Youth Movement, a global movement unfolding in the DRC and the diaspora.

On that occasion, police reportedly fired tear gas grenades and clashed with thousands of students and youth activists at the University of Kinshasa who were protesting against amendments to the Electoral Act.

Lecturers’ strike

The lecturers’ strike has been in play since 8 October. Lecturers are demanding better pay and for the president of the university to be elected by peers. The strike is the second by lecturers this year.

According to Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, the problems of police violence and lecturer pay are the product of an authoritarian government.

“The problems facing DR Congo's professors over pay issues and students over police violence as well as the election of the university head are no exception to what happens in most authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in Africa,” Abd-El-Aal said.

"To deal with the problem of African professors’ salaries and solve the payment issues, African universities must gain financial autonomy to be able to manage their funds and allocate their budget independently,” Abd-El-Aal told University World News.

He said top managers in African universities should be elected by academic staff, not appointed by the education minister or board of directors. "This will make them loyal to the university, not to the political figures that appointed them,” he said.

He said the police services on African campuses should be controlled by a code of ethics and student activism regulated by a comprehensive code of conduct. This was particularly important in light of the upcoming elections, he said.