KINSHASA - Young Congolese were at the forefront of calls for President Joseph Kabila to not seek re-election. Now that Kabila has agreed to step aside, young voters are gearing up for the December 23 poll and demanding a free and fair election.
In the DRC, more than half of the country’s 80 million people are below age 25, and many say they feel they have been ignored by successive governments.
As a result, many are skeptical of local politicians.
“The problem in Congo is that we are not free. We are not free at all. We’re in the hands of a few people who want to manipulate us, who want to take us according to their ambitions,” says Ornella Mujinga, 26.
She and her sister, Benta Loma, participated in a street rally in July to demand the government secure the conflict-ridden Kasai region where violence against women is high. Both sisters and more than 40 fellow activists were arrested.
“They brutalized us harshly. All we want is the liberty of those that have been assaulted. They were so harsh to us and we were (just) having a peaceful protest,” Loma says.
Loma says she has decided to dedicate her life for the struggle of a better DRC despite the government intimidation.
“If you condemn what is happening, they will tell you, ‘No this and that,’ and they will begin to pursue you. I want to feel the democracy. There is no democracy in Congo. I would like to see everyone free,” Loma says.
As she speaks, she begins to cry. Her sister watches her with concern.
Working within major parties
The DRC has battled political instability, insecurity and corruption for decades. The country is still recovering from two civil wars, and armed groups continue to fight over abundant mineral resources such as diamonds, cobalt, and silver, leaving the eastern provinces in a permanent state of conflict.
Youth activists say they deserve a better future and some are working within existing political parties to advocate for it.
Serge Luabeya attended a strategy meeting with senior members of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). At the meeting, he shook hands with members of the party’s elite and joined in the chanting of “Viva, viva!”
But he’s also looking for young people to reach.
“They have over 55 percent of the population and in the heart of the party also there are a lot of youth. For the vision of the party, for the doctrine and ideology to be realized, the youth are needed,” he says.
Luabeya, the party’s deputy youth leader, said he was inspired by the younger Kabila, who took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father.
“I saw a young president, 29 years old, stand on a manifesto full of courage, with a strong conviction and with a lot of determination and I told myself that he is heaven-sent,” Luabeya says.
He says that under Kabila’s leadership, the economy has improved; but, international organizations, including the World Bank and United Nations, say Congo still ranks among the world’s poorest countries.
Clement Baruti, who leads the youth league of the largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), accuses the country’s military elite of looting public funds.
“This country has been run by military officers disguising themselves as civilians," he says. “We want a government that is ruled by law and civil rule because without such, the vision for progress will not work.”
A turning point?
The UDPS’s front man, Felix Tshisekedi, the son of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, believes that he could be the “savior” of the DRC. At a recent press conference in Kinshasa, he spoke of ambitions to build the DRC’s own Silicon Valley to encourage young people to take an interest in high technology.
But political scientist Felicien Kabamba, a professor at the University of Kinshasa and analyst at the Congo Bureau of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, says such lofty goals will not have an impact until the country’s educational sector becomes a priority.
He describes the state of youth in the country as “catastrophic,” although he sees Kabila stepping down as a move in the right direction.
"This historical event introduces us to a new era but the way [ahead] is again very long," he says.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation through the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.