The peaceful protests that were held in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been met with great violence and brutality from the police. On May 20, 2023, the police brutally dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of people and badly injuring a reported 30 people. In response to the violence, the police initiated an investigation and arrested 3 police officers for brutally beating a child.
This incident has brought up issues of trust and safety that have further damaged the already diminished faith in the Congolese government. President Felix Tshisekedi’s public comments concerning the involved police officers have only raised more concerns. He publicly praised the police chief who oversaw the dispersal of the protesters, stating that the “zero death” is a good result, and that he deserves to “rise in rank again” which only indicates that the government believes in excessive force and is willing to reward those involved.
The tragedy of this incident stretches beyond the direct victims and can be felt from all communities in the country. Any individual or group that stands for justice and freedom are in danger of being met with excessive force by the police. There is added danger that Tshisekedi is actively encouraging more use of excessive force with the actions of rewarding and congratulating the head of the police officers in charge. This is even more concerning as there is a great lack of trust that the investigation into the violence and brutality against protesters will really be impartial.
Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, has criticised the Congolese police’s brutality against innocent protesters as an attempt to repress their dissent and silence their voices. She has advocated for President Tshisekedi to ensure that all those found responsible for abuse would be sanctioned or prosecuted for their actions. It is an essential right to have dissent heard and President Tshisekedi must rise to lead in the protection of citizens from police violence.
On May 12, a coalition of opposition political parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) led a peaceful march in the nation’s capital Kinshasa to denounce the high cost of living. The march, organised in protest of the country’s widespread poverty, was made up of citizens of all social backgrounds and received support from prominent political figures including Martin Fayulu of Ecide, Moise Katumbi of Together for the Republic, Matata Ponyo of LGD, and Delly Sesanga of Envol.
However, what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration quickly turned violent after the police on the scene cracked down on the peaceful protestors. Bienvenu Matumo, a member of the citizen movement La Lucha, was one of many violently arrested by the police during the march. Matumo faced physical violence from the police officers at the site and was then held in a cell for over five hours.
The inhumane treatment of the police officers sparked an outcry by the Congo public. Videos of police beating and dispersing peaceful demonstrators, including a young child, with wooden sticks went viral on social media, mobilising citizens to speak out against the violent crackdown. In the Ngaba neighbourhoods, police responded to the growing opposition with violent tear gas attacks. Demonstrators, angered by the police violence, resorted to throwing stones and projectiles at the police.
The Kinshasa provincial police reported that 30 police officers suffered injuries as a result of the march, with twenty people being arrested for vandalising a police bureau and three officers arrested for brutalising demonstrators and a minor. The Minister of Human Rights, Albert Fabrice Puela, condemned the violence and has deemed it necessary to investigate the rights violations committed during the march in the hopes of ending the cycle of violence.
The march may have had its troubles, but it still stood as a momentous event within history. Political leaders and citizens of the DRC have voiced their frustration with the current situation, and the march has caused a stir within the nation that could be a potential start to reforms.
The recent crackdown on civil society protesters in Congo has exposed the troubling reality of human rights protection in the country. Shortly before the much-anticipated December 2023 general elections, the government of Kinshasa used excessive force in suppressing peaceful demonstrations in the capital. This incident has raised serious concerns over the ability of the Congolese government to ensure that its citizens can safely exercise their basic civil liberties.
Individual and collective actors from civil society, the European Union, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO), and the US Embassy strongly denounced the violence and called for an immediate de-escalation. The Governor of Kinshasa, Gentiny Ngobila, however, charged the organisers of the protest with alleged acts of vandalism and threatened to file formal complaints.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials set an international standard for the responsible use of force and arms by police and state security forces. If peaceful demonstrations have followed, the state security forces should apply non-violent means before resorting to force or firearms. Furthermore, unless absolutely necessary, lethal weapons should be withheld from use in protest suppression and any degree of force should be in proportional to the legitimate and actual objective being sought.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged the Congolese government to ensure that security forces act in accordance with the UN Basic Principles and called for the “full respect of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression of the Congolese people.” Human Rights Watch likewise joined in the collective condemnation of the violence, highlighting the urgent requirement for enhanced legal protection for Congolese protesters.