Popular Protest & Class Struggle in Africa – Part 6

In this issue of his project on Popular Protest, Social Movements and Class Struggle in Africa David Seddon continues to provide an analysis of the situation in the two countries considered in no. 5 – Zimbabwe and the DRC – after significant protests against the current regime (or Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila) took place over the last two months, albeit with rather different dynamics and rather different implications in the two cases.  

By David Seddon

It was reported by Al Jazeera, on Thursday 25 August 2016, that the previous day:

Zimbabwean police (had) used tear gas, water cannons and batons to disperse an opposition rally protesting against police brutality in the capital Harare. More than 200 supporters, mostly youths, of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), took to the streets on Wednesday. Many protesters were reported to have been injured, but police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said she had no information on that. Riot police blocked streets around the MDC headquarters and used water cannon against some youths in downtown Harare. Some protesters threw back tear gas canisters, as well as rocks, towards the police, who fired more tear gas outside the MDC offices. The demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital denouncing the police for beating up protesters and called on President Robert Mugabe to step down, accusing him of running a dictatorship.

The rally came two days before a planned march by all opposition parties to try to force Mugabe to implement electoral reforms before a general election in 2018. Chinoputsa, the MDC Youth Assembly secretary-general, said police had refused to sanction the march, saying that it would degenerate into violence. The police routinely deny charges of brutality and instead accuse the opposition of using “hooligans” during protests to attack officers. A trauma clinic in Harare last month compiled a list of cases of people who had been caught up in a police crackdown during anti-government protests. The MDC’s leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former vice president, Joice Mujuru, were expected to lead Friday’s march.

Home Affairs Minister Ignatious Chombo warned that the government would clamp down heavily on what it termed ‘Western-sponsored’ protests seeking regime change. All was set, however, by the evening of Thursday 25 August for an opposition march the next day in Harare city centre, to press for comprehensive electoral reforms before the 2018 general polls, despite attempts by the police initially to confine the protest to the outskirts of Harare central business district. The police had claimed that the protesters would disrupt human and road traffic.

But chairman of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) legal team, Douglas Mwonzora, said it was surprising that police were concerned about an expected 150,000 people for the march when Zanu-PF had held its so-called one million man march in the city a few months ago. As a result, Mwonzora said, they had approached the courts to make sure police do not interfere with their march. The move to seek court backing came a day after police violently put down another march by opposition youths, firing tear gas and water cannon and beating them as they staged a protest against police brutality. High Court judge, Hlekani Mwayera, eventually ordered the police and government ‘not to interfere, obstruct or stop the march’ and Chief Superintendent Newbert Saunyama, the police officer commanding Harare Central district, agreed that the parties could go ahead with their demonstration to hand over the petition to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

‘We view this as victory for democracy’, said Douglas Mwonzora after the court ruling; ‘the demonstration is going ahead [although] we know the police have already tear-gassed the venue’. Didymus Mutasa of the Zimbabwe People First party, Convener of the 18 political parties involved under the NERA, also told journalists that the march to ZEC would go ahead as planned. Mutasa, who was flanked by some NERA principals, former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC-T and Jacob Ngarivhume of Transform Zimbabwe, said the march would culminate with the handing of the petition to ZEC and an address by NERA leaders at the electoral body’s headquarters.

He explained that opposition political parties were worried that the ZEC is failing in its constitutional mandate to register voters and administer elections. They also accuse it of bias in favor of the ruling Zanu-PF. They felt that there was ‘a crisis of legitimacy’ at the centre of the current national problems facing Zimbabwe, hence the demand for electoral reforms and a clear road map to the next election. Mutasa said the parties want the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to support Zimbabweans in their demand for free and fair elections.

On 27 August, the Mail & Guardian Africa reported that:

Zimbabwean police on Friday fired tear gas at opposition leaders and hundreds of demonstrators as a protest against President Robert Mugabe descended into one of the worst outbreaks of violence in two decades. Opposition head Morgan Tsvangirai and former vice president Joice Mujuru fled the rally in their cars while protesters ran for cover as police firing tear gas and water cannons broke up the core of the demonstration. Clashes then spread through the streets of Harare as riot police fought running battles with protesters who hurled rocks at officers, set tyres ablaze and burned a popular market to the ground, in some of the worst unrest since food riots in 1998. ‘Mugabe’s rule must end now, that old man has failed us’, said one protester, before throwing a rock at a taxi.

The stay-away ‘strike’ proved quite effective. Alex Magaisa reported, after the event, that

… the events of the last week, starting with the citizens’ protests in Beit Bridge through to the mass stay-away of Wednesday, are a seminal moment, in the sense that they demonstrate, for the first time in a long period, a re-awakening of the citizens and a demonstration of their capacity to assert themselves in their capacity as ordinary citizens, not as followers of political parties or organised civil society.

For too long, Zimbabweans have appeared to be a docile lot, with an extraordinary capacity to absorb the worst excesses of the Zimbabwean regime without as much as a whimper. Why do Zimbabweans not act? Why are they so comfortable and silent in the face of government excesses and failures? … This week demonstrated that Zimbabwean citizens have the capacity to take expressive action against the excesses of the regime.        

On 1 September, recognising the possibility that the demonstrations could get out of hand, the government imposed a ban on protests in the country’s capital Harare. The ban, which was introduced under the Public Order and Security Act and was to last for a period of two weeks, was announced the day before opposition parties were due to hold their second anti-government demonstration (on 2 September 2016) and in the light of an escalation in protests over the previous month over stalled electoral reforms and the declining economy. Less than a week later, on 7 September, the BBC reported that High Court judge Priscilla Chigumba had ruled that the two-week ban on protests was illegal; she also said that the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law was important to democracy.

Stan Zvorwadza, one of the activists who challenged the ban, told the BBC he welcomed the verdict, adding that he and demonstrators wanted to protest peacefully about the mismanagement of the country. He also hailed Chigumba’s ruling as ‘a brave judgement’, coming days after President Mugabe had condemned the previous court ruling allowing the anti-government protest at the end of August, a demonstration that (as we have seen) turned violent when police ignored the Court order and clashed with demonstrators. Mugabe had suggested that, in that case, the judges had showed a reckless disregard for peace, and warned that they should not dare to be negligent when making future decisions. The president has recently warned protesters there would be no Zimbabwean uprising similar to the ‘Arab Spring’.

On 9 September riot police fired tear gas to break up the first anti-government protest in Harare since the courts overturned a ban on street marches. Hardlife Mudzingwa, spokesman for Tajamuka, a youth protest movement, said police blocked about 30 demonstrators, singing and marching peacefully marching towards parliament in the capital. “We refused to back down and when they realised we were not stopping, they fired tear gas”, he said. Several protesters suffered minor injuries, he said.

On 17 September, it was reported by enca.com that:

a planned mass demonstration against Zimbabwe’s veteran President Robert Mugabe failed to kick off in the capital Harare… as riot police patrolled the streets to enforce a protest ban. A coalition of opposition parties under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) had planned country-wide demonstrations demanding reform ahead of the 2018 election, when 92-year-old Mugabe plans to stand again. But a month-long protest ban and a heavy police presence saw the event fizzle out before it started, with just small groups of activists demonstrating in the surburbs.

…In the second city of Bulawayo, close to a thousand protesters staged a peaceful march on Saturday after a high court ruling gave them permission to take to the streets. Police stood by with armoured vehicles and water cannons. “All we are demanding is that we want a free, fair and credible election,” MDC deputy president Thokozani Khupe told the crowd. “We are drawing a line in the sand and we are saying never again will we allow an election to be held where elections will be rigged.

Democratic Republic of Congo

In the meanwhile, in the DRC, it was reported on 27 July 2016 by David Hurrell for Opinion.red24.com that travel disruption was reported in Kinshasa, especially along Boulevard Lumumba, as tens of thousands of supporters awaited the arrival at N’Djili airport of Etienne Tshisekedi, veteran leader of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), who has spent the past two years in Belgium. On his arrival, supporters accompanied him to the UDPS headquarters in the Limete municipality of Kinshasa. Hurrell remarked that that:

Pro- and anti-government protests are expected in major urban areas throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the coming days. On 29 July, a large demonstration in support of the president, Joseph Kabila, is scheduled at the Stade Tata Raphael in Kinshasa. On 31 July, large rallies are expected at the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa, and at the Grande Place Tshombe in Lubumbashi, by the opposition coalition known as the Rally or ‘Rassemblement’.

On 20 August 2016, the DRC’s main opposition alliance rejected talks with the Kabila government regarding the delayed November presidential election, and called for a general strike on 23 August. The political opposition also vowed to conduct other large-scale actions across the country prior to 19 September – the date when the President is constitutionally required to call for elections (90 days before the end of his term). The call to strike represents a significant escalation in opposition action, following the return of UDPS leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, to the DRC. In an e-mailed public statement, Tshisekedi stated that the ‘necessary requirements for holding a dialogue’ had yet to be met by the government, and called on citizens to ‘mobilise as a single man’ and observe a general strike.

The opposition’s decision was a significant blow to the African Union mediator, Edem Kodjo, who had planned to host opening talks with all domestic political parties on 23 August to help reach an agreement on the scheduling of the elections. Kodjo – a former Togolese Prime Minister (1994-1996, 2005-2006) – has drawn considerable criticism from opposition politicians who view him as a Kabila apologist, and there have been numerous calls for his resignation; Martin Fayulu – the leader of the Commitment for Citizenship and Development party and a member of the opposition coalition – has been particularly vocal in his disapproval of Kodjo.

Although Kabila has yet to comment publically on his political future, all signs point to him attempting to cling to power indefinitely. Back in May 2016, the Constitutional Court – in an idiosyncratic interpretation of Article 70 of the 2005 Constitution – ruled that Kabila could stay in power beyond the end of his second and final mandate if the November 2016 elections did not take place. On 20 August 2016, the President of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), Corneille Nangana, stated that the ongoing revision of the national voter registry – a process that began in March 2016 – would not be likely to be completed before July 2017, providing further confirmation that the election will not take place as scheduled. Kabila himself stated earlier in August that a revised election timetable would only be published once a new voter registry is compiled. Additionally, according to Reuters, the government has also stated its desire to hold local and provincial elections before the presidential poll, and some observers have estimated that the latter will not occur until 2018 or 2019.

In a bid to ease political tensions ahead of a proposed ‘national dialogue’, the Kabila regime announced pardons on 19 August for 24 individuals incarcerated for their criticisms of the President. The detained politicians and democracy activists are viewed as political prisoners by domestic and international observers, and the government clearly hopes that its latest move will soften recent criticisms over its highly suspect human rights record. Opposition leader Joseph Olengankhoy has called on the government to extend a pardon to Moïse Katumbi, the leading presidential candidate who was sentenced in June in absentia (he is in South Africa) to three years in prison for alleged real estate fraud.

This latest attempt by the Kabila government to reconcile their public image follows on the heels of a surprise announcement by the head of state on 22 July, in which the president issued a number of pardons to a number of prisoners. Included amongst this number were six members of the youth activist group Struggle for Change (Lucha) who were arrested in February 2016 and sentenced to six months in prison as they prepared to participate in the ‘Ville Morte’ (Dead City) general strike. Key figures in the struggle for democracy, however – like Jean-Marie Kalonji and Christopher Ngoyi – remain in custody, without access to legal representation. 

One motive for the apparent ‘softening’ of the regime’s approach to the political opposition is undoubtedly the hope of creating the impression abroad that it is not an authoritarian state and complies with the demands of international observers for democracy and the rule of law, thereby avoiding further expressions of disapproval and sanctions. While unilateral sanctions imposed by the US will likely have little impact without the support of the EU and the UN, they nonetheless represent a further reputational blow to the increasingly authoritarian Kabila regime. A second motive behind the ‘softened’ approach is to bring the political opposition to the negotiating table. The Kabila government has continuously expressed its desire to engage constructively with political, civil society and religious institutions and, by complying with opposition requests to free ‘political prisoners’, it is indicating its wish to move towards a ‘national dialogue’ in the near future.

Despite these efforts, on the part of the regime, to create a more agreeable political atmosphere, the opposition parties began a nationwide strike on 23 August, as promised, to protest against what they see as President Kabila’s attempts to cling to power past the end of his constitutional term in December 2016. The opposition called on all citizens to remain at home in an attempt to highlight their disapproval of the government’s underhanded tactics to allow Kabila to retain power indefinitely.

Generally, the strike was geographically patchy and seemed unable to translate what is generally believed to be widespread popular support for the opposition into effective action. It certainly failed to live up to expectations set by a similar one-day general strike held a year and a half previously in February 2015. That strike – dubbed ‘Ville Morte’ (Dead City) – was hailed as a success after it shut down most businesses in Kinshasa. On this occasion also, Kinshasa (a traditionally anti-Kabila region) was effectively shut down – according to local sources and photographic evidence, the roads in Kinshasa were conspicuously quiet, while shops were closed in the city’s surrounding districts, particularly in opposition strongholds like Limete, where the police force used tear gas to disperse protestors who had gathered and erected barricades near the UDPS party headquarters. 

In some other towns also, elsewhere in the country, like Matadi and Bukavu, the action seemed quite effective, although in Goma, where youths blocked a road in the Katindo district with rocks and burning tyres, businesses appeared to operate as usual. There was little evidence, however, of a strike in DRC’s second city, Lubumbashi; and in the southern mining hubs of Kolwezi (Lualaba Province) and Lubumbashi (Haut-Katanga Province) commercial activity was unaffected by the strike, as was activity in the northeast commercial hub of Beni (North Kivu Province).

The political opposition appeared to have opted to organise mass strikes as they are a safer demonstration tactic than street marches, and this form of protest is more difficult for the government or security forces to repress or counteract. The safety and security of participants and party leaders is paramount in a state where the excessive use of force and arbitrary detentions are commonplace. Yet, a strike is only as effective as the ability of citizens to participate and while the political opposition is garnering considerable popular support, ordinary citizens do not have the financial capacity to maintain a prolonged – or even – it now appears – a one-day strike. Given the much-anticipated return of Étienne Tshisekedi after a two-year absence and the rapturous welcome he received, it was expected that the political opposition’s fight for democracy would receive a considerable boost.

Specifically, it was expected that Tshisekedi’s return would rally people to the streets after opposition protests over the last year failed to attract significant numbers. Such a poor start to the united opposition’s first major campaign against the Kabila regime was undoubtedly disappointing, particularly as the deadline for the end of the President’s mandate is fast approaching. But those who wrote off the capacity of the opposition to mobilise their supporters, were surprised when, less than a month after the ‘Ville Morte’ stay-at-home strike, mass protest broke out again on the streets of Kinshasa, and some other cities.

On 20 September 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that security forces had killed more than three dozen people in the latest bout of protests. According to Ida Sawyer, the Africa researcher for the New York-based human rights group, HRW had ‘credible reports’ that at least 37 people had lost their lives during two days of violent demonstrations.

The fighting broke out in Kinshasa on Monday 19 September as thousands of opposition supporters marched against President Kabila and his bid to extend his term. There were demonstrations also in Goma in the east of the country. Interior Minister Evariste Boshab earlier said a total of 17 people including three policemen had died in the violence. He also referred to the protests as ‘an uprising’. However, other sources reported much higher figures and close to 200 people are believed to have been arrested.

Meanwhile, the UN called for restraint amid deadly clashes between security forces and protesters. Spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday 20 September that the international body was ‘deeply worried’ by the latest round of violence. “We have received reports of excessive use of force by some elements of the security forces as well as reports that some demonstrators resorted to violence yesterday. We call on all sides to show restraint and we urge the authorities to ensure that existing national and international standards on the appropriate use of force are fully respected by all security personnel. We call for a credible and impartial investigation to bring those responsible of human rights violations and criminal acts to justice, and we stand ready to support such an inquiry,” Colville said. He added that the violence underlined the urgent need for dialogue on the electoral process in the country.

David Seddon (criticalfaculty1@hotmail.co.uk) is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.



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