ROAPE’s Ben Radley interviews Congolese activist Bienvenu Matumo. Matumo speaks about what led him to become an activist with Lutte Pour Le Changement (LUCHA) and LUCHA’s struggle for social justice and human dignity. He argues that the killing, imprisonment, and repression of activists has continued unabated under the new presidency of Félix Tshisekedi.
Ben Radley: To start us off, can you tell us something about your childhood and upbringing? How did your own background lead you to become a LUCHA activist?
Bienvenu Matumo: I grew up in a village in Nyamilima, where my father worked as an agent of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). I’m the son of a cop. He raised me to be politically aware and to love radio so I would follow the news, and that’s how I became interested in public information and politics. He came from South Kivu and would describe the conflicts and war in the 1960s, the independence struggles and especially seeing successive Congolese presidents. I come from a modest family but my father told me that I could do better than him. He wanted me to study hard so I could find a decent job and eventually go into politics. I was still very young when he died in 2001, so to graduate from school and university I needed a lot of support from my mother and her family.
I grew up amid the conflicts rife in the province of North Kivu. I saw Congolese people dying, young people killed for belonging to one ethnic group or another. I lost friends who fell victim to these ethnic practices. Other friends joined the armed groups to seek vengeance for relatives killed in the ethnic violence, and some of those friends died. Yet none of my friends chose freely to join. As victims of that violence, it was their only option.
My path was determined in the context of these conflicts, of the injustices they generated, and of the poverty endured by Congolese families like my own that struggled to provide for their basic needs. Unfortunately, several of the issues that affected my childhood continue to afflict the civilian population today: the living conditions of those displaced by war, the Rwandan refugee problem, and the Rwandan and Ugandan occupation.
I was at the University of Goma in 2008 when I met activists like Luc Nkulula, Serge Sivya and others. That led me to join the citizen movement LUCHA (Lutte pour le Changement), then still in its infancy.
Yourself and your comrades have been imprisoned under the Kabila administration for your activism with LUCHA. Can you tell us about these experiences and their influence on you?
The NIA arrested me twice in Kinshasa for my activism – in August 2015 and again in February 2016. The first time I didn’t spend long on police premises. After pressure from a number of sources – Congolese, human rights organisations and DRC partner organisations – I was released without trial after four days of interrogation. But the second occasion resulted in six months in Makala, Kinshasa’s biggest prison. Friends arrested with me suffered from bouts of depression as this was their first experience of prison, Victor Tesongo and Marcel Kapitene in particular. But I stayed strong, in public and in private. I was the most high-profile figure in the case and I acted as a leader. I couldn’t afford to appear anxious or depressed even though imprisonment was changing the course of my life – for good and ill.
I was more worried about my mother and two sisters, who rely on me so much. I’d only just graduated and received my posting to the Ministry of Agriculture. I thought that I’d lose my job and that my family would suffer.
However, our imprisonment was very significant in political and symbolic terms. We came to represent a courageous younger generation prepared to fight and challenge the dictatorship, and our jailing (and that of other LUCHA activists) made the Congolese aware of the political manipulation of the justice system.
During our six months in Makala we achieved a great deal (the Kinshasa section of LUCHA was founded there). The authorities intended the prison to be a place of punishment and detention. Instead, it turned into an activist laboratory. It also became a university, as we managed to arrange opportunities to read, share knowledge, write, debate, and learn languages like English and Italian (although we didn’t make much progress). While I was in prison, with the full support of Fred Bauma, I drafted my application for the grant that enabled me first to study in France and then to pursue my doctoral research at the Paris 8 University, where I now teach in the geography department.
In short, I think prison played a big part in shaping my activism and developing my social and cultural capital. I met some fantastic prisoners who gave us vital support. With Eddy Kapend, I regularly discussed the DRC’s history under Laurent Kabila’s regime. I developed my first serious contacts with Congolese politics while I was in jail. In short, the effect of these arrests was to supercharge both my personal commitment and the construction of LUCHA’s ideas more generally.
Can you tell us a bit more about LUCHA, its history, its vision, and its objectives?
I’ve been a proud member of LUCHA for almost nine years. In general terms, LUCHA works for social justice and human dignity. Our aim is to raise awareness among citizens to render them capable of monitoring decision-makers and holding them to account. We want to fulfil our civic responsibility, which requires us to be politically aware and to exercise our power as citizens to secure freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights in our nation and to install a form of government which permits all Congolese to live in peaceful enjoyment of our natural resources and of equality before the law. Our vision is simple: it is of the New Congo, a strong, free, united, and prosperous nation, where every Congolese may live with dignity and justice. We draw our inspiration from the political ideas of Lumumba and other pan-African opponents of colonisation and slavery. LUCHA is thus open to African coalitions and committed to wider African issues.
There is a contradiction inherent in our work. How can we expect young activists from regions plagued by three decades of conflict to embrace an ethos of non-violence? The answer is simple yet complex. We argue firstly that ‘political’ violence has produced damage greater than any solutions to the issues it seeks to resolve, so the option of non-violence is an invitation to use alternative methods that lead to different results. The solutions produced by non-violence are also durable, while violence leads to fragile solutions and breeds hatred and a desire for revenge. Another argument highlights the success and global reach of non-violence. We can cite the meaningful and politically significant speeches and actions of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and others like them. Non-violence is essential in bringing new hope to the struggle and in countering the widespread belief that young people in eastern Congo are violent by nature. Non-violence is now firmly embedded in Congolese society, particularly in the fields of political and community activism.
LUCHA has had its highs and lows, but the history of the movement is essentially built around the ideas, beliefs, rebellion, and anger of its activists, and around the illegal and arbitrary arrests they have suffered. In my view LUCHA has played a historically significant role in the struggle to ensure respect for the constitution and in the promotion of certain social and security issues. For example, LUCHA helped to ensure that Joseph Kabila obeyed the constitution and did not stand for a third term as president. LUCHA activists mobilised and demonstrated in various ways – direct action, dead city days, sit-ins, petitions, strikes, marches, protests – and at local, national, regional, and international level. Together these actions forced Kabila from office.
Having grown up under Joseph Kabila’s presidency, how would you describe the impact of this period of Congolese history on yourself and your political development?
Yes, I grew up under Kabila’s presidency. Initially, many people found his youth attractive. At school, for example, we were proud of having the world’s youngest president. But as we matured and developed firm views on government our disenchantment grew. We can forgive his early years of shared presidency, from 2002 to 2005, even while opposing him on certain matters. From 2006, however, he squandered the chance to develop the country, which is unpardonable. His regime was one of predation, corruption, impunity, embezzlement, repression, instability, and uniformity of thinking. Daily life continued to collapse, hugely affecting my education and that of my contemporaries, households, and the nation as a whole. Many children had families that couldn’t afford for them to study. Others finished their education but couldn’t find a job due to high rates of unemployment.
My political activism was triggered when Kabila decided to defy the constitution and seek a third term of office, when living standards were falling and insecurity in the eastern provinces was killing many Congolese. Lives were being cut short, families torn apart and hopes dashed, all to complete official indifference. Nothing was done but count the dead, compile statistics. Then, shortly after military commanders like Mamadou Ndala Moustapha and General Bauma had led the struggle against the M23 rebels, they were killed in dubious circumstances, again to no interest from the Congolese state. I also abhorred the poor conditions suffered by the military, civil servants, police officers, and their dependents, whose protests continue while government ministers and governors lived or live in social opulence. This unequal distribution of state revenue angered me. We must fight against the social inequalities created and perpetuated by the state.
All this happened around 2014. That’s when I was radicalised and became an activist. I wanted to raise awareness among my compatriots in order to thwart the plans of Kabila and his cohort of predators. Happily, Kabila was forced from office but his practices live on. The fight continues in this respect.
Kabila left power and was replaced in January 2019 by Felix Tshisekedi. Has the new regime made it easier for citizen movements like LUCHA to grow and expand?
Far from it, repression continues and activists are now dying. Three LUCHA activists have been shot dead by the police during non-violent protests since 2019: Obadi in November 2019, Marcus in May 2020, and most recently 22-year-old Mumbere Ushindi on 24 January 2022. LUCHA activists have also been subject to arbitrary arrest, and another comrade from Beni, Kambale Lafontaine, suffered an amputation after he was shot in the leg during a demonstration. Thirteen of my comrades have just been thrown in jail and sentenced to twelve months’ detention. LUCHA has already appealed this unjust verdict. And another comrade, King Mwamwiso, has been arrested by Goma’s mayor for strongly criticising the local administration.
One thing that has changed is the reason for our arrest. Under Kabila we campaigned around issues of democracy and respect for the constitution. Now we’re protesting about security issues. Our demands for an end to instability, massacres and violence are legitimate, and without doubt we’re contributing to the search for peace. I should stress that we’re not the only group suffering a crackdown for highlighting security issues. Local activist artists in Beni are also being targeted. I’m thinking here of Idengo who is languishing in Goma’s central jail.
Politically speaking, LUCHA continues to circulate proposals and ideas on the electoral process, corruption, impunity, the handling of Covid, and the tricky issue of the state of emergency. Our influence permeates the religious and political spheres. To advance our causes and agenda, we engage with political, religious, and civil society actors. If they heed what we say, the Congo will be the winner. We ensure that institutions receive copies of documents relevant to them. Our annual Fatshimetrie newsletter, for example, is sent to a wide range of actors, telling our leaders how their actions are viewed by the citizens. We send memos and letters to the authorities when consultations and conferences are held. We’ve met President Tshisekedi, the Prime Minister, and other ministers to discuss our proposals on various issues in national life, but three years later there is nothing to show for it. I’ve realised that these people don’t listen and would rather carry on regardless. The only visible reaction has been to demonise and stigmatise brave activists. LUCHA is growing and will continue to do so, and its role will be crucial in the months to come.
Do the recent events and political changes in the Congo give you hope for a better future, or are the same practices under Kabila, of predation and so on that you’ve mentioned, simply continuing under a different leadership?
My hopes of a bright future come from the fact that I’m standing up and fighting for it, not from past political changes and events. Tomorrow’s Congo will be better than it is today but only if we assume our individual and collective responsibilities. In short, I argue that while Kabila has gone his practices remain and we must be resolute in combating them.
Finally, 2021 was the 60th anniversary of the assassination of Lumumba. Can you describe his influence in today’s Congo? What does he mean to you and other political activists?
The trio of Lumumba, Okito, and Mpolo are considered the fathers of Congolese independence, while Lumumba himself is a major figure in Congolese, African, and world history. To describe yourself as a Lumumbist is seen as an asset conferring political legitimacy in popular opinion. Congolese political parties continue to proclaim their adherence to Lumumba’s ideas in words if not in deeds. I’m thinking, for example, of the Parti Lumumbiste Unifié (PALU) whose actions are a travesty of Lumumba’s political thought. His influence played a key role in my development as an activist and he continues to inspire in the DRC. A lot of young activists identify with his thought and embody many of its aspects.
Bienvenu Matumo is a LUCHA activist. He is a doctoral student in social geography at the Paris 8 University, and a student in political science at the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University. He is a member of des ateliers de la République, a group of reflection and action on public policies in the DRC and in Africa. He is an alumni of the Ecole nationale d’administration. He currently lives in-between Paris and Kinshasa.