Confusion Surrounds DR Congo Sect Protests Leaving at Least 27 Dead
At least 27 people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday, as supporters of Bundu dia Kongo (BDK), a political religious sect, took to the streets in Kinshasa and Kongo Central province.
According to witnesses, security forces fired live ammunition into crowds, hitting demonstrators and bystanders.
The demonstrators were ostensibly protesting President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. However, the political opposition and well-placed sources contend that the authorities allowed the protests with the aim of creating chaos and repression that would justify the imposition of further election delays.
Residents from the area surrounding Kinshasa’s central prison in Selembao neighborhood and others in Bumbu, Kimbaseke, Matete, Masina, N’djili, Ngaliema, and Ngiri-Ngiri neighborhoods told Human Rights Watch they either heard gunshots or saw protesters marching through the streets beginning about 9 a.m. In Kongo Central, protests were held in the provincial capital, Matadi, as well as in Boma, Kimpese, Kinzau-Mvuete, Kisantu, Kwilu-Ngongo, Lukula, and Muanda.
Groups of protesters wearing red bandanas and holding sticks and palm nut husks marched along the main roads of Kinshasa and towns in Kongo Central, while chanting slogans hostile to Kabila. According to a police statement, “assailants” carried shotguns and crude weapons. Some of the protesters in Kinshasa held banners that read: “Congo for Congolese, Rwanda for Rwandans,” and “Hyppolite Kanambe alias Kabila and his brothers, get out!” – a reference to allegations by some BDK members and others that Kabila is not of Congolese origin. Signs calling on “Kabila and Rwandans” to leave Congo were also seen in Kongo Central, including in Boma, Kwilu-Ngongo, and Lukula. (Xenophobic messages that amount to incitement to violence or discrimination should be criminally prosecuted.)
The protests appeared to have been prompted by an ultimatum issued by the BDK leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, in late June. Nsemi, who had been arrested on March 3, 2017 and charged with incitement to tribal hatred and violence, and insulting the head of state, among other charges, escaped from Kinshasa’s central prison during a massive prison break in May, and his whereabouts are unknown. In a video message shared on social media that appears to have been filmed on June 27, Nsemi called on “the Rwandans and President Kabila” to leave Congo before August 7, threatening that his supporters would apply the “divine law” of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” if they failed to comply.
Human Rights Watch research found that at least 23 people were killed in Kinshasa during Monday’s protests, including 11 BDK members and 10 apparent bystanders shot dead by security forces, and two police officers killed by the protesters. In Kongo Central, at least two BDK members were killed in Matadi, and one BDK member and a military police officer in Muanda. Human Rights Watch has received additional unverified reports of others killed in Kongo Central province and Kinshasa.
A witness in Kinshasa said BDK members had encouraged people to follow them to “chase” Kabila from power, asking the men to put sand in their trousers’ pockets and the women to put sand in their underwear, supposedly to make them invincible to bullets. While the protesters were marching in Selembao neighborhood, police fired in the air to disperse them. One of the protesters launched a palm nut shell, using a stick, at a police officer. The police officer was hit in the head and killed. Another witness in Kinshasa said military police officers shot dead four people in the Marché de la Liberté, a market in Masina neighborhood, soon after BDK members had marched through the market. The police first shot in the air to disperse demonstrators, and then soldiers arrived and fired at point-blank range into the crowd of market vendors and shoppers fleeing the commotion.
Several groups of protesters were allowed to demonstrate without interference, accompanied by members of the Congolese security forces who made no effort to block or stop the protests, according to witnesses and photographs and video footage we reviewed. This was in stark contrast to other recent planned protests, including the July 31 nationwide protests called for by a coalition of citizens movements and human rights organizations known as the Collective of Civil Society Actions (CASC), and supported by many opposition parties. In that instance, security forces deployed heavily in advance to prevent the protests from going forward, fired teargas and live bullets to disperse those who protested, and arrested at least 128 people across the country.
Similarly, in advance of the “ville morte,” or general strike, called for on Tuesday and Wednesday by the Rassemblement opposition coalition, security forces deployed heavily in Congo’s main cities from the early hours to try to deter anyone from protesting in the streets. The Congolese government even instructed telecommunications companies to restrict social media access, in an apparent effort to prevent people from sharing or posting photographs of the empty streets in Kinshasa and other towns where the ville morte was respected.
The unexpected willingness of the Congolese authorities not to prevent Monday’s protests sparked allegations that the government sought to create a situation that would lead to even tighter restrictions on demonstrations and political space and further delays in the organization of elections. According to a statement by opposition leader and presidential aspirant Moïse Katumbi’s spokesperson, Monday’s demonstrations and resulting violence was intended by the government to “create chaos” and “impose a state of emergency.”
An individual close to the security forces told Human Rights Watch that the protests and attacks on Monday were “all theater; the goal is to create chaos everywhere.” He alleged, though we could not confirm, that soldiers were mixed in with real BDK supporters, and security forces had been instructed to give “free passage” to demonstrators. He said that the authorities intended to use the pretext of the BDK movement “to create a militia that the government can attack. What they did with the Kamuina Nsapu in the Kasais, now they’ll do in [Kongo Central].” He said that the “police officers and soldiers who were killed or injured hadn’t been informed of the operation in advance.”
In an official ceremony in Kinshasa on Wednesday with the ministers of defense, interior, and communications, and the head of the national intelligence agency (ANR), among others, the police presented 31 suspects from Monday’s protests who they alleged had attempted a “coup d’état.” The police spokesperson also said that 19 people were killed during Monday’s violence and seven others wounded.
Prompt and impartial investigations are needed to determine who was responsible for Monday’s loss of life. Violence by protesters or the excessive use of force by the security forces should not be tolerated, and those responsible should be appropriately held to account.