Congo’s Amani Festival Should be a Safe Space for Peaceful Expression
Last weekend, tens of thousands of people came together and reveled in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma for the Amani Festival, a three-day outdoor concert. Now in its fourth year, the music festival tapped into the city’s rich cultural life. It featured a line-up of national and international stars who performed amidst exhibits and workshops set up by local businesses, human rights groups, humanitarian agencies, and embassies. In a region plagued by conflict for the past 20 years, the festival offers a rare reprieve.
Yet the festival’s main slogans – “playing for change” and “singing for peace” – seemed to be undermined when police took signs away from members of the youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA), and when the festival’s organizers later told them to stop chanting. The young activists were calling for peace in Beni, Tanganyika, and Kasai Central – conflict-ridden areas in Congo where hundreds of people have been killed in recent months. They were also calling for the release of their colleague Fabrice Mutsiirwa, who was arrested during a peaceful protest in Goma on December 19, the last day of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Over the past two years, dozens of other LUCHA activists have been arrested and detained for participating in similar peaceful activities.
After the police took their signs away on Sunday, the LUCHA activists held hands and danced together in a circle opposite a closed-off area for VIPs, including North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku. The activists chanted that Paluku and other political leaders were staying in power past the constitutional limits. While the message was strong, their dance was festive and non-confrontational.
Paluku was seated next to the provincial police chief Vital Awashango and Goma’s mayor, Dieudonné Malere. The three have been among the principal enforcers of widespread political repression in the city over the past two years.
After several minutes, in an incident filmed by Human Rights Watch, one of the Amani Festival organizers approached the activists and told them to stop chanting, saying that they risked ruining the festival. In what has now become the LUCHA activists’ typical response to repression, they initially refused to leave and crouched down on the dusty ground for a moment of silence. They dispersed moments later, without disrupting the festival. An Amani organizer later told us that LUCHA is a “political” movement that could cause “trouble.” He said the festival is meant to promote “reconciliation” and has “no space for a political movement.”
— Timo Mueller (@MuellerTimo) 16 février 2017
While seemingly insignificant in the context of the broader repression in the country, the Amani Festival incident reinforced the notion that these young activists are but troublemakers – false allegations that authorities have used repeatedly in their attempts to quash dissent.
If the Amani Festival is committed to bringing change and peace to eastern Congo, then it should also be a safe space for youth activists to express themselves freely and peacefully. With their commitment to civic engagement, human rights, and democratic principles, they could be the change-makers for the country’s future. Their voices should not be silenced.