Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Commemorating the March for Peace

On today, February 16, 2016, Congolese commemorated the seminal "Peaceful March of Christians," with a shut down of cities (Ville Morte in French) throughout the country in protest of President Joseph Kabila's attempt to remain in power in contravention to the Congo's constitution. The Democratic Republic of Congo's constitution allows the President to serve only two five-year terms. Kabila served his first term from 2006 - 2011 and his second five-year term, which began in 2011 ends on December 19, 2016. However, President Kabila has repeatedly demonstrated through his actions and the words and actions of his surrogates that he aims to remain in power in spite of the dictates of the constitution. In response, the Congolese people have organized to assure that Kabila respects the constitution. Civil society and opposition forces issued a call for a "Ville Morte" and requested that people remain at home and abstain from commercial and other normal activities. By and large the Congolese population in several key cities throughout the country responded to the call and stayed home, especially in the nation's capital leaving the streets deserted for most of the day. The people have certainly sent a message to regime that they want the country's constitution respected and are willing to engage in civil disobedience if necessary to hold Kabila and his government accountable to the law of the land.

On February 16, 1992, Congolese Christians responded to a call by the Catholic Church to protest peacefully and demand the reopening of the Sovereign National Conference (Conference National Souveraine - CNS in French). The conference was a democratic forum composed of delegates who represented all layers of the society in the Congo (Zaire at the time) from members of civil society, political parties, the military, the diaspora, as well as the president himself (Mobutu Se Seko). This conference was tasked with interrogating the country’s history and finding a way to deal with the multidimensional national crisis (political, economic, social, cultural, and moral) that the country was facing in 1990.

On January 19, 1992, then-Mobutu-appointed prime minister Nguza Karl-I-Bond announced the suspension of the Sovereign National Conference on radio and television. This decision to suspend the CNS angered many Congolese who had high hopes that this democratic process would help the country extricate itself from dictatorial rule. The Catholic Church, which at the time distanced itself from Mobutu's regime and became more vocal about Mobutu's human rights abuse, made a call to all Christians and civil society groups for a massive demonstration to reopen the Sovereign National Conference. Thousands of marchers from all backgrounds converged on the Tata Raphaël stadium. Police and soldiers opened fire on the marchers before they could reach their destination, killing more than forty people. This incident, which caused international outcry as news began to enter the western world, forced the government to reinstate the CNS in April 1991 and served as a pivotal point in Congo's struggle toward democratization.

In his book "The History of the Congo," Dr Didier Gondola revisits this important date and give us the reason why Christians in the Congo took to the streets. He says: "In early 1992, Mobutu decided to disband the Sovereign National Conference (Conference Nationale Souveraine - CNS), an assembly whose main task was to create a new constitution and organize democratic elections. In response to this decision, strong opposition mounted among Kinshasa's independent churches. On February 16, 1992, thousands of church members took their grievances to the streets of the capital in what was dubbed by its organizers as the "March of Hope" (Marche de l'Espoir). Marchers held banners demanding the reopening of the CNS, and they chanted songs against violence and dictatorship. The peaceful march ended in a bloodbath when the army intervened and gunned down dozens of demonstrators. The March of Hope has since been held up as a major turning point in the relations between the church and state. It was also an event that precipitated the end of Mobutu's regime."