By Marie-Rose Tshite
I was 16 years old when it happened. Armed groups from the two final election contenders gathered outside my school gates and started shouting at each other. It was around 10 am. We all sat down on the floor, shaking. When the shouting stopped we managed to run to the courthouse nearby, hiding there for two days until calm returned and we could go home. But not before surveying the scene and realising we were among the lucky ones; other pupils had lost their lives while trying to escape.
I cannot forget that day because it forever changed my perception of politics and its influence on daily life. Like many Congolese, I witnessed firsthand how elections, in this case the release of the contested poll results, can spark unrest and social crisis, and even lead to the death of innocent victims.
Election periods in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have always been tense with politicians often inventing strategies and tricks to cling to power. During the 2006 and the 2011 elections, it was the modification of electoral laws to suit some political groups and the intimidation of opposition and youth leaders. The new strategy for the 2016 election was to delay the entire election schedule, which has given way to violence and political and social crisis. Going against this tide are Congolese youth like myself, who are demanding a more active role in shaping the country’s future.
Congolese Youth and Resolution 2250
The African Union Charter defines the term youth as “people from 18 to 35 years old”. However in my country, the attitude is that “youth is a state of mind” and nothing actually related to age. Perceptions that young people are not mature enough to think critically and make informed decisions (because they do not have a job, are not married with children) contributes to exclusion of an even larger percentage of Congolese in decision-making processes than the 65% considered youth in the country.
Despite this formal exclusion, youth have found a proactive role in DRC’s citizen movements and associations. Organisations such as the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the Volunteers Movement have helped us on the ground see how we, as youth, can make a difference by demanding participation in political decision-making, applying conflict resolution techniques at the community level during electoral disputes, and supporting social cohesion in our communities by getting involved in social issues.
Youth have also been comforted and inspired by the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2250 as it clearly denotes how young people’s participation in politics and social movements is necessary for peace. Congolese youth are not optimistic about the government’s willingness to respect the resolution, but with the resolution comes a framework from which youth can draw both inspiration and strength. Spreading the knowledge about the resolution though is key and as the only Congolese who participated in the regional consultations of the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security in Benin last year, I have already begun this work.
The growth of recent Congolese youth movements
Youth-led citizen movements have attracted a lot of young people who have not been able to find a place within the youth leagues of political parties or institutions. The high rate of youth unemployment and the exclusion of young people during decision-making processes has certainly also motivated youth to join these citizen movements. In them youth have found more openness to express their political views and more meaningful work, which goes beyond being mere holders of a political party membership card.
The rise of young people’s participation in citizen movements in DRC has undoubtedly also been influenced by the 2011 “Arab Spring”. It was for the whole of Africa and youth in particular a sign of hope and a call for decisive youth involvement in political change. The youth movements that followed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal became an inspiration for the youth in the DRC, showing their resilience to fight for change, combat corruption and decry social injustice.
However, in comparison to the Burkina-Faso youth movement, the Congolese youth movement is still in its infancy and is vulnerable to negative external influence. It also faces a lack of consensus/cooperation around political organising between the different youth groups and suffers from the low education levels of its members, as well as from the absence of role models.
Youth participation challenging the political and electoral process
Notwithstanding setbacks here and there, young people’s engagement in DRC politics has become a tangible reality. They now know their force, they understand their responsibilities and rights and their role in the country’s affairs. A quick illustration is their determination to block a recent decision to invalidate all semi-biometric passports to replace them with biometric ones. It was a successful show of force!
But because of the sudden increase of youth movements, they are now also perceived as a threat, and the government has continually tried to suppress both their right to assembly and freedom of association. The government has in some instances turned to violent suppression and has looked to propel their political youth leagues into combatant forces with the mission to fight the citizen youth movement by any means possible.
So far the citizen movement has not been deterred. Youth pro-democracy groups like Filimbi and LUCHA (i.e. ‘The Whistle’ and ‘The Struggle for Change’ respectively) have found ways to peacefully gather and protest, despite facing violence and continued arrests of their members. Their resolve is not only admirable but important for the future of our country.
The way forward for Congolese youth
The proliferation of citizen youth movements in recent years is an indication of the volatile situation on the ground and the failure of old-fashioned politics. Young people have a key role to play in politics but they need to be careful to ensure they don’t become a shadow of their political leaders; they must remain effective and innovative. They need to keep investing in themselves through continuous learning and training and to use their agency to preserve peace and social cohesion.
Youth movements in the DRC should aim to educate people on their rights, to provide information to their communities and to monitor electoral processes and government actions. But their voices can only be heard through diligent preparation and active participation. I strive to be one of those voices, working alongside fellow young Congolese to drive my country towards peace and social justice.
Photo Credit: Lacouronne Photography