The original version of this article was published on the website African Futures, a project of the Social Science Research Council, which explores protest movements and resistance to authoritarian rule across the African continent.
In the run-up to last November’s presidential elections in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cassandras were easy to find on the
streets of Kinshasa. “Ça va péter,” a parliamentarian told me,
“It’s going to blow up.” It wasn’t hard to see why. Both the incumbent
Joseph Kabila and his main opponent Etienne Tshisekedi toasted their
victories before the polls even took place. It was clear neither was
going to accept defeat.
This rhetorical jousting translated into unrest on the streets. In
the months running up to elections, Tshisekedi had at times been able to
mobilize upwards of 50,000 people in the streets and soccer stadiums in
the capital of Kinshasa, as well as in other major cities around the
country. The battle for the presidency appeared to be switching venue
from the ballot box to the streets.
When the polls were marred by massive fraud—ballot stuffing,
corrupted voter lists, “disappeared” votes—and Kabila was declared
winner with 48 percent of the vote, many thought we would see
large-scale unrest in Kinshasa.
And yet, it did not, or at least not in a way that would destabilize
the regime. Over the following months, the opposition and Catholic
Church tried to convert popular frustration into mobilization, but were
thwarted by police repression. What were the differences between the
streets of Limete and Tahrir Square, between the Congo and Tunisia?
Understanding this will help us decipher why there is such a poor record
of sustained, non-violent mobilization in the Congo in general.
Scholars disagree on the exact ingredients that go into a strong
social movement, but there is a very rough consensus on some key points
that are worth repeating here. First, grievance is not enough to spark
an uprising. As academics from James Fearon to Jack Goldstone argue:
suffering does not a revolution make. The majority of the downtrodden,
poor, and hungry people in this world are not picketing and protesting. A
quick glance at the bottom twenty countries in the Human Development
Index suggests that none have substantial non-violent movements capable of challenging the government.
It is not so much static suffering that appears to prompt action, but
changes in society—and not always changes for the worse. As Tocqueville
famously wrote about the French Revolution, “It is not always when
things are going from bad to worse that revolution breaks out. On the
contrary, it more often happens that, when a people which has put up
with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly find
the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it.” Indeed, scholars have pointed out that many revolutions are preceded by an increase in prosperity, not abject misery.
Secondly, the condition of the elites is just as important as that of
the masses. If the elites are united and the state strong, they will be
largely invulnerable to challenges. The French Revolution took
advantage of a profligate state in crisis after years of overspending on
wars. The Civil Rights movement in the United States benefitted from
the turbulence caused by the demise of King Cotton and the subsequent
urbanization of the black population in the South. In other words,
challenges to the status quo seem to require dissenting factions from
the elite to link up with popular protests. Even the peasant rebellions
of Latin America and Asia required these cross-class linkages; Fidel,
Mao, and Ho Chi Min were all able to make these linkages between
intellectual elites and disgruntled masses.
Lastly, people do not mobilize in a vacuum. Social movements rely on
strong networks with clear goals to overcome collective action problems,
whether these are religious groups, student collectives, or labor
unions. As sociologist Douglas McAdam pointed out in his study of
Freedom Riders in the segregated American South, it was largely personal connections and organizational membership that
determined participation, not ideological affinities. These networks
need to demonstrate a mixture of reciprocity and trust, on the one hand,
and strong internal organization on the other. All of these kinds of
networks were on display in the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt.
Et le Congo, alors? On the face of things, the Congo ranks
high on many of these revolutionary indicators. While it has seen little
increase in prosperity in recent years, it has been undergoing a social
and political transformation with a turbulent peace process. In
particular, the recent elections provided exactly the kind of raised
expectations followed by abrupt repression that Tocqueville thought were
so explosive. As for the Congolese elites—they could hardly be more
divided or fractured, and the state is certainly not fiscally or
militarily very sound. Finally, the past decade has seen the exponential
growth of civil society and political parties, providing the kind of
networks that social movements thrive on.
So why did Kinshasa not have its Tahrir moment?
Perhaps the Congo can teach us something about mobilization, and vice
versa. Here, divided elites fail to link up with popular protests;
social movements fail to galvanize extant civil society networks.
Part of the reason for this lies in the historical relationship
between the state, elites, and civil society. The state under Mobutu
labored to prevent cross-cutting alliances from emerging, both among
elites and within civil society. Coming on the heels of a repressive
Belgian state, Mobutu’s Mouvement populaire de la révolution party
colonized labor unions and student groups and repressed independent
organizations and political parties. Fragmentation became the name of
the game; he worked hard to prevent elites from establishing independent
support bases or for his officials from remaining in an office or
province for too long. In his later years, Mobutu encouraged local
ethnic feuds in a bid to divide and rule. It was a strategy dubbed pyromane-pompier: lighting fires just to show everyone how indispensable you are as a fireman.
When political space was opened up in fits and starts in the 1990s,
and then after the hiatus of the 1996-2003 wars, mobilization was
fragmented and heavily dominated by local and ethnic issues. The state
was not seen as a source of public service provision—indeed, it had
scant record of providing goods—but rather a trough at which different
patronage networks fed. While this patronage benefited only very few, it
dominated the logic of mobilization.
This brings us to the recent elections. Electoral mobilization was
largely fueled by short-term, often financial incentives—politicians
paid people to show up at rallies or distributed T-Shirts and beer. The
main exception was the opposition party Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social,
to which many rallied out of party loyalty and genuine outrage with the
government. However, little was done outside of some major cities to
cement these networks by organizing and civic education. Thus, while
Tshisekedi was able to rally tens of thousands of people to his
speeches, he relied too much on his own legendary stature and not enough
on the nuts-and-bolts of community organizing and grassroots
mobilization. He has also struggled to shake the perception that his
party is dominated by the Luba community, which has tense relations with
other ethnic groups in the capital and elsewhere.
Mobilization is multi-faceted, and other factors also impeded
large-scale demonstrations or unrest. The student and labor unions that
form the hub of resistance in other countries are internally divided in
the Congo, with parts of their leadership co-opted by the government and
other factions disillusioned with Tshisekedi. When the government
decided to escalate its tear-gassing and bully-clubbing of protesters
after the elections, few networks had the strength to overcome these
repressive tactics. Even the Catholic Church, which has been vociferous
in its criticism of the polls, faced internal divisions and resistance
from the Protestant and Kimbanguist communities, whose leaderships are
sympathetic to the government.
The situation among the elites is also not conducive for persistent
mobilization. Unlike some other countries on the continent—Kenya, Ghana,
and Nigeria are budding examples—in Congo there is little evidence of
an independent business and middle class emerging with a common interest
in pushing back against corruption and abuse. Business is largely
subservient to the state—in order to prosper as an entrepreneur, you
have to have connections in government. Instead of banding together to
oppose corruption and excessive taxation, businessmen mostly look out
for their own interests.
Political parties are also often fueled by narrow agendas. Most of
the hundreds of parties are somnolent for the five-year electoral cycle
and only come alive—with their flags popping up in rural areas, offices
being opened in cities—in election years. There are almost no policy
differences among the majority of these parties—at least, not that
matter to the public—and voters pick their candidates largely based on
the personalities, ethnicities, and reputations of the party’s leaders.
This splintering of the political arena has been compounded by the
electoral system of proportional representation, along with the
incumbent’s electoral strategy that privileges the proliferation of
Thus, in order to understand the failure of mobilization in the
Congo, we need to look beyond the usual finger-pointing at individuals.
This is not just a story about the relative merits of Kabila and
Tshisekedi, about a spineless international community and abusive police
forces. This is also a story about the fragmentation of the political
sphere, the lack of broad alliances that can galvanize a social base.
Modern Congo does not have broad, cross-cutting constituencies like
labor or Islamist movements; grassroots mobilization retains a sharp
ethnic character; and business and the media are heavily influenced by
I do not mean to downplay the many courageous individuals and
organizations in the Congo that have tried to lobby for their rights.
There are indeed many of them. But the key challenge lying ahead for the
country is not just how to reduce corruption and combat impunity. It is
also a structural challenge: how to build the social capital that will
be able to make these efforts sustainable.