Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Congo: A Revolution Deferred

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 political parties.

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 the state.

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.


james said...

Dear Jason,

something completely different: how do you feel about the 'Kony 2012' campaign? You know some of your colleagues such as Koen Vlassenroot and Michael Deibertt are highly sceptical because they fear this 'Hollywood'-approach is one-sided because it only focuses on the LRA and doesn't say anything about the abuses of the Museveni-regime...

andrea.trevisan said...

Dear Jason,
thanks for this great post. I'm just about to leave for East of DRC where for two months I'll be gathering datas on the politic identity of congolese youth and this post comes just perfect.
Can I have your mail if possible? I just would like to ask a couple of questions on the subject.
Thanks a lot


Anonymous said...

How explain then the massif mobilisation into the streets in august 1998? When people risked their lives and fought wth their bear hands against armed soldiers coing form Kitona?

Or in june 2004 when people massively protested in all Congolese sities against the occupation of Bukavu by rwandean military? The protest was so heavy that Bukavu was liberated without one shot. Kagame receved the order to retreat from Bukavu by his masters who were realy scared by this sort of people's movement.

What was different in these situations from the situation in 2011 but also in 2006 when people also refused to follow the foolish attempt of Bemba to reverse the results of the elections?

Jason Stearns said...

@Andrea - you can get in touch via jason dot stearns at yale dot edu.

Jason Stearns said...

@James - Im going to punt on this one, as I hope to be having a guest blogger comment. In short: It's simplistic, and risky, but could bear fruit depending on how policy wonks respond. The biggest weakness - aside from the risk of providing a blank check to the UPDF - are the poor policy recommendations. The question I would have to critics is: What would you do?

Anonymous said...

great guest post.

its also possible that one other structural challenge not mentioned here is the means and ability to communicate- both grievances and demands which lead, ofcourse, to action.

so, as a simple example, nearly every congolese mother i have spoken to in my travels throughout the nation would like to ditch school fees. well, i'm pretty sure that's something that could unite the congo diverse peoples, right?

how would a community organizer in the congo get the word out about a campaign to do this? through what means? there does not exist a communication platform broad and deep enough that could assist in not only getting the message out but calls to action.

every social movement in the last 100 years was able to get the word out that X sucked and to change it folks had to do Y through some means that everyone, broadly speaking, had equal access to.

this doesn't exist in the Congo given its sheer size, linguistic diversity, and impoverishment.

now, as cellphones and broadband internet reaches deeper into the congo- and with it things like Twitter and Facebook-i could see social movements of whatever kind taking root in the Congo.

but i'd posit until this really basic structural challenge- a national means to communicate ideas-is resolved the rest of them will be next to impossible to resolve.


Anonymous said...

yikes! sorry, Jason! i thought this was a guest post from someone else and just realized it was a cross-post from you from one blog to Siassa.

my bad.

still have issues reading blogs on my iphone i guess.


Anand said...

Hey Jason,

Thanks for the insightful and interesting post. A few comments/ questions:

1. You seem to be focusing on non-violent protests. Historically, it seems that non-violent movements have a cultural impetus, or are a factor of leadership philosophy. Gandhi had Gokhale's tutelage and readings on Salter and Thoreau. And his resultant philosophy appealed to many Indians when viewed in a spiritual context. King had Gandhi's model and also drew strongly on Christian symbolism. Many now view nonviolent protest as a given norm, but how much do leadership and cultural factors in the DRC affect the generating of non-violent protest? Especially with the violence of major wars still fresh in the cultural memory. Basically, does non-violent protest seem like a feasible or effective solution to most Congolese?

2. Speaking of leadership...I have heard many Congolese complain that this is the single greatest factor that prevents a sustained movement. What climate and conditions produce leaders? Is there a certain randomness to their emergence? One might sight the Arab spring as revolutions without immediately identifiable leaders. But the outcome of those revolutions is still very much in question. How much does the leadership issue (or lack thereof) affect the DRC? I am specifically wondering about leaders outside of the governmental sphere.

3. In addition to the numerous factors you have detailed, how much does the utter lack of infrastructure in the DRC contribute to lack of ability to mobilize? It seems like a uniquely, deterrent factor.

4. We are more plugged in than ever before to the realities of how western countries function. Does the cold reality that there is little help to be found in the West deter elites from mobilizing?

5. Many Congolese have told me they feel that the lack of sustainability is factor in protest movements not materializing. Basically, people's immediate basic needs prevent them from participating in protest. Do you agree?

Thanks again for the interesting post.

Anand said...

@James - I don't know if you are interested in other opinions, but I largely agree with Jason's perspective. I would add that I had a hard time with the overall tone of the video. It seemed to characterize things in an "us" (Americans) versus "them" (LRA) simplicity, and left out the work Ugandans have been doing for many years. I don't want to sound overly critical, because I think it is probably well intentioned, but when the narrator interviews his kid and breaks things down to good guys vs. bad guys...I don't know. That simplicity leads to simple (and potentially dangerous and ineffective) policy, which we now see in action. I also am worried that the over focus on Kony detracts from larger issues, even on the political level. The last congressional hearing I watched on the DRC elections almost devolved into a Kony session. I think the focus of the hearing (DRC elections) was lost in an LRA/Kony discussion. That troubles me. Not that the LRA is not an issue, but I don't think Stop-Kony is overall a positive thing. It raises some awareness, but quickly muddies that with watered down "facts" and overstated outcomes. In answer to Jason's question, I think that it is important to use media (film, web, etc.) to generate awareness. It's all in the "how". I am honestly more moved by empirical journalistic videos than blatant emotional appeals. The reality of someone's suffering doesn't need mood music and flash edits of horrible images to be impactful. Also, I would have included more facts in a 30 minute video. Generate awareness, but focus on things people can actually do that are beneficial (aid to responsible organizations, pressure for good policy, and facts about the political climate which allows LRA type groups to exists in the first place. I think you can do this in an engaging and interesting way. Of course, you can't do this with a drab BBC monotone video, but you can strike a balance between entertaining (which is really what Stop Kony relies on) and meaningful. It requires the application of one of Jason's favorite words..."nuance."

Anonymous said...


I personally think its a wonderful thing that millions of young people in the world- so critical as they are to leading change- are now both more aware of Kony and, for a few, will take action to pressure their governments to either kill or capture him.

I also think that the critiques directed toward Invisible Children, as we have seen with the conflict mineral issue, highlight what I will just call the academic/activist divide.

The bulk of the criticism of IC comes almost exclusively (though there are exceptions) from academics who, understandably, cringe at taking an issue with a ton of complexity and simplify it for mass consumption.

It is understandable and necessary criticism but, as Jason aptly put it, I would ask them “ok, so what would you do?”

I really wish activism and advocacy campaigns would begin and end with perfectly reasoned, deeply researched, and brilliantly composed reasons framed in messages that would inspire change.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t how advocacy and organizing work in the real world. Do critics honestly believe that policy change in DC (or any powerful capital) occurs as a result of reasoned arguments? Do they really believe that?

Power, and thus policy, is wielded by two means in most modern democracy: money and/or people.

And let’s be clear, academics who focus on African policy do not have either.

IC is mobilizing the people to put on the pressure to make sure the killing or capture of Kony remains a priority for the Obama Administration or, god forbid, whomever succeeds it in November.

Let us wish them the very best in realizing their goal and, where it is deemed appropriate, encourage IC activists to dive into the complexities of Ugandan politics, state failure, and rebel movements by partnering with them, not lodging complaints (however well reasoned they may be)at them.


Jimmy said...

I tend to largely agree with your analysis, but you have not mentioned the role of the international community in all this. The hypocrisy with which they approach this case is mind burgling. Is this the same community that engaged in removing Laurent Gbagbo because he was supposedly the looser of the election? and had to leave power? without ever proving that Laurent Gbagbo had really lost the election... Or the one that advises Congolese to accept the result of an election it claimed did not respect any international norms? Truly that there is a need for better organization from Congolese, but one should not ignore the influence of external powers in the success or failure of these recent revolutions...As mentioned by one respondent the communication difficulties are not to ignore, here is a case to be made of the hypocrisy of the US administration, when Iran had its period of failed revolution, the US always denounced the regime when it tried to prevent the communication, that was not the case when the same was done by the Congolese government (text message where disrupted for far too long, TV stations...) So could make a case that the failure so far because it is not late yet, the failure is organized by the powerful interest outside the Congo. Why does the US media ignore the Congolese suffering?

FrancoPepeKalle said...

We need to stop this tribal crap war and unite as Congolese if we want to be able to advance Congo with the leadsership of Tshisekedi. Hypolite Kanambe has done enough to damage our Congo and we need to now fight back and be abe to take Congo. Kanambe did a good job with roads but that is about it. We need Congolese people to wake up and stand up for their rights. Kanambe must go and will go.

blaise said...

@ Jason,
I personally believe that this article nail the issue wonderfully. We, as Congolese, are more wishy-washy than anything else when it comes to politics. There is no excuses about a lack of infrastructures to justify the statu quo.
I keep telling people that our failure is not the lack of financial supports primary but mostly the lack of vision and organization.
We should not point finger solely to the UDPS. We should look ourselves in the mirror and ask what did we do for our country.
I'm advocating to my people to learn from the like of hamas and hezbollah in order to understand how to build a grass root movement. We should be inspired by Jehovah witnesses' ways of spreading their faith, we should learn how to compromise and band together, transcend our ethnicity.
Unfortunately, the country is still poor. According to an old study(2000-2001), in order to reach democracy, one state has to reach a certain level of economic development. more specifically, a middle class has to emerge and ask for more freedom as they are getting richer.
We are not there yet and the two exceptions ( Senegal and Singapore)then are just confirming the rule.
I like the thinking about the FEC in general, they don't realize how corruption is cutting into their margins and what power they have.

jaylen watkins said...

Very interesting and worth reading article has been updated.

Interview Questions

Anonymous said...

The reason Congolese people mobilized in 1998 against the invasion coming from Kitona and in 2004 against the occupation of Bukavu, and not in 2006 or in 2011 with the hysterical campaigns of Bemba and Tshisekedi, have to do with the difference of their appreciation of the situation.

The invasion in 1998 and an occupation of Bukavu after five year aggression war from Rwanda & Uganda supported by the US and tolerated by Europe, was not acceptable by the Congolese people.

In 2006 and in 2011, people (mainly in Kinshasa) were not really warm for Kabila, but they would'nt risk their lives for Bemba of Tshisekedi. The votes for Bemba and Tshisekedi were more "sanction votes" then positive votes for Bemba or Thsisekedi.

The message from the kinois was: we are not really enthusiastic for Kabila, but we do not want to risk our lives either for Tshisekedi or Bemba.

I think the people are right. They want progress = possibility to eat, to work, to learn, to be healthy and so on.

The lesson to learn, for Kabila is: how to convince people that his "révolution de la mùodernité" is really changing the lives of Congolese in a good sense.

For Tshisekedi and Bemba, the lesson to learn was and is: how to really proof to the people that they want to be part of progress in this country. Not by big words, or racist rhetoric, but by acts and facts on the ground.

Qui vivra, verra...

Anonymous said...

What an interesting idea to build broadly based social capital: a campaign to end school fees.

It has that simplicity of boycotting salt taxes (Gandhi's approach) or a bus system (Dr. King's approach) that, at the time, was considered particularly foolish by advisors to these two men.

I'm really glad King and Gandhi ignored those concerns.

In any event, in terms of UDPS I think there current tactics make sense. As Americans who live in the state of Wisconsin found out last year, you can damage an aggressive majority by denying a quorum in a legislature. If UDPS can encourage its MP's to continue to boycott the National Assembly- which will grow harder by the day- and thus frustrate its workings they can build considerable leverage over the majority. Now, ofcourse, Kabila's cartel could simply force them to sit in the Assembly via the police but this would set off a a confrontation in the streets- further isolating his regime.

Does anyone know if UDPS has representation in the Senate in the Congo?


Anonymous said...


How long do you think the UDPS's elected member of parliaments will resist to survive with out any allowance and salary?
If the current Gov increase the monthly allowance to MP's from $6,000 to $10,000, i am sure all UDPS MP's shall run to Parliament.
It is like pouring milk in a deep hole in front of a hungry cat - for sure the cat will dive but imagine how will be the consequence.....

What I have understood from Jason's article is that no one in Congo is stronger (Neither the opposition nor the Kabila Gov)... only talk and talk.

Lets Talk and Talk.........


Anonymous said...

Great point, Churuchuru. Here’s how I would answer that.....

(part 1)

One of the most important pieces of Jason’s argument is the need for the Congolese to build social capital amongst themselves in such a way that cuts across tribe, region, ethnicity, and, to a degree, class. If we take the example of the civil rights movement in America among African Americans, the tacticians of the movement primarily did so by engaging in tactics that not only challenged the laws of segregation but that also deepened and put to use existing social networks. Of the many goals of those tactics were the following:

- develop and empower new leaders from among the masses
- unite the different strata of social classes within the black community at the time
- harness existing resources within the community to assist and sustain the protest

In organizing parlance, this is called “building power”. The most classic example of how this worked was the boycott of the bus system in Montgomery- which was where the nation and the world first came to know a young minister named Martin. (and, I would add, that so inspired Patrice Lumumba and other independence leaders). This singular protest, in all human history, did more to transform a nation than any war or conflaguration ever has and who’s lessons continue to inform and inspire people to this very day.

This protest- the boycott of the bus system- had the effect of both uniting the black community in the city of Montgomery AND, in order to sustain it, required reaching deep into the community to find new leaders and harnessing and amplifying its resources. So, as an example, taxi drivers became leaders because they choose to give rides for free- an illegal act in the city- to folks who had to walk to work. Another example was using churches in the black community as meeting spaces to sustain the effort and yet another was organizing mass food drives to people who were fired from work for participating in the protest. The point here is that the black community organized itself is such a way- for over 396 days- that they were able to take power away from those that controlled the bus system- basically, the white business community- and build it within their own to force a change in the law.

As history records, they succeeded, did all of this peacefully, and eventually set the stage that brought down a system of oppression.

The key thing to remember here is that the organizers of the bus boycott collectively came to the decision that they had to act, via the tactic of a boycott, and that the entire black community had to sustain this boycott until they reached their goal: striking down the laws that segregated persons by color on the bus system.

continued below.....

Anonymous said...

(part 2)
Now, if UDPS wants to sustain a boycott of the Assembly, it would need to figure out a way to deal with attempts by Kabila/others to force them to give up the protest. The only way this protest of the Assembly could work is if UDPS and its allies build enough social capital amongst the people to ensure the protest succeeded. Fundamentally, this would mean asking average Kinois to participate in assisting with the boycott. What, concretely, does this mean? I don’t know. That is up to the activists in UDPS to figure out.

In spite of the very real challenges average Kinois face on a daily basis, they are no different than any other group of people who build and sustain movements. They are, after all, human beings. The key for UPDS activists and others is to figure out how to maximize what resources exist within their community so as to build enough power to confront what Kabila will throw at them. That is the great test of any movement and, in my opinion, is the key to bringing real and lasting change to the Congo.

Jason is correct that social capital in the Congo is weak. But, I would argue that is true in most movements and that the key to building capital is harnessing the resources of a people who share a sense of aggrievement and harnessing this into direct and consistent action to overcome it so as to BUILD social capital. I would also argue that the Congolese do in fact have social networks that sustain them and have sustained them for decades given the absence of state authority in their lives.

They key is unlocking this to serve their desire for a more functioning state.

I hope this helps.


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