Youth Movements Tackle “Big Man” Leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the overnight hours of January 9, 2019, Felix Tshisekedi was proclaimed the fifth president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While there remain unofficial doubts about the results’ accuracy, the December 30 election marks the first time since independence in 1960 that the government has transferred power through a democratic process (Reid 2018). When longtime president Joseph Kabila announced he would not be presenting himself as a candidate but would, in fact, finally hold elections and step down from office, many were not convinced. His declaration came a full two years after his final third term had officially ended. No one believed he would transfer power peacefully, if at all.

Kabila first stepped into office in 2001 following the assassination of his father. He was then elected in 2006 and again in 2011. After the last election, youth movements across the country began to build en masse and focus on civic engagement for change. By 2011, the government was attempting to gain more control over its internal processes. In contrast to the 2006 election, which was funded mostly by international donors, the majority of the 2011 election was financed by the Congolese government. An internal election oversight committee, the Independent National Election Committee (CENI), was also established. Despite this, or perhaps as a result of diminished international presence, the campaign period was fraught with intimidation tactics and suppression of political organization, which included, in some places, a complete ban on public gatherings (UNHROHC 2011). The electoral law was changed to a one-round system, and the campaign window was limited to just one month before voters went to the polls. It seemed a given that Kabila would emerge victorious amidst post-election chaos.

The major opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, declared himself president well before the official results were tabulated, leading to his house arrest and subsequent protests around the country. Reports released by both the Carter Center and the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (UNHROC) cited brutal police responses to the protests, resulting in hundreds of arrests, injuries, and deaths. Up to and during that time, most of the targets were affiliated with political parties. Protests were organized based on party affiliation and allegiance to one ‘Big Man’ serving as the representative personality. As it became apparent that the military might remain on the side of incumbent power, a new type of organization began to emerge. These organizations were linked together through networks that circumvented the Big Man of Congolese politics.

The Big Man phenomenon occurs when unstable political or economic structures create gaps in services that are unable to fulfill society’s needs, whether due to war, deteriorating systems, or corruption. The previous presidents of Congo, known for plundering the state and adding millions to their personal wealth, fall into the category of Big Men.

The Congo Research Group (CRG) conducted a report in 2017 analyzing the holdings of the Kabila family since taking office. The report describes a complex network of land holdings, business shares, and state-issued contracts in mining, transportation, and documentation services. While the report concludes that some of the ventures conflicts with Congolese law, in other cases, that cannot be determined. What is clear is that the networks of Kabila-owned businesses traverse nearly all sectors and include a vast array of beneficiaries profiting from the associated wealth.

Mats Utas (2012) suggests a complex relationship that surpasses merely a patron-client relationship and describes it as a complex social relationship with shifting power dynamics that is continually changing and needs to be nurtured. The followers of Big Men can easily leave to support others if their patron is no longer able to provide the finance, wealth, or power required to keep followers loyal and obedient. The most important characteristic of the Big Man is the ability to gather masses attracted to the protection, status, and economic trickle-down afforded by their inclusion in the network (Utas 2012, 9).

Utas (2012) examines the networks of Big Men in Africa, which he sees as “as nodes in networks, combining efforts in projects of joint action” (p. 1). He notes that “networks…are social creations, guided by common cultural codes” (p.18) and that Big Men enter into these exchanges with a primary goal of personal gain or self-protection (19). There is very little altruism or overall concern for the greater good. This is in stark contrast to the youth movements that began to spring up in the early 2000s.

One of the first movements, La Jeunesse Pour Une Nouvelle Société (JNS), officially signed their organizing documents in 2008. In researching this paper, their lack of online presence quickly became apparent. While many of the subsequent youth groups have evolved their various missions or continue to host websites and social media accounts, the absence of JNS is unfortunate. As one of the initial youth organizations in Kinshasa,its work was a foundational part of the country’s intricate network of grassroots activism. JNS continues to have a social media website that is marginally active and runs a youth community center that hosts leadership training and other civic education programs in Kinshasa (Studio Hirondelle).

In 2008, their primary goal was to create virtual pathways to enable youth groups across the country to easily maintain communication and unite online. To do this, they worked with their parent organization, Friends of the Congo (FOTC), based in New York. FOTC collected donations of mobile phones and laptops while members of JNS distributed the materials to youth organizations in the major cities of Kisangani and Goma. Initially, the group called for global donations and members to join from around the world. Over the years, they have focused more specifically on engaging youth in local and national election processes and funding primarily through Congolese membership (Studio Hirondelle 2019). However, their initial efforts to create a nationwide network of youth organizations were an important catalyst for the collaboration and support that developed over the next decade.

After the November 2011 elections, another group of activists emerged, formed primarily through connections with Congolese in the Africandiaspora. The Ingeta movement, an apolitical organization, was launched in Kinshasa on January 4, 2012, to bypass the media and directly address the public to present information and analyze current affairs.  The movement was inspired by Jean-Pierre Mbelu, working in collaboration with political activist Etienne Ngandu, who had been publishing video analyses of the various political, economic, and social issues of DRC. Ingeta became a way to reimagine and rebuild these systems by restoring the Congolese identity with honesty and integrity (Ifonge 2017). The website hosts a wealth of information that includes several off-shoot programs such as leadership institutes, historical resources, current publications, and idea exchanges. It is a comprehensive collection of initiatives to raise awareness and inspire engagement. Ingeta has a formidable online presence with a mission focused on educating the masses, encouraging civil engagement, and “presenting information, ideas and resources for reinventing the Congo.”

 The Ingeta manifesto describes resistance as sit-ins, boycotts, and blocking access to places of business to gain the attention of decision-makers and international actors. In this way, alliances can be created to work for change. Members denounce the corruption and pillage of resources that prevent the construction of a positive future for Congo. At its base, their approach to leadership may be the most appealing aspect of this new type of organization. Rather than a frontman or big personality, Ingeta recognizes everyone as a leader, with members choosing tasks that fit their skill set, whether it be web-design, journalism, or mobilizing people.

If Ingeta is the ultimate in intellectual engagement, Lutte pour le changement (Lucha) has become the embodiment of present activism. Lucha began in May of 2012 due to the “shock, outrage and revulsion at the general chaos of the country” ( A group of youth in the eastern town of Goma were dismayed by the lack of fundamental services, inadequate responses of aid groups who refused to address underlying causes of issues, and a population that seemed content to wait for the other person to take action. Like the Ingeta movement, Lucha imagines a new Congo, one that is unified, liberated, and prosperous. Through civic, nonviolent engagement, Lucha encourages activism that works towards social justice and human dignity. They describe three pillars of association: an unwavering commitment to Congo, understanding that the responsibility for change in Congo rests primarily with the Congolese, and the will and determination to follow through on this commitment despite all costs (ibid.). Lucha draws inspiration from Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela, iconic African leaders engaged in the struggle for independence and committed to nonviolence. Lucha describes their leadership model as horizontal, allowing all members to engageequally and individually take responsibility for their role in the community. This philosophy mirrors that of Ingeta and is, again, in stark contrast to the modeled leadership of the nation, which functions as a Big Man dictatorship.

Lucha has grownto become a highly visible organization whose members play a prominent role in some of the major protests and resistance movements leading up to the historic election of 2018. They continue to have branches that focus on local issues and support each other in working tirelessly for improved living conditions and opportunities. Their membership has expanded to include branches in most major cities with activist populations that are gender balanced, educated, and employed in the formal sector (Bantariza et al. 2001).

The efforts of these youth groups led to several collaborative movements, often initiated through viral hashtag campaigns. Social media serves as a place to spread the message, and in January of 2015, #Telema was circulating through the virtual Congolese community and diaspora. Telema is a Lingala word meaning ‘stand up .’ It became the rallying cry to resist efforts by then-President Kabila to extend his term in office (Musavuli 2017). The parliament attempted to pass legislation requiring that a census be completed before elections could be held. This was estimated to take at least another four years, potentially ten or more. The possibility of an extended-term set off days of protest across the country resulted in mass arrests, more than 40 people fatally shot, and numerous injuries (Human Rights Watch 2015a). Opposition leaders were arrested from their homes and offices, and a human rights activist was kidnapped during a meeting with colleagues at an outside bar. Some of the injured included witnesses who were shot because they were taking photos or filming police brutality (ibid.).

From its website, Telema states its mission is to “support, develop and sustain an organized popular movement in the Congo for peace, justice and human dignity.” The supporters are listed as Ingeta, FOTC, Save the Congo, and Filimbi with a vision “to create a politically conscious and economically empowered citizenry.” The coordination between the youth groups has had a profound impact. In Sarah Kazadi’s (Kazadi 2016) short documentary “Telema: a Mayanda Film,” activist Bienvenu Matumo discusses the youth’s resilience and the unprecedented results. During the week of protests from January 19-23, 2015, the government shut down theinternet and cut offelectricity in many parts. These conditions did not deter the activists who were ultimately successful in preventing the change in electoral law. Matumo recounts, “For the first time in my life I heard an official plenary session in Lingala. Why? So the whole population could understand. Kengo took the floor to say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen we heard what the street had to say.’” (Kazadi 2016, 8:27).  An amended version of the election process proposal was passed, which did not require a census.

The activists did not stop there. They continued to organize and develop an interdependent web of support and communication. Their collective action allowed for increased mobilization power, both within the country and from the Congolese diaspora. Telema organizers have included on their website this quote from Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (Fanon 2004, 138), who wrote:

To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.

It is an excellent representation of what each of these youth groups have stated as their foundational beliefs. They resist the urge to create or follow personalities but give value and credence to each member’s importance. They do not support a singular political candidate or party but work to achieve the population’s functioning systems and serve the communal need. They recognize that together, their generation’s collective power can effect change locally, nationally, and internationally.

One example of international cooperation can be found when examining Filimbi, an organization made up of members from JNS, Lucha, Telema, and others. Youth activists from these groups had been following youth movements in Senegal and Burkina Faso that were staging similar resistance campaigns. On March 15, 2015, Filimbi representatives in Kinshasa met in solidarity with artists from the Senegalese movement Y’En A Marre and the Burkinabe group Balai Citoyen to present a pro-democracy workshop. The conference was broken up by Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (ANR), who arrested over 30 activists and participants, including a United States diplomat and foreign and Congolese journalists. The ANR continued to arrest activists in the days following the conference, and several Filimbi members were forced into exile (Human Rights Watch 2015b).

While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine each arrest or even the high- profile cases that caught the eye of international actors such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and numerous other human rights organizations, the government response suggests that the March 2015 Filimbi youth leadership collaboration marked a pivotal moment in the struggle. Leaders of Filimbi were labeled terrorists and charged with inciting the public to take up arms against the state. Many of those arrested were beaten, tortured, and refused access to a lawyer (ibid., 2015). Those still committed to the cause understood the gravity of their actions as well as the enormous potential. The state felt threatened, and the depth of brutality they employed to quash the resistance was a clear sign that the youth groups could shake up the Big Men of Congolese politics.

Over the next three years, activists from Lucha, Filimbi, Telema, and Quatrieme Voie, as well as other youth organizations, banded together, communicating, supporting, and protesting the unconstitutional occupation of Joseph Kabila in the office of president. On December 30, 2018, the Congolese people went to the polls and raised their voices in unity.

There is much more to be said about the events between 2015-2018, the Catholic Church’s role, the independent voters that citizens of Beni organized and symbolically participated in after being banned from the national election due to an Ebola outbreak the dubious final election results. This paper has merely introduced the youth organizations and their belief in the possibility of realizing social justice through sustained, collective action.

With relentless energy focused on a common mission, these groups achieved a monumental impact on Congolese history. The fight for change occurred over ten years and cost hundreds of lives. Activists influenced citizens in their communities to engage in action and raise their voices. They committed to a national vision for rebuilding their country and their future at the risk of sacrificing their lives and livelihoods. Communities lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives to the fight for democracy and freedom. In January of 2019, citizens achieved their goal of officially ousting Kabila from presidential power. There can be little doubt that youth groups’ persistent and coordinated actions across the country played a major role in achieving this political milestone. And they continue the fight.


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