World News

In Congo, 8 Killed and Altar Boys Arrested Amid Crackdown on Protests

Posted December 31, 2017 4:59 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2017 5:03 p.m. EST

NAIROBI, Kenya — At least eight people were killed and a dozen altar boys arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday after security forces cracked down on planned church protests against President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to leave office before coming elections.

Seven people were killed in Kinshasa, the capital, and one in Kananga, a city in the central part of the country, according to Florence Marchal, spokeswoman for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese security forces set up checkpoints across Kinshasa, and the government issued an order to shut down text messaging and internet services indefinitely across the country for what it called “reasons of state security.”

Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people, had been militarized by the heavy presence of soldiers and police, who sought to disrupt planned demonstrations, witnesses said.

Catholic churches, and some Protestant counterparts, had called for a peaceful march to protest a delay in elections and Kabila’s apparent intent to stay in office even though his second and final term in office, set by the Congolese constitution, expired last year.

But the governor of Kinshasa had said he would not grant permission for street demonstrations in the city.

Witnesses said police fired tear gas into the sanctuary of St. Michael Parish in Bandalungwa, a neighborhood in central Kinshasa, forcing the church to close.

Bienvenu Matumo, a member of Lucha, a national civil society group campaigning for elections, said one of those killed was a girl, 16, shot by security forces in the Matete neighborhood of the capital.

Col. Pierrot Mwanamputu, a spokesman for the Congolese National Police, said two civilians and a police officer had been killed in Kinshasa, and one civilian in Kananga.

Twelve altar boys were arrested at St. Joseph’s parish, in another area of Kinshasa. A freelance journalist, Eliezer Ntambwe, who was at the church, said he and a colleague were also arrested.

“I saw several soldiers dressed in three different outfits,” Ntambwe said after he was released from custody. “Some fired rubber bullets, and others fired real bullets.”

On the other side of the country in Beni, in North Kivu province, video footage shared with The New York Times showed a dozen police officers beating a passer-by, as another man tried to drag him away.

The sound of tear gas being fired could be heard in the background. Witnesses said five others had been injured by police in that encounter.

As Kabila’s government has stalled in organizing elections, anger across the country has risen. Last year, a group of Catholic bishops in Congo brokered an agreement that allowed the president to lead a transitional government until the end of 2017, when he was supposed to step down.

Elections were also supposed to be held by the end of 2017, according to the agreement. But elections officials said they could not meet that schedule and pushed the vote to 2019.

The delay generated opposition in Congo and heightened diplomatic pressure from outside the country. In a visit to Kinshasa in October, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., insisted that a vote be held by the end of 2018. The Congolese national elections commission later scheduled elections for the end of next December.

Most observers inside and outside of Congo, however, believe Kabila intends to remain in office, fitting a pattern in the region.

Neighboring Rwanda changed its constitution in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to run for election a third time, and he won handily in August. That same year, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi muscled his way into a third term in office, after a boycotted election and a failed coup.

And in December, Uganda’s Parliament lifted a constitutional age limit that would have forced President Yoweri Museveni to step down after his fifth term expires in 2021.