LUCHA: Youth movement in Congo demands social justice By Marta Iñiguez de Heredia

10710625_620049294790147_8620804096155550475_nLUCHA is an organisation created in Goma, the capital of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in June 2012. Both its location and the time if its founding correspond with the height of the M23 rebellion, led by renegade Congolese soldiers and backed by Rwanda. LUCHA’s members affirm the need to take action, not by taking up arms, but by critical popular mobilisation through an open and horizontal organisational structure.
The group has already demonstrated its mobilisation capacity. In June 2014, LUCHA organised a march demanding drinking water for Goma residents, with a turnout of 3000 people. During the summer months, the city was covered in posters; banners; and messages on cars, vans, water containers and t-shirts reading ‘Goma inataka maji’, or ‘Goma wants water’. More recently, the group coordinated a protest on Saturday, 18 October demanding action against the latest killings perpetrated by still unknown actors in the territory of Beni, north of North Kivu; this action also garnered significant support. Throughout it’s existence, LUCHA has captured the interest of the international press while suffering repression by the Congolese government.

Last September, the city of Goma celebrated Peace One Day, hosting a concert by singer Akon, for which Goma airport was shut down. Members of LUCHA found the demands of the official event vague and empty. At the concert, LUCHA members attempted to display signs and banners stating that peace needs social justice and democracy, and to demand the reform of the Congolese army; a political solution to the problem of Rwandan refugees in the DRC; and a solution to the presence of the FDLR, a group of ex-Rwandan genocidaires and Rwandan dissidents in Eastern DRC.
Despite the spirit and aims of the day, the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) intercepted their actions and arrested three members, who were later released with no charges filed. This repression of freedom of expression and debate is certainly contradictory to the idea of peace promotion, and prevented dissident voices to contribute to discussions around what peace means.

This is not the first time that this movement has seen their actions repressed, and it will probably not be the last. In the last two years, LUCHA has organised sit-ins, the writing of open letters, marches, rallies and other activities. These actions are based on the need to act and to demand their rights. As indicated in the interview below, LUCHA declares itself a non-violent active citizens’ movement. In spite of this civic approach, authorities and security forces have responded to the actions of this group in violent form, with beatings, bullets and arrests. Despite this, the movement has not stopped growing.
As a movement organised in a horizontal manner, LUCHA follows a trend that seems to have become a referent in Africa. Movements such as Y’en a Marre in Senegal, the Coalition Contre la vie Chère in Burkina Faso and the Landless People’s Movement in South Africa have been organised in this way. Others in Europe, the US and Australia, including the Occupy movement and other indignados, have also followed this formula.

Three LUCHA members, Fred Bahuma, Micheline Mwendike and Luc Nkulula, speak of the trajectory of the movement and its aspirations.

MARTA IÑIGUEZ (MI): How did LUCHA come about?

FRED BAHUMA (FB): LUCHA was created by a group of young people that decided to rebel against the situation of their country; young people that live in a degrading situation, without dignity; young people that live in a rich country, while they live in the most abject poverty; young people that ultimately have observed the contrast between the potentialities of their country and their everyday reality. LUCHA was created from the realisation that in the DRC there’s more than 70% unemployment and about 90% youth unemployment. We live without electricity, while we could have one of the biggest hydroelectric dams in the world; we do not have access to drinking water, while we are called the water paradise because we have permanent sources of drinking water between rivers and regions with regular rain throughout the year; we live in insecurity, while we could be one of the political giants of Africa. There are deaths at each moment, and we’ve got tired of counting the people that have died around us. So a group of young people got together to say that we had to do something, something different to expose the gravity of this situation. Often in this country, there are people who claim to be the spokesperson of the people, but this is dubious. They are politicians, who are themselves implicated in keeping this system, or the so-called ‘civil society’ representatives that only act for the interests of their organisations. We thought that we should do something different, to take action, not through violent means, nor through empty discourses or by joining the same organisations that so far have given us close to nothing.

MI: What does it mean ‘a citizens’ movement’?

MICHELINE MWENDIKE (MM): It means that we want to create spaces of expression and action with the objective of changing our country. We reject the path of violence, as well as the path of power. We are not here to be known, nor to get a job or earn money. We want to be the alternative for Congo, a group of engaged people that accept the challenge of telling the truth and speak for ourselves.

MI: Could you please explain a bit more your rejection of violence?

MM: We have realised that the use of violence has failed in this country. Some armed groups had valid demands, but their methods have created others problems. In any case, we want to be part of the solution. Violence also requires a lot of resources and much human sacrifice. The DRC requires committed and robust actions, but in this moment those actions do not imply the use of violence.

MI: Despite your civic approach, your actions have suffered much repression.

FB: Yes, we’ve been beaten up and arrested from the start. On Peace One Day, the ANR prevented us from showing our signs and banners at the gig, and three of our members were arrested. Last year, the police shot against demonstrators with real bullets, hurting one taxi driver who was there as a bystander. Several members of LUCHA were also arrested that day as well, and stayed in cells for eight days. That action consisted only of standing next to images that showed the atrocities that our country has suffered. During their eight days of incarceration, many of our members lost their jobs. However, we had a lot of support. Some people stayed outside the cells of the ANR, demanding that either all of none should be arrested. Finally, the arrestees were released without charges.

MI: What are the aims of LUCHA?

LUC NKULULUA (LN): The political aim of LUCHA is to work for political change through the youth. Young people have an interest in changing things. We believe in the future, because the youth dreams and is creative.

MM: Young people keep their hopes, and are less contaminated by the vices of society. We are less marked by the struggle for survival that adults have. We struggle for a better and different future. We can say that we have three aims or values, which are the dignity of the person, social justice and political change.

MI: What does that mean?

MM: First, for us, dignity means to consider the person as a human being. For example, when we speak of development, humanitarian assistance or refugee settlements, it seems that the human condition is reduced to eating and sleeping. We need to respect and consider people in their human needs, such as the need for political decision-making, not just the economic or material needs. Second, in the DRC there is no justice. For us, justice is something more social than the juridical, though the betterment of the judicial system in the DRC remains an important demand. Social justice means access to the resources around us to enjoy, consume, manage and distribute; it also means access to employment and education, and the access to social services. We must also take part in decision-making processes. Without social justice and social dignity, democracy, socialism and all those beautiful ideologies are empty discourses. For example, in the context of our current democracies, there was fraud during the elections; people were lied to, and the costs associated with all of those processes have been enormous and have not achieved anything.

MI: How do you organise? And, how much support do you think you have?

LN: We are an informal movement. We are now more than 1,500 members and our demonstrations, for example the march we did in June for drinking water, gathered over 3000 people. We make decisions through a general assembly, meetings where everyone can propose and decide. There is not a president or an executive. We manage our movement, our ideological basis, practices and objectives in a collegial and collective manner.

MI: What is the proportion of women in the movement?

LN: More or less 30%, but those that are here are very engaged.

MM: The participation of women in the movement, as in other spaces and political activities, is not well regarded by families and society in general. They constantly say to you that you have to take your place, that if you continue like that you’re going to be left without a husband… It is difficult.

MI: Women then suffer a double repression, both political and social.

MM: Yes, even at work. I have suffered several problems at work when I stayed the eighty days in the cell last year. I could not go to work and I lost my employment.

MI: What kind of activities do you organise, and which are your priorities at the moment?

LN: For 2014, our priorities are security, drinking water and accountability. This last objective is very important because we not only think that in a democracy the representatives should be accountable to their constituency, but also because we want to make the Congolese population a demanding population. If you do not claim your rights, you will have nothing. In this sense, LUCHA also does consciousness-raising work. Drinking water is also a principal front this year. The DRC already has 40% of the entire drinking water reserves found on the African continent. Here in Goma, we live next to a very large lake, yet we do not have water on our taps. One of the actions we did was to go to the public institution that regulates and manages water [Regideso]. We taught them the national hymn to tell them that water distribution must match the grandeur of our country, like the hymn says. They have told us that the problem of not having water in Goma is because Goma is more elevated with respect to water level, and so water needs to be pumped up to reach the households. However, as there is no electricity, the pumps cannot work. It happens that recently humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the US development agency [USAID], and Mercy Corps have financed several projects, buying pumps and engines to bring water to the city. We think that all of that money has gotten lost, and as a result we have stayed as we were, without water. Yet we believe all that money could have covered the costs of permanent drinking water in Goma.

MM: The other priorities, security and peace, have various aspects. To start with, it is worth pointing out that peace has turned into a job-seeking activity and an activity to earn money. Additionally, the Congo has been caricatured, with many programmes that are not effective or that do not point to the true causes of war. The same policemen that repressed us have been trained by the European Union [Since 2007, the cities of Goma and Kinshasa have been the targets of an EU programme, EUPOL Dr Congo, bringing reform, training and accompaniment to the police]. Our army is an assemblage of armed groups.

LN: We think that the army needs to be reformed. However, there is no solution to this. For us, the presence of MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo] is a form of taking responsibility off the Congolese state. The Congolese state has to feel responsible before its own problems. Therefore, one of our demands for peace is to tell MONUSCO to start packing and to leave the DRC to confront its own problems.

MI: What has been the impact of those actions?

FB: We think that our actions have already resonated. For example, in 2012, as the M23 [a Rwandan-backed movement of renegade Congolese army members] started taking shape, the solution given by the international community, via MONUSCO, was to create a ‘neutral force’ made up of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC. We thought that in the current circumstances and the recent history, those forces in reality are part of the conflict, and hence could not possibly constitute a neutral force. We also did not understand why it was necessary to add ‘a neutral force’, which effectively means to have one military force too many. Instead of creating a new force, instead of over-militarising a region that is already sufficiently militarised between the Congolese army, the UN troops, the dozens of armed groups, etc, we thought that the MONUSCO could be given a more offensive mandate, with real capacity to react against the situation. The main argument MONUSCO had in order not to have an offensive mandate is that it cannot replace the Congolese army. In the war context that we had throughout 2012 and 2013, they claimed that it was not their responsibility to confront an armed group, such as the M23, because there was already the army. However, for us, that was a contradiction. If MONUSCO exists, it is because there is a weakness of the state; if that is not the case, we do not need the mission. To us, this was nothing but an excuse to not do anything, while the UN mission is maintained with US$1 billion per year. On this occasion we insisted, going several times to the headquarters of MONUSCO, to the provincial government, and pulled out banners when UN representatives, including the Secretary General, visited the region. Finally, they created the Intervention Brigade, which was not formed for any of those countries [found in the ‘neutral force’]. We cannot say that it was because of us, but we think that somehow we have influenced the way things are seen. In any case, for us, peace goes through a political dialogue with Rwanda, through a political solution for the problem of Hutu refugees and the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda], as well as through the transformation of the state in a way that allows people to take part in the decisions made on politics and resource management and distribution.

You can support and follow LUCHA through Facebook: LuchaRDCongo and on Twitter: @luchardc.