Thursday, February 16, 2012

Martyrs of Democracy, February 16

Twenty years ago, on February 16, 1992, Congolese Christians responded to a call by the Catholic Church to protest peacefully and demand the reopening of the Sovereign National Conference (Conference National Souveraine - CNS in French). The conference was a democratic forum composed of delegates who represented all layers of the society in the Congo (Zaire at the time) from members of civil society, political parties, the military, the diaspora, as well as the president himself. This conference was tasked with interrogating the country’s history and finding a way to deal with the multidimensional national crisis (political, economic, social, cultural, and moral) that the country was facing in 1990.

On January 19, 1992, then-Mobutu-appointed prime minister Nguza Karl-I-Bond announced the suspension of the Sovereign National Conference on radio and television. This decision to suspend the CNS angered many Congolese who had high hopes that this democratic process would help the country extricate itself from dictatorial rule. The Catholic Church, which at the time distanced itself from Mobutu's regime and became more vocal about Mobutu's human rights abuse, made a call to all Christians and civil society groups for a massive demonstration to reopen the Sovereign National Conference. Thousands of marchers from all backgrounds converged on the Tata Raphaël stadium. Police and soldiers opened fire on the marchers before they could reach their destination, killing more than forty people. This incident, which caused international outcry as news began to enter the western world, forced the government to reinstate the CNS in April 1991 and served as a pivotal point in Congo's struggle toward democratization.

In his book "The History of the Congo," Dr Didier Gondola revisits this important date and give us the reason why Christians in the Congo took to the streets. He says: "In early 1992, Mobutu decided to disband the Sovereign National Conference (Conference Nationale Souveraine - CNS), an assembly whose main task was to create a new constitution and organize democratic elections. In response to this decision, strong opposition mounted among Kinshasa's independent churches. On February 16, 1992, thousands of church members took their grievances to the streets of the capital in what was dubbed by its organizers as the "March of Hope" (Marche de l'Espoir). Marchers held banners demanding the reopening of the CNS, and they chanted songs against violence and dictatorship. The peaceful march ended in a bloodbath when the army intervened and gunned down dozens of demonstrators. The March of Hope has since been held up as a major turning point in the relations between the church and state. It was also an event that precipitated the end of Mobutu's regime."

Today, the Catholic Church is repeating a similar call for action from the Congolese people and their allies. Through The Congo Council of Catholic Apostolate of the Laity (Le Conseil de l'Apostolat des Laïcs Catholiques du Congo -CALCC in french), the church urges the participants to demonstrate peacefully and non-violently. Political parties and civil society groups also joined the call, sharing that they will demonstrate in solidarity with the Christians in demanding the truth of the polls.

CALCC Spokesperson, Bishop Thierry Nlandu, insists that participants in the demonstration must conform to the organizers' request and abide by the fundamental desire of the Congolese, which is "that the truth of the poll be exposed in broad daylight." The march has two objectives:

1. To determine the truth of the November 28th polls
2. To call on the Independent National Electoral Commission to step down

ASHADO, a premier human rights organization in the Congo, has demanded that Congolese officials ensure that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is not violated by the security forces and asks of the organizers to show respect for law enforcement officials.

Click here to see cities participating in the commemoration of the March of Hope!


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