Car accident sparks Congolese timebomb

In the volatile south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the smallest incident can spark violent, even fatal riots. Last week, the entire city of Likasi, in the province of Katanga, was up in arms over a minor car accident. Our Observer there gave us this account of the troubles.

“The young people wanted to talk to the mayor, but they were greeted with hostility”

After classes had ended on Tuesday October 12, a hit-and-run driver collided into a school pupil. The driver went on to hit two other students as he fled. Although the incident itself was not too serious [the school boy was unhurt], it was a recurring problem that had happened too many times. Three days earlier, another young person had been knocked over by a minibus.

A group of outraged students (mostly minors) stationed themselves on the roadside to throw stones at passing cars. The young people then went to see Mayor Denis Kalondji Ngov and lodge a complaint about the indifference shown on the part of the authorities. Rather undiplomatically, they were told by Town Hall officials “If you are good children, go home. If you are dogs, you can stay there.” The tone of the authorities fanned the flames of their anger. What’s more, as there were adults in the group, presumably come to pick up their offspring, they were asked to stop the children’s protest.

The young people then left, furious at the reception they had received. A few minutes later, they charged towards the building. In an instant, the situation deteriorated. Having fired all their ammunition rounds into the air in an attempt to disperse the crowd, the police officers abandoned their posts. The town hall was looted and vandalised. They smashed things up and burnt the curtains.

“Only symbols of the state were trashed; the nearby shop was left untouched by the rioters”

The situation was further aggravated in Kikula, a volatile neighbouring district. A young boy of ten got a bullet to the head after getting caught up in the clashes. He died instantly.

As a result, all of the administrative offices were stormed, the law courts were burnt and files went up in smoke. Police riffles were stolen.

“The body of the young boy killed by the police was left on the ground from 2pm until 2am”

Calm returned overnight. The body of the young boy killed by the police was left on the ground from 2pm until 2am. The family, in tears, waited for the authorities to come and certify the death, but they never came. The vice-governor attempted to leave in order to defuse the situation. He was accompanied by an unarmed military escort, but the group were forced to turn back because of a shower of stones being thrown at them.

The affected areas were barricaded for a number of days until the situation calmed down. Town officials gradually began to return.

“There is a huge amount of frustration and people let off steam when they can”

This latest incident is a symptom of wider social unrest. People are out of work, they are frustrated and they let off steam when they can. The authorities do not respect them or consult them.

A few weeks ago, the town hall banned minibuses from the Likasi-Lubambasji route, following an accident. That meant that 200 drivers could no longer earn a living. In additions, the “pirate markets” (the non-authorised sellers) have been banned. I understand this step, but the government needs to provide alternatives to the people left jobless.

“We lack police officers, and certain areas are becoming lawless zones”

The fact that it is much more financially rewarding to work in mine security or for the traffic police is also a real problem. They can make money, for example by charging a toll, whereas emergency intervention police officers can’t. The lack of police officers on the ground leads to lawless zones where the law enforcement officers hardly dare risk their lives entering, such as in the district of Kikula.”

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