Protesters vow to defy ban by marching in Congo’s capital
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) _ Waving white flags, opposition activists demanding the resignation of President Laurent Kabila marched through the capital today in a boisterous response to his ban on demonstrations.
After a brief standoff _ in which about 100 protesters faced a lone machine-gun-wielding soldier _ demonstrators barged past him and started marching toward downtown.
Despite Kabila’s ban on such protests and warnings Tuesday that violators would be arrested, the soldiers did not block the peaceful demonstration called by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress.
``We are the Congolese people! We demand Kabila’s resignation!″ the crowd chanted.
Supporters of party leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who was passed over by Kabila when he formed his new government last week, held the march to challenge what they call Kabila’s increasingly autocratic rule.
Armed soldiers turned out in force early today around the main railway station, the march starting point, to try to discourage demonstrators from gathering.
They came anyway, waving white flags, chanting, dancing and singing, and carrying a banner reading ``Etienne Tshisekedi or nothing.″ Their numbers swelled to about 350 as they moved through town toward Tshisekedi’s house.
Organizers of the march said Kabila and his ruling Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo are no better than the nearly 32-year dictatorship they deposed this month in Congo _ Kabila’s new name for Zaire.
``They claim to be liberators, but it is as if they have taken us from one prison cell to another prison cell,″ said Raymond Kahungu Mbemba, an opposition member. ``We cannot accept that.″
Kabila’s Alliance announced a ban on political activities, including public meetings and protests, on Monday.
``We cannot have democracy if there is no peace. We cannot have development if there is no peace, so anybody who wants to create instability is an enemy of democracy, is an enemy of development, is an enemy of progressive forces,″ Foreign Minister Bizima Karaha said.
Congo’s 46 million people ``want food, they want medicine, they want to go to school. They won’t achieve that by creating chaos,″ he said.
The ban was the latest restrictive policy issued since rebel fighters seized Kinshasa, ending dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule.
South African President Nelson Mandela, who had tried to arrange a peace settlement between Kabila and Mobutu, condoned the new government’s hard-line policy toward dissent.
``I think that dealing with a country which has been under dictatorship for more than three decades, it is quite reasonable for him to ensure that law and order is stabilized before he can say `I want all political parties to function,‴ Mandela said Tuesday in Cape Town.
Two visiting U.S. congressmen, Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Tom Campbell, R-Calif., agreed.
``It is not inappropriate in a tense time for a government to insist on a period of calm,″ Campbell said.
``For 32 years you had a person who reigned and robbed and stole,″ said Payne. ``In one month, people are expecting miracles. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the government to say at the present time we should have a suspension temporarily on demonstrations.″
Interior Minister Mwenze Kongolo said he was encouraging Kabila to meet with Tshisekedi to appease opposition followers.
Kabila is to be sworn into office Thursday at the People’s Palace, where Parliament meets.
The Alliance said it would begin today to organize mayoral elections in Kinshasa, and, in a continuing campaign to address civilian complaints, pledged that its soldiers would no longer demand free fuel from gas stations.
Kongolo also said a government team _ including an archbishop, two doctors, a lawyer and a soldier _ was investigating reports that its soldiers were killing Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Congo.
Kongolo said the new government would not allow a U.N. investigation into the allegations of massacres because U.N. experts refused to include locals on their team. The United Nations says its mandate prevents it from doing so.
Hundreds of Rwandan refugees have reported being attacked south of the eastern city of Kisangani, and Kabila’s soldiers have so far refused to let foreign aid workers into the area where the massacres reportedly occurred.