Girl of courage

Rebecca Kabugho in jail (photo from her Facebook profile)
30 May 2020

“In the civil and non-violent struggle, you can be arrested, condemned, you can even die, but these are not reasons to give up; on the contrary, we fight for a justice that works and so that there will be no more unfair sentences, we do it for future generations”, says Rebecca Kabugho, in an interview with her in the film Congo lucha by Marlène Rabaud.

Today, Rebecca is a strong, smiling and determined woman, and unchanged from when I first met in 2016, in Goma. A woman whose pride and enthusiasm for fighting for just and noble causes is contagious.

Rebecca and I met for the first time in 2016, in the Caritas garden in Goma, in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time she had recently been released from prison after serving a six-month sentence (the initial sentence was two years, then reduced to six months) for organizing non-violent demonstrations against the then President Joseph Kabila, and had immediately regained her place in the ranks of the civil and non-violent movement Lucha (Lutte pour le Changement - Fight for Change). At the age of 21, she became the world’s youngest political prisoner.

For decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the population [composed of 200 African ethnicities] has been trapped between a predatory and corrupt state and hundreds of rebel groups who, by exercising violence against the local population, control the country’s mining wealth. In this context, Lucha presents itself as a civil movement which wants to be at the forefront of the political debate in the DRC. However, the enormous wealth of raw materials in the Country actually represent sources of precariousness, and war between its people.

In 2016, Rebecca participated tirelessly in the movement’s strictly non-violent actions, which included going from door to door to talk to the populace, distributing leaflets urging the Congolese people to “bid farewell to Kabila”. The mandate of the now former president, Joseph Kabila Kabange, expired on 19 December 2016, but the president gave no sign of wanting to organize the elections in accordance with the dictates of the constitution. The constitution provides that after two consecutive mandates, a democratic alternation to the presidency of the Country must be held. During my interview, she told me that she had approached the movement because she wanted to belong to a group of people with whom she shared the same vision, the same indignation and the same hope for the Congo, for Africa and for the whole of humanity. It was necessary to build and strengthen a movement that did not have as one of its objectives to take power, but would force those in power to exercise it for the common good. This was in 2013, when Rebecca was 19 years old. In 2016, Rebecca was a student in psychology at the Université Libre des Grands Lacs in Goma. Her arrest and six-month sentence forced her to abandon her studies, but which she was able to resume and finish subsequently by confronting an obstacle course of threats, intimidation, unfair accusations, and a dozen or so arrests to do so. I do not know how much time she spent in prison in total, far more than the six months following her previous arrest in 2016; perhaps she too has lost count. I invited Rebecca to come to Brussels in 2017 to speak to the European Parliament at a public conference I had organised -at the time as director of the European Network for Central Africa - EurAc -, and  it was clear that the arrests had not weakened her resolve and commitment, which was the result of indignation at the frequent public mismanagement and injustice in the Congo. Alongside the strictly political issue of elections and power, Rebecca was and still is concerned with many social issues such as access to drinking water, electricity, education and employment, asking for investment to improve the country’s infrastructure, and reduce the very precarious living conditions of the communities.

Rebecca’s relentless commitment has enabled her to make a name for herself beyond the Congo. In March 2017, she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award, an annual award given to women from around the world who have shown courage, strength and leadership. When I asked Rebecca what the benefits of winning such an award were, she dwelt on the richness of having been able to broaden her horizons and meet other women who struggle every day for equally noble causes. Without underestimating the importance of the fact that, thanks to the visibility she gained, Lucha was able to make its struggle known beyond Congo’s borders by “bringing the voice of those who have no voice” to the whole world.

Today, Rebecca collaborates with Yves Mwabma, a Congolese artist living in Paris. Their dream is to complete and stage a play they are working on about the non-violent struggle in Congo. The struggle continues in different forms, but the aim is always the same: “to make the Democratic Republic of Congo a new country where social justice and human dignity can reign, a Country whose sons and daughters can be proud of belonging, a Congo that promotes the dignity of its communities and brings the Country to the heart of the development of Africa and the world”.

by Donatella Rostagno
Political analyst, former director of the European Network for Central Africa