When Grace Kabera heard her friends had been sentenced to six months in prison, she sank to the grass and extended her arms toward the sky.
“It's good news!” she exclaimed, covering her face with her hands, grateful that the sentence for the activists hadn't been harsher.
Arrest is a fate that Ms. Kabera has been able to avoid since she joined Lutte pour le Changement (Lucha), or “struggle for change.” The youth movement, based in the capital Kinshasa and the eastern city of Goma, has been at the forefront of protests against President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to stay in power beyond his constitutional mandate.
Congo began the year embroiled in protests that erupted after Mr. Kabila announced an electoral bill in early 2015 that was widely viewed as a ploy to delay elections scheduled for the end of 2016 and extend his rule. Since then, the government has violently cracked down on any perceived opposition. Opposition activists and civil society organizations have taken to the streets, backed by the influential Catholic Church. And even allies within the ruling coalition have spoken up, with seven being expelled in September for signing a letter urging Kabila not to cling to power after his term expires.
But it is the youth groups, made up of mostly university students, that have been most active and persistent. Lucha in particular had been demonstrating against issues like the lack of proper government services since 2012, making it especially well-placed to take up the cause once protests started.
“What gives me hope is imagining a better country,” says Wesley Butaka, a student at the Université Francophone du Congo and a Lucha member. “We believe that change is something you need to work on every day.”
Many young protesters like Mr. Bataka do not remember a time without a Kabila in power. The president took office in 2001 after his own father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, was assassinated – bringing the Kabila family reign in the DRC to 20 years. For many young people, the prospect of fresh elections and a new leader is also a chance to rewrite a Congolese narrative that is littered with references to war, poverty, and violence. And in a country where 46 percent of the population is under the age of 15, youth opinion will have far-reaching consequences.
“I have a fear that one day I could have a child who is in the same position as me and my child would ask me ‘Dad, what have you done to change the situation?’” says Parfait Muhani, a Goma University student. “I want to have a proper response for my child.”
But protesters here have quickly learned – like many of their counterparts in Burundi, Uganda, and Congo-Brazzaville, all of whom have failed to prevent their own presidents from winning constitutionally questionable third terms – that stopping Kabila will not be easy.
The Congolese government has responded with violence since the protests first started, a sign of increasing repression as the end of Kabila's term draws closer. That month, Human Rights Watch confirmed that 36 people were killed during demonstrations in Kinshasa, 21 of them shot by Congo's security forces. In Goma, at least four people were killed.
No Lucha members have been killed, but the most recent demonstration, held two weeks ago to protest the detainment of Lucha members, led to another 18 arrests. In the past year, more than 42 members and sympathizers have been arrested. Nine are currently in jail with two having been detained for more than a year.
“Such arrests, detentions, and convictions of political activists have a chilling effect on freedom of organization, assembly, and expression in the DRC,” said John Kirby, the US State Department spokesperson, last year.
But Lucha is also proving tenacious, many agree. Strong organizing principles that include nonviolence, communal leadership, and financial independence mean that even for a government with a robust history of suppressing dissent, Lucha has been effective. And in doing so, also gained the support of the Congolese public who respond favorably to its call for nonviolence.
“[The Congolese] have experienced violence … maybe lost family members or people quite close to them," says Evie Francq, a DRC researcher at Amnesty International. “That’s why the philosophy of nonviolence is so important to them.”
Indeed, many Lucha members grew up in the midst of eastern Congo’s violent and protracted wars that, they say, have played a defining role in their philosophy. “There’s been so much war, people are dying all time here, every day, everywhere,” says Benjamin Kamuntu, a student at Institut Supérieur d'Informatique et de Gestion. “For me, to be Congolese, it's like a responsibility to get engaged to change this.”
The group's ability to bounce back after arrests also differentiates Lucha from other youth groups. They say that rejecting a leadership structure from the beginning has made it difficult for the government to pinpoint who is in charge and what exactly they’re dealing with.
“[The government] is scared because they’re not dealing with an organization that has a president and a secretary, they don’t really know who they’re dealing with, they don’t know how many there are, and that had very much scared the government,” says Ms. Francq.
While Kabila has refused to confirm or deny his intentions to stay in power, the lead-up to the November election has been marred by delays that will make it nearly impossible for it to go ahead as scheduled. Whether Lucha’s actions will have an effect on Kabila’s decision to stay is power is unclear, but the extreme response of the government shows it is certainly uncomfortable, members say.
And having just watched President President Denis Sassou Nguesso win reelection for a third term this month in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, they don't want the same result here.
“The youth of Congo are taking its own destiny in its hand and the transformation of the country comes from the youth,” says Benjamin Kamuntu, a student at Institut Supérieur d'Informatique et de Gestion. “[It is a] train of change nobody can stop.”