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The Student Movement

Publisher Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author UNHCR
Publication Date 1 August 1997
Cite as Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, The Student Movement, 1 August 1997, available at: [accessed 21 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.



Considered one of the giant powers of black Africa due to its economic and human resources and its geographic and strategic position, Zaire is experiencing, paradoxically, economic and social deterioration. President Mobutu has officially ruled Zaire since November 1965, following a military coup d'état of which he was the prime instigator. The political system, which rests on a single party founded in 1970, the Mouvement populaire de la révolution (MPR) (Popular Movement for the Revolution), is under the influence of founding President Mobutu, who has proclaimed, "...there is no wiser interpreter than myself to grasp the true scope of the doctrine which is Mobutism, in other words, my ideas, my teaching and my action" (Durieux 1980, 712).

Since the creation of the MPR, human rights observers (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, etc.) have frequently reported the corruption of Zaire's political regime, and have denounced Mobutu's arbitrary powers and the many executions of people considered to be rebels. Over the last 25 years of Mobutism, thousands of citizens have been killed or subjected to torture, ill-treatment and prolonged arbitrary detention (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 1; Amnesty International Sept. 1990, 1). The totalitarian regime is maintained and the surveillance of the populace continued through significant corruption in the country's politics (Documentation-Réfugiés 9-18 July 1988).

As early as 1969 and 1971, the apparent stability of the government was shaken by student uprisings against Mobutism. On 4 June 1969, at a student demonstration organized under the aegis of the Union générale des étudiants congolais (UGEC) (General Union of Congolese Students), the army opened fire on protesters, killing tens of students. The days that followed were marked by mass arrests of students, the closing of several university establishments and the banning of student associations (Benchenane 1984, 181).


2.0             General

Given the continual repression and the hardening of a political regime that does not accept opposition, student agitation became, along with the women's movement and some political parties, a means of resistance to Mobutu's absolute rule. Although student riots were triggered by economic problems and by the increase in poverty linked to the elite's appropriation of wealth, students' grievances had considerable political impact (Le Monde Diplomatique July 1990). Students attracted public sympathy and mobilized discontented masses. Faced with this threat, President Mobutu had to react by promising partial democratization of public life.

2.1     The February 1989 Demonstrations

Major student riots occurred in Kinshasa in February 1989. They were violently repressed by security forces, and at least eight students were killed (Libération 1 Mar. 1989, 27). The students were protesting against the scarce means of transportation in Kinshasa and the 80% increase in its cost, as well as the inadequacy of bursaries (FBIS-AFR-89-030 15 Feb. 1989; FBIS-AFR-89-031 16 Feb. 1989). In response to these riots, the government of Zaire decided to close Kinshasa University, the Advanced Medical Institute, the Health Department, the National Institute of Education and the Institute of Applied Technology (FBIS-AFR-89-031 16 Feb. 1989; Gèze, Francois et al. 1989, 284).

In February 1989 in Lubumbashi, students organized demonstrations following the discovery of the body of a student not far from a military camp. Security forces intervened by firing into the crowd of protesters, wounding or killing many (Le Monde 2 Mar. 1989). Government authorities reported only one death (Documentation-Réfugiés 24 Feb.-5 Mar. 1989, 6; FBIS-AFR-89-043 7 Mar. 1989).

Following the demonstrations in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, many arrests were made in student circles. In the capital alone, between 100 and 300 people were arrested (Documentation-Réfugiés 6-15 Mar. 1989). Not until mid-March, a month after the riots, were the universities and educational institutions reopened (FBIS-AFR-89-052 20 Mar. 1989; FBIS-AFR-89-055 23 Mar. 1989).

2.2 The May 1990 Demonstrations

Following the February 1989 riots, the economic and social situation deteriorated further, as illustrated by the many strikes held by various groups including public servants and teachers. Early in 1990, President Mobutu allowed different groups to express themselves by initiating a series of public consultations (Jeune Afrique Mar. 1990, 19). The public, often characterized as apathetic or apolitical, spoke out in over 500 briefs documenting its grievances, its difficulties and its aspirations (Le Monde Diplomatique July 1990). It is noteworthy that, in a speech on 24 April 1990 proclaiming recognition of a multiparty system, "Marshal Mobutu aroused hopes. His speech on 3 May 1990 dashed them" (Commission Justice et Paix 1990, 5). In the latter speech, delivered to the National Assembly, the President said that no other political party had yet been authorized. Four days before 3 May 1990, police intervened at a political meeting of the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS) (Union for Democracy and Social Progress), even though the party had in theory been legal since 24 April 1990. At least two people died in the confrontations (The New York Times 2 May 1990).

For three days, from 9 to 12 May 1990, the university campus of Lubumbashi (the country's second largest city) was the scene of violent clashes between students and security forces. When Lubumbashi students tried to organize a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with their fellow students in Kinshasa, they discovered that three of their Ngbandi comrades (members of President Mobutu's tribe) were in fact informers who gave the police the names of opponents of his regime (Libération 23 May 1990; Commission Justice et Paix 1990, 47). "They [were] beaten, thrown into a hole, stoned and burned until the Civil Guard came to free them" (Commission Justice et Paix 1990, 49). The three informers then confessed to various deeds, among them their participation in the abduction and assassination of 23 students considered to be opponents of the regime (Ibid., 146).

During the nights of 11 and 12 May 1990, students gathered around a fire after electricity to the campus was cut off and after the campus itself was surrounded by security forces. According to countless witnesses, an armed commando of the Presidential Special Division or Brigade (DSP or BSP, composed mainly of Ngbandis) burst onto the campus at about 11 p.m. to avenge their Ngbandi "brothers" who had been lynched some days earlier (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 84-85; Commission Justice et Paix 1990, 67-69). DSP members executed many students with knives, disembowelling some with daggers, throwing others from upper-storey windows or garrotting those who tried to escape. The students who were the chief targets of these reprisals came mainly from the regions of the two Kasais, Kivu, Bandundu and lower Zaire. Those from Équateur were spared because they could respond to the password "lititi mboka" (Ibid.).

The precise number of victims of this massacre will probably remain unknown, as "the bodies of the massacred students were taken away to an unknown place" (Commission Justice et Paix 1990, 70). The Belgian daily Le Soir estimates that 50 students were killed (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 85). The Zairian newspaper La Semaine sets the number of victims at 23 (Ibid., 90). According to one survivor, the number of victims is over 100 (Ibid.). Government authorities, however, assert that only one person was killed in the May confrontations in Lubumbashi, while Amnesty International suggests a figure between 50 and 150 (The New York Times 19 June 1990, 22; Documentation-Réfugiés 12-21 July 1990, 6).

Following these events, many students and teachers sought refuge in Zambia (The New York Times 19 June 1990, 22).


The Mobutu regime does not tolerate any form of dissent. In the past the regime has repeatedly harassed political opponents who have returned to the country. Some of them have been placed under house arrest, imprisoned for long periods or subjected to torture and ill-treatment (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 119-20). Some opponents who had found refuge in neighbouring countries (Congo, Burundi and Uganda) have even been kidnapped by Zairian security forces and imprisoned in Zaire (Ibid.).

In 1981, an exiled professor from Zaire who had criticized the Mobutu regime openly, was arrested as soon as he returned to the country (Critique 1989 1990, 263). Fifty-seven Zairian refugees who were turned back by Switzerland in November 1985 found officials waiting for them at Kinshasa Airport to transport them to prison, where some died of torture (New African Jan. 1986). In October 1987, Zairian refugees living in the Congo were arrested and extradited to Zaire, where they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, one of them for twenty years (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 120; Amnesty International 1990, 10). A Zairian dissident who had obtained refugee status in France and was visiting Burundi was abducted in April 1989 by Burundi's security forces and handed over to Zairian authorities (Ibid.; Documentation-Réfugiés 12-21 Oct. 1989, 2). He was ill-treated and detained in Zaire until the famous speech of 24 April 1990. In January 1990, Zairian refugees living in Belgium were arrested as they passed through Kampala, Uganda; they were transferred in April 1990 to prisons in Zaire, where they are still being held (Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1990, 120).


In April 1990, under the pressure of recent developments, President Mobutu was compelled to announce the end of the one-party state system and the establishment of the "Third Republic" with a multiparty system. The student demonstrations held only a few days after the 24 April speech showed that democracy is still far from Zaire's political horizon. Even today, as during the past twenty years, Mobutu's regime represses and oppresses women, students and political opposition parties.

There is a striking contrast between President Mobutu's speeches about democratization and the continuing repressive measures, such as the Lubumbashi massacre. This contrast has not escaped Mobutu's traditional ally, the United States, which recently suspended its aid to Zaire (The Washington Post 18 Sept. 1990; The New York Times 4 Nov. 1990, 21). The political reforms proposed by the President seek to "give pledges to Western allies," but they are nothing but a smokescreen (Le Monde Diplomatique July 1990).

As long as the existing government represses the people of Zaire and genuine reform is not undertaken, the possibilities for dissidents living abroad to return will remain slim.

5.         APPENDIX: MAP

See original

6.              BIBLIOGRAPHY

Amnesty International. September 1990. (AI Index: AFR 62/10/90) The Republic of Zaire: Outside the Law - Security Force Repression of Government Opponents, 1988-1990. London.

Benchenane, Mustapha. 1984. Les régimes militaires africains. Paris: Publisud.

Commission Justice et Paix. 1990. Zaïre : que s'est-il passé au campus de Lubumbashi? Brussels. (Testimonies of and official documents on the events of 10-12 May 1990)

Documentation-Réfugiés [Paris]. 9-18 July 1988. "Zaïre."

Documentation-Réfugiés. 24 February - 5 March 1989, p. 6.

Documentation-Réfugiés. 6-15 March 1989.

Documentation-Réfugiés. 12-21 October 1989.

Documentation-Réfugiés. 12-21 July 1990.

Durieux, A. April- June 1980. "Réforme de la constitution de 1978 du Zaïre" in Revue juridique et politique, indépendance et coopération. Paris.

FBIS-AFR-89-030. 15 February 1989. "Zaire: Students Demonstrate over Transport Costs" in Agence France Press [Paris], 14 February 1989.

FBIS-AFR-89-031. 16 February 1989. "Government Closes Education Institutions" in Agence France Presse [Paris], 15 February 1989.

FBIS-AFR-89-031. 16 February 1989. "Zaire: Students Demonstrate over Transport" in Service Domestique [Paris], 15 February 1989.

FBIS-AFR-89-043. 7 March 1989. "Zaire" in Agence France Presse [Paris], 4 March 1989.

FBIS-AFR-89-052. 20 March 1989. "Zaire: Mobutu To Pardon Students; Grants Released" in Agence France Press [Paris], 18 March 1989.

FBIS-AFR-89-055. 23 March 1989. "Zaire: Kinshasa Universities Reopen 22 March" in PANA [Dakar, in French], 22 March 1989.

Gèze, Francois et al. 1989. L'état du monde 1989-1990. Deval, H. "Zaïre." Paris and Montreal: La Découverte et Boréal.

Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. 1990. Critique: Review of the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989. New York.

Human Rights Watch and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. 1990. Zaire : Repression as Policy. New York.

Jeune Afrique [Paris]. March 1990. "Zaïre", p. 19.

Libération [Paris]. 1 March 1989. "Violentes manifestations au Zaïre."

Libération. 23 May 1990. "Massacre d'étudiants à Lubumbashi."

Le Monde Diplomatique [Paris]. July 1990. Braeckman, Colette. "Multipartisme et répression au Zaïre."

Le Monde [Paris]. 2 March 1989. "Zaïre: Brutale répression de manifestations étudiantes."

New African [London]. January 1986. "Swiss Expel 57 Zaireans."

The New York Times. 2 May 1990. "Zaire."

The New York Times. 19 June 1990. "Stop Zaire Aid, Pending Violence Inquiry."

The New York Times. 4 November 1990. Krausse, Clifford. "U.S. Cuts Aid to Zaire, Setting Off a Policy Debate."

The Washington Post. 18 September 1990. Makau wa Mutua. "Zaire Doesn't Deserve That Aid."

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