Religious clashes in the capital over the rights to organise Eid celebrations represent a bigger struggle
— 3 minute read — By Alex Kurtis
Islam is not the most prominent religion in the Democratic Republic of Congo; it is estimated to be the faith of around 10 percent of the population, though figures as low as 1.3 percent have been recorded. Yet two separate Muslim factions were both celebrating the end of Ramadan in the nation’s capital Kinshasa, not soon after they erupted into violence which led to the murder of a police officer and dozens of others injured. The cause of the clash was noted as a disagreement over who had the rights to organise Eid festivities in the capital, though the two groups have long fought over leadership of COMICO, an organisation that represents Congolese Muslims on the national level.
Witnesses described the clash as ‘guerrilla warfare’ as projectiles were thrown and a police car was set alight. Reports suggest that 41 individuals were arrested in connection to the violence; court trials were conducted hastily, being televised and completed overnight. 29 of the participants were handed death sentences (commuted as life imprisonment since 2003), with 2 others given shortened sentences. Regarding the speed of the criminal procedures, BBC World Service Africa editor Will Ross has raised concerns over the fairness of the trial. Despite Congolese criminal law being heavily based on Belgian and French practices, it does not note any differences between a felony, misdemeanour or contravention, prompting contention of the severity of the sentences.
Violence among Congolese Muslims is not a new phenomenon. The Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan rebel group rooted in Islamic ideology, have been blamed and convicted of terrorism in DRC on a multitude of occasions. Most significant was the 2016 Beni Massacre, where between 64 and 101 people were murdered in the eastern city of Beni. A Congo Research Group at the New York University later made claims that senior members of the Congolese army had participated in the massacre, though of course these claims were heavily denied by the DRC Government. Since the massacres, the rebel group has only increased its activity and recruitment in DRC.
With the most significant Muslim population in DRC concentrated in the east of the country, susceptibility to radicalisation by the ADF is very high. The border with Uganda is in the east of the country and ADF attacks against Congolese Christians (DRCs most common faith) have been reported in the eastern province of North Kivu since 2014. Furthermore they have already exposed corruption in DRC’s own military with the 2016 Beni Massacre, shattering trust and instilling fear that they cannot rely on their country to defend them.
Though not at all representative of the Islamic faith, the violent penetration of the country by the ADF forms a large part of the religion’s reputation in the country. Politically, a case can be made that Muslims are underrepresented with just 1 percent of Congolese parliament members identifying themselves that way. Naturally, it could be considered that many Congolese Muslims lack strong Muslim identity, they do not see themselves in the government, and too often they see their name attached to violence.
The clash that erupted in the capital on the religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr should not be excused as a simple fight between rival factions as it is known that the two groups have squabbled over the leadership of COMICO. If both groups are looking to be their religion’s main representative, their outlash at each other likely comes from a position of desperation, a strong desire to instil that strong Muslim identity to its Congolese followers, yet only managing to exert this through the typical self-destructive force that they have seen poison their country since their independence.