In the wake of the recent death of Floribert Chebeya Bahzire, Dave Peterson pays tribute to this revered figure who was ‘undoubtedly Congo’s most prominent, committed and courageous human rights activist’.
The lifeless body of Floribert Chebeya Bahzire was found in the back seat of his car on June 2 in a neighbourhood not far from his home in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
His murder is an enormous outrage. He was undoubtedly Congo’s most prominent, committed and courageous human rights activist. From his early years when he won the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1992 for fighting the Mobutu dictatorship, through the national conference process, the civil war, the Laurent Kabila regime, the Congolese elections and the current dispensation, which continues to deteriorate – Floribert persevered, finally paying the ultimate price for his vision of a free and democratic Congo. He should be remembered as one of Congo’s greatest freedom fighters, a leader of Africa’s democratic movement, and an international human rights giant. This is a terrible loss. His death must not be in vain. His life’s work must continue.
I first met Floribert about 20 years ago when he was visiting the US; shortly thereafter, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) made its first grant to the organisation he led, La Voix des Sans Voix (VSV), in 1991 for $31,289, ‘to support the VSV’s efforts to increase the understanding of and commitment to human rights and democracy in Zaire through a civic education program that includes a monthly bulletin, audiovisual materials, and public meetings’. It was the first grant NED made in Zaire, and there can be no question that Floribert paved the way and set the standard for all that followed.
Floribert was both gentle and fierce. His small stature, soft voice, thick glasses and warm smile belied the toughness and determination that landed him in and out of detention on multiple occasions, and that elevated him to be the widely acknowledged leader of Congo’s human rights movement in networks such as Droits de l’Homme Maintentant, and mentor to scores of human rights NGOs across the country. When the pressure and threats became too great, Floribert would send his wife and children across the river to Brazzaville, but he stayed behind in Kinshasa to continue his work. He lived modestly, and if he had political ambitions, he never pursued them. His family had to move from time to time for security reasons, but the occasions when I was honoured to have dinner at his home were filled with the love and warmth of his devoted wife and children. When he spoke before mass audiences his eloquence and passion were captivating, but unlike so many other tribunes of the people, his integrity was incorruptible. He never lost his connection with the Congolese people whose voice he had become. I sat with him once as he interviewed an alleged recent victim of human rights abuse. He was gentle, yet probing, and rather than rushing to use her as a convenient weapon against the authorities, determined that her case was doubtful, he promised to follow up with her later. He and the staff of VSV investigated and sought redress for hundreds of such cases.
Floribert was a realist. He understood politics. But he never sacrificed principles. He was as unafraid to denounce American policies he saw as wrong, as he was those of his own government. When most other Congolese, including some human rights advocates, were denouncing the Tutsis and Banyamulenge after the Rwandan invasion, Floribert defended the rights of innocent civilians who were targets of human rights abuse no matter what their ethnicity. He had enormous energy. Leading a committed team, VSV has issued hundreds of press statements over the years, meticulously documenting human rights abuses and denouncing them. VSV has likewise held hundreds of workshops, training conferences, civic education events and campaigns. Floribert undoubtedly inspired hundreds of activists throughout the country who still cite VSV for getting them off the ground, showing them how to do human rights work and counselling them on strategy. He distributed his Reebok Human Rights Award among other civil society organisations rather than keeping it for himself or even his own organisation. His impact on the human rights movement and the understanding and appreciation for democracy in Congo was profound.
Whether or not the gunman or the person who gave the orders is ever identified, we know who killed Floribert Chebeya. The Congolese political system has become increasingly repressive, human rights organisations are continually threatened, journalists have been murdered, the political opposition emasculated and the rule of law flouted. In the east the vicious killings, looting and mass rapes committed by the Congolese army continue unabated. The UN peacekeepers are being pressed to leave, and the prospects for any democratic elections in the future are fading. The Congolese people have lost one of their most ardent defenders. Floribert will be remembered among the pantheon of African martyrs and freedom fighters such as Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko and Tom Mboya. But those who committed this crime must not go unpunished. Floribert’s vision of a free and democratic Congo must be preserved. Floribert would have demanded no less.
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* Dave Peterson is the senior director of the Africa Program of the National Endowment for Democracy.
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