Remarks by Carl Gershman at Voices from the Congo: The Road Ahead
A conference of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Eastern Congo Initiative
At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC
It is my great honor today to present the NED’s Democracy Service Medal posthumously to our beloved friend and colleague, the late Floribert Chebeya Bahizire. Floribert was the founder and executive director of one of Congo’s first and foremost human rights NGOs, Voix des Sans-Voix or “Voice of the Voiceless,” an organization that NED has supported since 1991. This Medal has been given over the years to individuals who have served the cause of democracy with courage and devotion, and who have made a significant contribution to advancing human freedom and democratic values. Among its past recipients have been Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who received the medal at a ceremony held last year at the Library of Congress.
During his lifetime, Floribert enjoyed little of the fame or recognition of many past recipients of this Medal. He was neither the president of a country nor a famous elder statesman. But to countless people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as in other African countries, Floribert was a savior. From his unmarked and humble office, he fought for Congolese citizens whose rights the country’s leaders had ignored and trampled upon. Whether it was a laborer who was taken from his family for questioning about his political activities and never seen again, or a young man who had been shot by police while participating in a largely peaceful demonstration, Floribert’s voice was heard. No human rights violation perpetrated by the state was too insignificant to merit his organization’s attention. He denounced three generations of authoritarian rulers and, in so doing, rescued obscure cases from oblivion and reminded those in power that the rights of all its citizens matter.
This work was often not glamorous. Floribert and his team had to track down citizens, gather testimony, verify reports, collect and organize documents, and figure out how to make their organization run with whatever modest funding they could obtain.
And this work was always very dangerous. In his early days as a university student in Kinshasa, where he created Voix des Sans-Voix when he was just twenty years old, Floribert had to work underground for fear that the police, ever alert to the rumblings of student unrest, would dismantle his new organization. Since those early days, the authorities and others who feared that the truth Floribert might expose threatened him regularly by phone, in person, and more recently by e-mail and text messages. Floribert was also on several occasions arrested, detained, and interrogated.
In March 2009, he and two of his colleagues were arrested following a press conference at which they criticized the government for trying to control and manipulate the National Assembly. After being apprehended and brutally interrogated by the intelligence services, he and his colleagues were held incommunicado. At one point they were forced onto the floor and threatened at gunpoint by several policemen, who warned them of the consequences if they didn’t end their criticisms.
Of course they refused and, judging from the passion of Floribert’s statements and his continued unflinching criticism of human rights abusers and officials who abused their authority, this last incident had utterly failed to silence him and his team.
Some people in the government obviously then concluded that the only way they could silence Floribert would be by killing him. And so on June 2, 2010, Floribert was asked to meet the Inspector General of the Police, John Numbi, someone Floribert had criticized for his role in ordering a brutal crackdown against a particular political and religious movement near Kinshasa. At some point after he arrived at police station, Floribert was murdered, and his body was found the next morning in a car on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Fidele Bazana, his courageous and loyal driver, was also murdered, and Fidele’s body has not been found until this day.
The reaction to the deaths of Floribert and Fidele was overwhelming. The European Union, the United States, a number of other governments, and the heads of some of the most prominent international organizations and NGOs strongly condemned these murders and called for an independent investigation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon specifically asked President Kabila about the investigation, and donor governments warned the DRC of the consequences if the truth about what had happened did not come out.
Even more telling than the condemnations by people in Europe and the United States was the response of Floribert’s fellow citizens. From the taxi driver to the hotel receptionist to the market vendor, people whom NED staff met were deeply angered and saddened by the deaths of Floribert and Fidele. Over the 27 years that he toiled in the name of the voiceless, sending ripples of hope to people who feared that their own suffering might be forgotten, Floribert’s work was rarely acknowledged. But now ordinary Congolese throughout the country began to take notice of what he had done and stood for.
His funeral was attended by the widows of the dead whom Floribert had defended, politicians whose claim to equal rights Floribert had also supported, residents of Kinshasa who may have never met either Fidele or Floribert but who respected what they stood for, and civil society members from all corners of Congo. These and other ordinary people descended upon the grassy pitch in a popular section of Kinshasa to pay their respects to this fallen Congolese hero. Many of these mourners were the voiceless whom Floribert had represented, and now they had begun to find their voice.
It is altogether fitting and proper, then, that we honor Floribert today not only with this medal but also with this conference, which has been aptly titled “Voices from Congo.” His life’s work, after all, had been devoted to giving voice to the millions of Congolese whose lives had been destroyed and ruined by a fundamentally unjust and corrupt system in which those without money or access to power could be crushed beneath the repressive instruments of the state. We hope that through this conference, and especially the Congolese voices that you’ve heard today, we’ve been able to support Floribert’s work and help move the Congo closer to his vision of a more just and democratic society. And, of course, that’s why we’re also presenting him posthumously with our Democracy Service Medal.
We’re honored that Floribert’s widow, Annie Chebeya Mangbenga, who is herself a very important voice among the Congolese, is here to receive this tribute. Annie, we want you to know that Floribert is not forgotten, and that you and your colleagues who continue the fight for justice and human rights, are not alone. It’s my honor now to call upon Annie Chebeya to receive the Democracy Service Medal awarded posthumously to Floribert Chebeya Bahizire.