In the public gallery of Katanga's provincial assembly, a group of youths gather. Dressed in tracksuits and loudly beating drums, they sing animated songs to venerate the speaker of the provincial parliament, Gabriel Kyungu. They jeer his opponents during plenary sessions.
Opposition politicians report that the imposing presence of these young people, who all lend their support to the National Union of Federalist Democrats, UNAFEC, is undermining democracy and limiting the way in which they can vote.
Kyungu is the head of UNAFEC in Katanga, a mineral-rich province in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
One member of parliament, MP, Urbain Kisula, commented, “These young people do not believe in either God or the Devil. Their presence in the room is not conducive to the smooth running of the plenaries. With things like this, it is difficult for our young democracy to evolve.”
Another MP, who preferred to remain anonymous, added, “During important plenaries, we even receive messages on our telephones threatening us with death if we do not vote according to the wishes of the political party, UNAFEC.”
MP Michel Momat says that democracy is a particular problem in Katanga province, and the disruptive presence of UNAFEC supporters is making it even harder for democracy to take hold.
"We are not against the speaker of the parliament," he said. "What we ask is that MPs have the opportunity to freely express themselves, and this is not the case at the moment."
Norbert Tshiswaka, a resident of Lubumbashi and a keen follower of political debates in the provincial assembly of Katanga, says that the youths have a reputation for violence and intimidation and do not hesitate to assault those who oppose the views of UNAFEC.
“In this environment, in this atmosphere, do you think that the MPs can express themselves freely?” Tshiswaka asked. “I think not, especially since everyone knows what these young people are capable of doing.”
MP Monga Tutu claims that he knows only too well what these UNAFEC supporters can do, after he said he was attacked by half a dozen of them on January 28. He believes that they assaulted him because of a motion he put down, which Kyungu disapproved of. The motion was never passed, since Kyungu, as speaker, refused to admit it for discussion.
Tutu, who was wounded in the face by a knife, says that although he lodged a complaint with the authorities, there has been no attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice.
He suggests that since UNAFEC has allied itself with President Joseph Kabila, its supporters enjoy impunity not afforded to politicians from other parties.
“My attackers freely circulate as if they have not committed any offence,” he said. “Can we say that an independent judiciary exists in this country? In my opinion, the youth are not prosecuted because they are from the UNAFEC and ... the party is untouchable.”
Kyungu, however, denies that supporters from his party are involved in criminal activity or intimidation.
“We have zero tolerance towards political violence,” he said. “The accusations were made in a vacuum. There is no proof that these youths are from the UNAFEC.”
Hervé Kabambi, a lawyer from the local NGO Justice for All Humanity, recalls that there have been similar incidents in the past.
According to Kabambi, MPs often face pressure when they come to cast their vote.
“During the election of the governor in January 2007, certain MPs wanted their vote to be in secret," he said. "But, to our surprise, the speaker of the parliament imposed himself and passed the vote by roll-call.”
The governor of Katanga, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, comes from Kabila's ruling party, the People's Party for Reconstruction and Development, PPRD.
Kabambi said that since the public was able to know how each MP was voting, many were intimidated and did not feel free to cast their votes as they wanted.
Nelly Mukenday, a political observer, remembers a plenary session held last June, where a number of deputies submitted a motion calling for the removal of the governor. For the motion to be passed, more than half had to agree to it.
“The petition was signed by 53 out of 102 MPs," he said. "But the speaker imposed himself and demanded that each MP who signed the petition confirm his signature.
“The MPs were afraid and began to retract their signatures one by one. The presence of young [UNAFEC supporters] in the room has always been a problem for free political debate.”
Politicians from UNAFEC, however, deny allegations that parliamentary voting is being unfairly influenced by supporters of the party in the public gallery.
“No one influences the provincial assembly," UNAFEC parliamentarian Clément Mufundji said. "It's just that we have the majority. Therefore, it is logical that we win the vote of the provincial assembly."