What Congo’s AfCON Protest Really Needed A Missed Leadership Opportunity for Peace in the DRC

Can football be used for peace? The African Cup of Nations (AfCON) was full of emotions and surprises, especially for the Congolese team, the Leopards. A team that used their platform at the tournament to call for peace and an end to the genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo but were failed by Congolese leaders.

‘Justice de Dieu, il y en a!’ 

                                               — Chancel Mbemba  

The 2024 African Cup of Nations (AfCON) was a tournament full of surprises, including a strong Congolese team that made it all the way to the semi-finals with a stellar performance. Their momentum across the tournament brought pride and joy to Congolese across the world. Through it, there were some national moments such as the captain, Chancel Mbemba’s interview response after being aggressed by the Moroccan coach.  

In his diplomatic response after the match with Morocco, Mbemba said ‘Justice de Dieu, il y en a!’ This became a statement that many Congolese fans swiftly adopted. Its loose translation is ‘God’s justice, there is.’ Mbemba was trying to communicate that ‘God’s justice exists.’ The incorrect grammatical structure made it so comical that it began to trend across Congolese mainstream media and social spaces. The popularity of Mbemba’s response led to the statement being shortened to ‘Judiya.’ However, beneath the laughter at Mbemba, a deeper question really must be asked. Where is the justice?  

The AfCON tournament was not only a journey of comical highlight for the Leopards, they also used the tournament and their performance to bring more awareness to the devastating genocidal violence happening in eastern Congo. The war in Congo is the deadliest since the Second World War and continues to rise. More than 7 million people have been forcibly displaced within the DRC, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission reports more than a million people are seeking asylum in other countries including Angola, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia. There is no appearance of peace on the horizon. Even while the tournament was ongoing, there was a fatal rebel attack in North Kivu. The team took several initiatives to raise awareness to this. First, they made an awareness video during their training in partnership with Fonarev, the body responsible for providing support to victims in their quest for justice, to stop the genocide. Second, they released a statement of solidarity with eastern Congo. Finally, during the semi-final against AfCON hosts, Côte d’Ivoire, the team wore black bands and did not sing the first half of the Congolese national anthem. Instead of singing, the team placed one hand over their mouth, and the other on the side of their head to mimic a gun. This stance symbolized the violent killings of innocent Congolese civilians, and the black bands were to commemorate all those lost to the violence.  


Providing a just and clear overview of the genesis and history of the genocidal violence occurring in DRC would require numerous articles and books. However, a condensed outline of the more recent situation is necessary to understand the Leopards’ motivations to call for peace and an end to the violence and killing. Among the multiple factors that have caused and facilitated the continued genocidal level killing of civilians, three are notable factors. First, the mismanagement of the consequences of the Rwandan Genocide. Second, the political history and tension of the Great Lakes. Lastly, the deep interlinkages between violence and the preservation of several parties’ capitalistic interests.  

One of the factors that is attributed as a cause of the ongoing violence in the DRC is the consequence of the global community failing to properly manage the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide as it came to an end. When the genocidaire regime began to lose its hold on Rwanda, many Rwandan Hutus fled into eastern DRC in fear of facing repercussions. This included those affiliated with Interahamwe—the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), who were among the perpetrators of the genocide. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the poor management of these groups by international bodies resulted in ex-FAR members, along with other parties, continuing their militant and violent killings in eastern DRC and fanning the flames on either side of the Rwanda-Congo border. Their ability to enter into the DRC was fostered by the political play of the Congolese dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. During his tenure, Mobutu had been a strong supporter of his Hutu allies and an aggressor to the Banyamulenge a group of Congolese who had Rwandan ancestry but had been present and living in Congo since the 1800s.  

According to French historian, Gérard Prunier, in his 2008 book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, Mobutu was also involved in other political tensions within Africa that led to the involvement of countries like Uganda. Prunier also claimed that Mobutu provided a channel for arms to be provided to the Lord’s Resistance Army from their Sudanese allies, which placed a great threat to the political stability and security of Uganda. This threat motivated Uganda to join in supporting Laurent Kabila’s deposition of Mobutu alongside Rwanda. The insecurity presented by the alliances that Mobutu made pushed other parties such as Mozambique to be involved. And at the call of Kabila, Zimbabwe was also drawn into what is considered Africa’s World War. 

Even after several attempts at establishing ceasefires and peace agreements including the most recent 72-hour ceasefire, the consequences of multiple parties being involved for political and capital gain is the genocide being observed presently. At different points, groups involved in the political negotiations splintered off and formed their own rebel and militia groups. There are presently over 120 militia groups in the DRC. One of the several militia and rebel groups in the DRC, the M23 movement, was formed in this fashion. In 2009, the National Congress for the Defence of the People was disbanded in an agreement between the DRC and Rwanda in their collaboration to deal with the violence posed by the FDLR (an amalgamation of groups including ex-FAR members) and other groups. However, a group led by Bosco Ntagonda refused to join the Congolese national army and formed Movement 23 (M23), which became active in 2012 and continues to terrorize civilians across eastern Congo. In the 2023 UN midterm report, M23 and Rwandan Defense Forces were captured together in the DRC through aerial and photographic evidence.  

Another component that enables the violence in the DRC is the abundance of mineral resources including cobalt, coltan, zinc and many others that the global community is heavily reliant on. According to the 2022 report jointly published by the International Peace Information Service and USAID, non-state armed groups employ mines as a means of financing their activities. For instance, in Ituri, the armed group, Coopérative pour le Développement Economique du Congo (CODECO), seized control of the Mongbwalu Gold Mining company’s concession in the Djugu territory. Under CODECO’s coercion, miners were compelled to continue extracting gold on behalf of the group. The gold extracted from this region was then trafficked through illicit channels for refining in Uganda before being exported to Dubai. The violence and instability destabilized the DRC from being able to monitor the channels of mineral trade and enabled various actors to continue accessing minerals unaccounted and unchallenged.  

To put the violence into context, Congolese civilians have been killed on a continued basis since Mbemba was a year old (the football player is currently 29). More than six million people have been killed and the number continues to increase. As a result of this genocide, there are now more than 6.9 million internally displaced persons in the DRC and the UNHCR reports that 60 per cent of them are children. In other words, over 7.1 per cent of the current Congolese national population is internally displaced and more than 6.3 per cent have been killed. This is why the Leopards’ protest at the African Cup of Nations was important.  


Although the Leopards did not make it to the finals, their use of their platform to raise awareness has been truly commendable. Sports have historically been a place for sociopolitical outcry and a facilitator of nation building. One of the most common references to sports activism is the raising of the Black Power fist by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in support of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. On the African continent, sports have been used to unite countries. The late Nelson Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring South Africans together through their victory. A strategy that has now been canonized through the Morgan Freeman Hollywood movie, Invictus. Sports can certainly be a facilitative platform to address a country’s challenges and issues.  

However, what has been disappointing is the lack of national and global leadership to support the Leopards’ efforts. Many Congolese knew what the team was doing, but the message was not able to transcend to the viewers and watchers from over 80 countries. A part of this shortcoming is due to the censorship from media houses like SuperSport and Canal+. The latter’s failure to address the issue whilst broadcasting the match brought strong distaste to the Congolese, and garnered retaliation as many protested and stormed Canal+ offices in Congo. But the more pressing reason for the shortcomings is the failure of the Congolese to align the Leopards’ activism with a strategic advocacy and action plan to draw more action to address the ongoing violence. There were no statements released, no call to the global community for more stringent and effective action, and no indication of a proposed plan of action to address the continued genocide. Instead, leaders like Patrick Muyaya have turned the actions of the Leopards into a mockery by replicating them instead of demonstrating strong action.  

The Leopards did their part, and their stance will be captured in history books like those of Smith, Carlos, and Mandela. However, there will be a lack of strong leadership recorded alongside their activism. Mbemba said ‘Justice de dieu, il en ya,’ but Congolese leaders, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the global community continue to fail in providing peace and justice for eastern Congo. Due to that shortfall, the question that continues to persist is when will eastern Congo be able to say Judiya and experience peace?

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