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Kukufa mu gratuité (to die for nothing): Making a living in Bukavu’s police

by Michel Thill

This blog has been published in French by Rift Valley Institute.


We continue to provide a free service until the day God will remember us because we agreed to work for the country.[1]

Since the implementation of the Police de Proximité (PdP, community police), within the framework of the police reforms piloted in Bukavu (2009–2014), signs posted in and outside of most police stations across the city announced the ten golden rules the police are to follow to the station’s visitors. The first such rule has gained a reputation amongst police officers and citizens alike: ‘The services of the police are free’. A sufficiently straightforward proposition, if it wasn’t for the fact that for as long as most can remember in the Congo, the police have filled their belly through more or less forced contributions from the population. Today, therefore, police officers face a dilemma: to make a living by ignoring the reform or ‘to die for nothing’ by respecting it?


Working without a salary, living on the back of the population

The state doesn’t pay us, the commanding officers don’t give us anything, and the population doesn’t accept to give us money.[2]

Violence perpetrated by security forces against the population is a theme cross-cutting much of Congolese history from at least the foundation of the Congo Free State in 1885 and its army, the Force Publique, in 1888. Except during the two World Wars, the Force Publique functioned mainly as an instrument of internal coercion and repression. From independence onwards, some soldiers and police officers—holding a gun without a salary—have interpreted the famous non-existent Article 15 of the Congolese constitution, which advises Congolese to ‘fend for yourself’ (‘débrouillez-vous’) instead of waiting for the state’s help, as sanctioning predation.

This situation has not changed much. In Bukavu, an expensive city in the eastern DRC, some police officers have not been paid in years. Others receive a monthly premium of CDF 90,000, or USD 60, which is barely enough to cover rent in an urban neighbourhood. Moreover, much is lacking on the job: basic stationery, fuel for transport, means to communicate, tables and chairs, uniforms and boots, anti-riot gear, suitable arms, etc.

How can police officers make a living in such conditions? While there is no causality between lacking a salary and harassment—even the better paid units harass[3]—in the conscience of the officers, the lack of income is omnipresent: as the root problem for survival, as a justification for harassment and as reason for their fellow citizens’ lack of respect for them. In response, a variety of revenue-generating methods have developed in the PNC.


Generating revenue: Well diversified methods

That is why I told you that we live from one day to the next. Imagine, in what country would the people not know the priorities of the police […]? The one who does noble work, who traumatizes his head to protect the population, to defend the territorial integrity, but he does not receive any money? And you want there to be honesty in the police?[4]

At first, there is harassment—‘to go shock’ in the language of the police—which takes multiple forms. Inventing fees, fines and offenses is common. In the police station, for example, payments are made for the plaintiff to open a case and for families to visit a relative detained in a cell. Citizens are forced to pay a fee, ‘ya makolo’ (‘for the feet’ in Lingala), to request a police intervention. On the streets, holding out an open hand, traffic police oblige drivers to pay a sum, a ‘massage’, without which one can be arrested for whatever reason. The police also levy a daily tax on market women for the right to sell their goods along busy roads.

Several of these harassments are linked to the infamous ‘rapportage’. A police officer explained this system as follows: ‘The commander expects the “report”. Now this “report” is money. Where will they find it? Through harassment.’ For him, ‘working is harassing.’[5] When one refuses this ‘report’ to the senior officer, or fails to deliver its full sum on a given day—fixed in advance by the commanding officer—various punishments follow. Those failing to deliver face reassignment to a post offering less ‘reporting’ opportunities, detention or even suspension. ‘Rapportage’ thus reinforces the pressure on police officers to engage in a diverse set of daily harassment methods.

This system of enrichment up the hierarchy, however, is not practised to the same extent everywhere, nor by everyone. At the police station, for example, fees and fines paid by plaintiffs, defendants and inmates are not exclusively handed on to ‘rapportage’. They also subsidize some indispensable needs. They contribute to funding paper and pens, mobile phone units and transport. And sometimes, they serve as an incentive for officers working on the same case. In an indirect manner, fines thus also finance the minimum requirements for the continuous functioning of the police services.

In general, Bukavu’s inhabitants are well aware of the difficulties the police face and the mitigation strategies they employ. Some voluntarily support those police officers they know personally or those who they believe provide a good service. A commander therefore advises his troops as follows: ‘[These payments] are not your right. Don’t request them. If you talk well to people, if they listen, they will give something.’[6]

These revenue-generating methods only form part of police officers’ survival strategy. Policepersons also organize themselves to support each other. ‘Likilimba’, for example, unites a group of police, each disbursing a part of his or her monthly premium to a common fund. Each month, the fund is disbursed to a different member of the group, which allows the member to make larger purchases, to meet family obligations or to invest in a small business. Others turn to the so called ‘Banque Lambert’—colleagues, superiors or currency traders who provide small loans at exorbitant interest rates who, as collateral, sometimes keep the debtor’s police service card, allowing them to cash her or his monthly salary.

Police reforms were meant to re-establish the police as a free service for the population. Its aim, however, clashed with the realities of these deeply-rooted practices.


Circumventing reforms

There is no equipment and weapons. We may only have one gun and one single person holds it. We others, we remain empty-handed. […] We find ourselves tired and famished, […]. Even if someone calls us to intervene, we cannot head there, we will die for what? What is given to us?[7]

Awareness-raising campaigns during the implementation of the PdP made harassment, particularly inside police stations, much more difficult. Today, a visitor can refer to the golden rules hanging on the station walls, obliging police officers to justify themselves.

In response, some engage in long discussions and negotiations with the visitors, sometimes for hours or even days, to justify—and still extract—the imposed fees. One police officer, for example, justified the fee charged for a visit to a crime scene by saying that the first golden rule only applies to police services provided within the station, but not those outside of it.[8]

Others are less smooth-tongued. They simply remove all material signs of the reforms, be this the list of golden rules, preventing visitors from making reference to them, or other posters and signs promoting the reform and its principles. Police officers who had followed the PdP training were given a yellow armband to wear which made them easily identifiable. In Bukavu, these armbands have disappeared as well. Indeed, such measures are often encouraged or even demanded by the hierarchy, itself less familiar with the reforms, the deontology of which works against their own interests.



In Bukavu, the police face difficult working conditions. The insufficient or non-existent salary forces them to live ‘from one day to the next,’ worrying about how to make a living instead of fulfilling their primary duties at work. In this context, the police have developed a range of coping mechanisms to generate revenue, ranging from simple as well as less direct harassment, to voluntary contributions and joint-funds. While some of these strategies are forms of corruption for the benefit of certain individuals, others play a crucial role in the survival of the police institution itself. In this world of informal practices, the reforms’ principle of free services has become yet another variable to navigate and, eventually, circumvent. According to most police officers, to change such practical norms, a lot more than a list of ten simple golden rules will be needed. The police in Bukavu would be happy to respect these rules, but not at the price of ‘dying for nothing’.


[1] Focus Group A, 2 November 2017 (translated from Swahili).

[2] Focus Group A, 2 November 2017 (translated from Swahili).

[3] See Maria Eriksson Baaz and Ola Olsson, ‘Feeding the Horse : Unofficial Economic Activities within the Police Force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’, African Security 4/4 (2011): 224–225.

[4] Interview with police officer 2, 17 October 2017 (translated from Swahili).

[5] Interview with police officer 11, 29 November 2016 (translated from French).

[6] Interview with police officer 9, 8 November 2017 (translated from French).

[7] Interview with police officer 6, 24 October 2017 (translated from Swahili).

[8] Observations as intern at a police station, May 2017.

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