In Congo, a youthful system of justice

The ‘Children’s Parliament’ is one of the country’s few reliable institutions.
Monday, August 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:01 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008
Junior Alimasi, 16, is vice president of the so-called Children’s Parliament, a U.N. program in Congo that dispenses legal counsel.

GOMA, Congo — It had already been a long day when Case No. 4, woman with delinquent husband, walked through the metal gates into the spare, concrete-floored chambers of the so-called Children’s Parliament here.

The aggrieved woman sat in front of a large wooden desk, where skinny, 14-year-old Eddy Musoke — the Honorable Eddy, to his parliamentary colleagues — recorded her story with the seriousness of a seasoned attorney.

“The case was of a woman with six children,” he explained afterward, glancing down at the fresh file. “She came to accuse her husband of being an irresponsible father. He has six children, and for three years, the father has paid no school fees.”

“We’ll write an invitation to the father and another to the wife,” he added. “Their appointment is next Wednesday.”

Life in Congo can often veer toward the absurd. It is one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of mineral wealth, but its people are among the poorest on Earth.

With government institutions, including the courts, hobbled by decades of corruption and neglect, one of the few bodies still reliably administering justice is a parliament run by, and mostly for, children.

Started in 2002, the U.N. initiative has since taken on a life of its own, with 150 members and little day-to-day adult supervision.

One recent Friday, there were no adults in sight except those pleading for help from the children. The parliament’s officers took a break from a busy schedule to discuss their work.

“Mostly children bring cases here,” said Arthur Omar Kayumba, 16. He pulled a thick blue binder from a bookshelf lined with legal texts and recounted some of the cases.

There was the girl whose father had accused her of being a witch; the 16-year-old boy who had been forced to serve as a militia commander’s bodyguard; the woman who accused her husband of illegally selling their compound.

Musoke usually records the unsavory details. The parties are then sent a letter including a date when they can present their stories to the parliament’s officers. The letter also includes a P.S.: “We will be obliged to contact the competent service in the matter of protecting minors if you do not respect this invitation. Sincerely, Junior Alimasi, Vice-President of Protection and Participation.”

Although the parliament cannot render legal rulings, officers do offer recommendations — “moral advice,” Kayumba called it — based on their study of Congolese law and U.N. conventions on children’s rights.

Most adults listen to their decisions, he said, but “if not, we contact the special police.”

The police do not always follow up, but when they do, consequences can include a reprimand, fines or jail time, depending on Congolese law, Kayumba said.

The United Nations has initiated other children’s parliaments in Africa, which are meeting at a convention later this year to discuss, among other topics, how to address the plight of children worldwide.

The original officers in Goma were selected by their teachers on the basis of their academic records. Now, officers are elected by the parliament’s members.

Over the years, the officers have developed their own thoughts on the state of their nation. Congo, formerly known as Zaire, was ruled for nearly 40 years by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who stole liberally from the state’s coffers. Mobutu’s overthrow in 1997 triggered a decade of civil war in eastern Congo, where militia groups still roam the lush green mountains.

Up and down the crumbling dirt roads here, it is common to see toddlers hauling heavy jugs of water. A steady stream of twig-legged boys make their way down from the surrounding mountains into Goma every day, pushing wooden bicycles piled high with bananas.

“When I see such kinds of problems, it makes me think that in the future, I will become a man of revolution to fight against this mistreatment of children,” Musoke said.

Kayumba said he imagines a political career. “I want to be president of the republic,” he said.

Musoke smiled. “When I was young, I had some thoughts like my brother here,” he said.

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