GOMA - For the past 30 years, Dufina Tabu has been defending human rights in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province in Congo. Tall and thin, with white hair, Dufina is a forthright man. He inherited his frankness, he says, from his father, a progressive man who worked as an accountant for the Belgian colonists and fathered at least 22 children.
Dufina, a teachers' college graduate, is now in his sixties. He began his career in human rights when President Mobutu still ran the country. (His corrupt, authoritarian regime ran from 1965 until it was overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1997.)
"I believe Dufina is the first man in Goma to have talked about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," says Mushushu Paluke, former head of the Kasika neighborhood. Paluke met Dufina in 1982 when he was speaking on human rights at the scouts' primary school. Dufina was so active that he was nicknamed "Human Rights."
He has garnered most public attention for denouncing conditions at the Munzenze central prison, a place he knows all too well. "I have been imprisoned there at least five times. I have also been subject to countless detentions and illegal arrests for denoucing the human rights violations perpetrated by Goma’s top officials." His NGO, ASVOCO (Association of Congolese Volunteers in Goma), has offices all around the province. This allows him to receive information from the farthest corners of North Kivu.
Delphin Mponga, another human rights activist, admires Dufina's persistence. "The authorities always try to defeat human rights defenders by arresting them, intimidating them, even making death threats against them. In spite of all that, Dufina refuses to keep quiet."
"Just a year ago, at the end of 2011, I was imprisoned for denouncing the inhuman conditions for prisoners at Munzenze," Dufina says bitterly. He does not say "again," but he might as well have. "In spite of everything, it was not a waste of time," he says.
He knows the workings of the legal system inside and out, and has made this prison his number one target. "The central prison is overcrowded," he says. “The prison was built to hold 150 inmates. Now there are more than 1,080." However, in the past few years, the prisoners' conditions seem to have improved somewhat, largely through his work.
"In 2004, the detainees were treated like animals," says Jean Bandit, a former inmate nicknamed "Pastor David," who has become a preacher at an evangelical Christian church in Goma. "They had nothing to eat, no health care, and were totally cut off from the outside world." According to him, the inmates used to believe food was a privilege, but they have now realized that it was a basic right they were entitled to, thanks to Dufina. "They learned that they had basic rights, and that they needed to fight for them," he explains. "They would come to see me to tell me how things were and ask what they could do about it."
Dufina received new nicknames from the prisoners, including "Savior" and "Nelson Mandela." In 2010, Dufina gave an interview to a Radio Okapi journalist through a hole in the wall of his cell. He was able to contradict the official information about the "good conditions" at the prison. After having heard the radio report, the authorities demanded that he be freed immediately.
Much remains to be done, but now at least authorities - who are apparently listening to the prisoners' requests - have provided mattresses for them to sleep on.
Since 2010, the Kinshasa government has been sending $43,000 a month to the Munzenze central prison to improve conditions. But prison officials were managing the money without any oversight, explains a prison guard who wants to remain anonymous. In 2011, Dufina denounced this lack of supervision in the media. The money is now managed by a commission that includes a representative of ASVOCO.
In 1982 Dufina arrived in Congo from Burundi, where he was born in 1955. "This country seemed like hell to me. You couldn't even talk about human rights for fear of retaliation from Mobutu's dictatorship," he recalls. He decided to create the Association of Zaire Volunteers (ASVOZA), which has now become ASVOCO.
One of his proudest feats is an open letter he wrote to Mobutu in January 1996, asking him to return the property he had confiscated under the name of “zaïrianisation” (Zaire was the Congo’s name during Mobutu’s rule). Under this program, land, farms, businesses and factories belonging to foreigners were expropriated and nationalized or handed over to Mobutu cronies.
Dufina has also tried his hand at politics. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for Parliament. Currently, he says his priority is denouncing the human rights violations in the region’s armed conflicts. His vision for his NGO is ultimately to be a "school" for human rights.