On a sticky, sunny Wednesday morning in late January, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national police force, known as the PNC, introduced new riot-control equipment to assembled government officials, diplomats, press, and several hundred sporadically interested cops. The audience had been invited to PNC headquarters to witness Evariste Boshab, the DRC’s vice prime minister and interior minister, hand over the kit to the chief of police, Gen. Charles Bisengimana. The inventory included 10 anti-riot vehicles—half of them mounted with water cannons and half with tear gas launchers—and an arsenal of tear gas, Tasers, rubber bullets, smoke bombs, and stun grenades, as well as hand-held weapons for firing the ammunition.
The materiel’s provenance and cost may remain a state secret, but its unveiling was clearly meant to be a spectacle of sorts. Anyone expecting a North Korea–style projection of state power characterized by slick choreography and metronomic discipline would have gone away disappointed. Instead, dignitaries sat beneath a gazebo facing the scrubby drill yard, backs to a grassy carpark. The police band played at various intervals, sometimes marching in formation, while PNC recruits in ill-fitting riot gear lined up on the far side of the field. They idled, supporting their weight on Kalashnikovs or plastic shields, periodically jolting to attention at the interruption of a barked instruction. Boshab is a feared man but was rendered slightly ridiculous on this occasion by malfunctioning loudspeakers, which emitted staccato incoherence when he assumed the podium. Later he was able to regain some of his gravitas by posing with a tear gas launcher.