Created in 1986, the Union of Housing Tenants and Water and Electricity Companies Customers (ULOMARE – Union des Locataires de Maisons et d’Abonnés à la Régie d’Eau et à la Société d’Electricité) aimed at fighting injustices and discriminatory treatments faced by the population in terms of access to basic services, in the Eastern region of what was then the Republic of Zaire. Soon, the association counted thousands of members, spread over the cities of Bukavu, Goma, Kamitgu and Uvira, and set up strategies to give its members access to essential services, such as electricity.
In case of arbitrary overbilling of water and electricity consumption, consumers would thus systematically collect and centralise the bills and hand them in to ULOMARE. They were then returned to the issuing company without being payed and along with the consumers’ complaints. The technique was successful. In view of the volume of unpaid bills and the mobilisation of people, those companies generally chose to reconsider their prices and negociate with the representative chosen by the population: ULOMARE. The union was thus able to progressively perfect its role as an official mediator in conflicts opposing the most resourceless users to the national companies responsible for providing basic services.
The practice of “dahulage” or spontaneous connecting up is another form of mobilisation promoted and supported by ULOMARE. The inhabitants, organised in local electrification committees, were called upon to connect illegally to the electrical network. They were trained in basic electricity techniques and informed of the risks incurred, and were thus able to take, illegally yet in full legitimacy, a right that the National Electricity Company (SNEL – Société Nationale d’Electricité) denied them. Starting from the illegal “dahulage” situation, ULOMARE then tried to have these connections regularised, which initiated a sometimes violent struggle between the SNEL officers and the union representing the population and their claims. That way, ULOMARE’s actions made the people aware of their rights and encouraged them to start rights-generating actions.
20 years after its creation, ULOMARE still exists. However, because of the few resources it has today, the support the union is now able to provide is mainly methodological. Voluntary counselors keep visiting the different neighbourhoods the “dahuleurs” live in to inform them on the method to use, the risks incurred and the importance of the awareness raising work that has to be done among the population so as to have them fully take over this practice, thus reinforcing its legitimacy.
In its 20 years of existence, ULOMARE has gone through many difficulties. Because of the strong mobilisation of people it helped to generate, the union was accused by President Mobutu’s Party-state to be working for the creation of an opposition political formation. At the time of the country’s division following the 1996 and 1998 wars, ULOMARE was once more considered as a subversive organisation by the rebel leaders. The new leaders of the region strongly disapproved of the union encouraging people not to pay bills which were a major source of income for the authority in place. Despite those difficulties, ULOMARE had many victories. The most significant one can still be observed today: in every neighbourhood, in every village, the practice of “dahulage” has been largely imitated. The electrification committees, which are sometimes able to supply electricity two kilometers beyond the official network, are today very strong cores of solidarity. In view of such organisation and considering the positive effects of the connection to the network in terms of economic activity, health and security, the SNEL officers are more and more hesitant to punish the “guilty” consumers. New electrification committees appear frequently and ask the ULOMARE members to help them to organise. One of the last-born committees was created in Bukavu by young people who were concerned about the growing insecurity in their isolated neighbourhood. They invited the inhabitants to contribute financially to the installation of street lighting and offered to connect the closest houses to the “official” network. Since then, despite the frequent power cuts that affect the – illegal and official – electrical wiring, the people of the neighbourhood no longer hesitate to go out after nightfall.
Other local development movements are also interested in the mobilisation techniques used by ULOMARE. The union was approached by the Union for the Emancipation of Indigenous Women (UEFA – Union pour l’émancipation de la femme autochtone) of Bukavu to take part in the creation of a group of indigenous paralegal women. Likewise, the organisation Dignité Pygmée has called upon the ULOMARE counselors for the training of rights promoters among the Pygmy communities.
Creation of social and solidarity dynamics
The grassroots law practices developed over the long term generate social dynamics. Today, the inhabitants of Bukavu’s poor neighbourhoods are no longer afraid to refuse to pay doubtful bills, often based on fixed prices, sent by State water and electricity companies. The electrification committees set up by ULOMARE are meeting and organisation spaces for the people who contribute to the apparition of new solidarities or the reinforcement of the existing ones. The use of the law is not individual, but should on the contrary lead to the creation of solidarity and group dynamics.
Creating a power struggle favorable to the most resourceless for a fair law
The growing practice of “dahulage”, illegal but legitimate given the population’s living conditions and the absence of basic services, has enabled ULOMARE to radically change the existing power struggle with the SNEL in its favour. By carrying out group actions, the inhabitants take part in making a law more favorable to them.