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Latest News: What’s in a name?

Congolese names have become an increasingly significant issue in the trial of Thomas Lubanga.

During the prosecution’s case, the defense noted that names of witnesses differed among the various documents submitted to the court.

Since this discrepancy could threaten witness credibility, lawyers for victims submitted an analysis on the history, process and legal context of naming in the DRC.  

Congolese law, the lawyers explained, does not require children to have the same name as their parents, nor is it required that children have a specific first name. In addition, while the law specifies that a birth of a child should be reported within 30 days, this is rarely done, especially in rural areas.

As a result, most births are not registered by the state. A person’s name and identifying information is noted only if he or she attends school, receives treatment in a hospital, or joins a religious or social organization.

Even then, the spelling is dependent on whoever happens to be taking it down, and might appear in various forms as a consequence.

Furthermore, the lawyers explained, people in the DRC are not identified by a single name, but carry many names which they use depending on the situation. A person might use one name professionally, one socially, and yet another name on their passport – and his or her identity would not be in doubt.

“The identity of the witness cannot be understood … without taking into account [his or her] personal history,” the victims’ lawyers wrote.

Nicknames are often used in place of a person’s given name. For example, former DRC president Laurent-Desire Kabila was often called “Mzee” (meaning “sage one” in Swahili) even in official documents.

At the victims’ lawyers request, Congolese university professor Kambayi Bwatshia, an expert on names in the DRC, will testify on the issue before the defense begins its case in October.