A campaign rally for Joseph Kabila. Credit: Joseph Kabila's facebook page

Why You Need to Pay Attention to Election Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the most conflict prone countries in central Africa. Between August 1998 and April 2007, a regional war and its aftermath resulted in 5.4 million “excess deaths,” according to the International Rescue Committee. Several inter-connected civil conflicts continue to plague eastern DRC, while armed groups from neighboring countries have for decades used eastern DRC as a base of operations, often terrorizing the local population in the meantime.

The country has been relatively stable since the defeat of an armed insurrection in 2013. But a forthcoming election, delayed interminably, could potentially lead to widespread civil unrest and perhaps even rekindle inter-ethnic tensions.

Last week, opposition parties in the DRC called for supporters to gather in small groups around the capital city, Kinshasa, and head for the headquarters of the national electoral commission, CENI. The demonstrations were planned because September 19 was the day that the government was supposed to announce the election schedule. The protests were entirely predictable (see this Bloomberg article from August), and the fact that they were planned ahead of time shows that the opposition had no expectations of the President, Joseph Kabila, actually announcing the election schedule that day.

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Instead, CENI filed a request with the Constitutional Court to postpone the election because of logistical issues, saying that the update of the national voters’ register would not be finished in time for elections in November. According to News 24, CENI said the register won’t be ready until July 2017 and “Many fear unrest over the uncertainty.” In August, the opposition called for a general strike after the government said local elections should be held before presidential elections (potentially bumping a transfer of power to 2019) and the top court said Kabila could stay in power until the presidential elections are held; despite the fact that the DRC Constitution requires that Kabila step down by December 20.

There were demonstrations all over the country, including Goma, Kisangani, and Uvira; and at the DRC embassy in Pretoria.

The reaction of the police, unfortunately predictably, was a harsh crackdown. The UN rights chief said that the government had used “excessive force” in response to the demonstrations: police used tear gas and opened fire on demonstrators to disperse them. Protestors and journalists were arrested, and according to Human Rights Watch 37 protesters, six police officers, and one Kabila supporter were killed. Carbone Beni, the Kinshasa representative of the pro-democracy youth movement Filimbi, was arrested after bringing an injured protester to the hospital and Martin Fayulu, an opposition leader, was injured in the head.

The Attorney General of the DRC, Flory Kabange Numbi, instructed the police to search for the organizers of the marches and arrest them, and told the press that border authorities were advised not to allow any of them to leave the country.

Tensions over elections have been simmering in the country for some time, with the opposition and Congolese citizens fearing that Kabila is trying to surreptitiously maneuver a way of staying in power through a strategy known as glissement (“slippage,” in French). In fact, people have risked their lives to demonstrate against a delay of the elections at least as early as January 2015, when around 40 people were killed in demonstrations against a bill that would require a national census be taken before the election.

The Justice Minister suggested that the ruling and opposition parties could form an interim, power-sharing government while the logistics of the election get worked out, but since the AU-facilitated national dialogue has suffered from lack of legitimacy due to the refusal of main opposition party UPDS to participate, it’s unlikely this will placate them.

This could get worse.

Jean-Louis Nzweve, a researcher at the Catholic University of Graben at Butembo in North Kivu, told me that the best case scenario would be that the “national dialogue is revived and we all arrive at a consensus: the organization of elections as soon as possible, and joint management of the transition.” However, he says, the majority in power is determined to pay whatever price it takes to stay in power and will try to control the situation by force. In doing so, “they will commit many blunders, including arrests, killings, and intimidation. The demonstrations, meanwhile, will continue, undoubtedly accompanied by expressions of frustration such as looting and arson.” Regardless of the actual legitimacy of any logistical barriers to holding the elections on time, the opposition and the general population are insisting on the departure of Kabila and a transfer of power.

In addition to the likelihood that demonstrations will continue and tensions will escalate, Nzweve points out the ways the anger at the presidential majority might cause or exacerbate inter-ethnic conflict: “The risk is that frustration will be directed at Swahili-speaking easterners, which could degenerate once more into the targeting of the Tutsi community – many people believe Kabila to be Rwandan, or at least to have a Tutsi mother.”

There may be a lull for the moment, but opposition parties have called for demonstrations to continue despite the recent deaths. Congo is an enormous country with complicated politics, and the longer the government procrastinates announcing an electoral schedule, the higher the risk that frustrations will boil over into escalated violence as Kabila’s December 20 deadline approaches.