Repression, Violence Amid Pressure for Peaceful, Democratic Transition in DR Congo
More than six months after President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit ended in December, credible democratic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo are still nowhere in sight.
Contrary to the main tenets of the so-called New Year’s Eve agreement – which sets out how a transition would be managed until elections are held before the end of December 2017 – Kabila’s ruling coalition has appointed a new government that excludes members of the main opposition coalition, the oversight council has yet to be appointed, there is still no electoral calendar, and the “confidence building measures” outlined in the agreement have not been implemented. Meanwhile, government repression continues against those calling for timely elections. Kabila himself said in a recent interview he had made no promises, refusing to rule out the possibility of a third term or make a clear commitment on when elections will be held.
In June, security forces arrested or forcibly disappeared at least seven members of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party of late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Security forces took to unknown locations those attempting to mobilize people to register to vote. All seven remain in incommunicado detention without charge and with no access to family or lawyers. The apparent strategy to prevent opposition members from participating in the democratic process raises serious doubts about the government’s willingness to hold transparent and fair elections.
For several months, Congo’s international and regional partners gave Congolese authorities the benefit of the doubt – easing up the pressure while hoping the New Year’s Eve agreement would be implemented. Now they are once again sounding the alarm.
The European Union and United States imposed new targeted sanctions against top Congolese officials on May 29 and June 1, sending a clear message there are consequences for the ongoing repression and election delays. The US sanctions showed that Kabila does not have the unconditional support from the new Trump administration that many Congolese officials were hoping for, while the European sanctions went higher up the chain of command than earlier sanctions.
The European Parliament also weighed in with a new resolution on June 14, denouncing the “continuous cycles of conflict and brutal political repression” and strongly regretting “the delays in organizing the next presidential and legislative elections” in Congo and the “lack of progress” in implementing the New Year’s Eve agreement. The parliament called “for further investigations of, and sanctions to be extended against, the persons responsible, at the highest level of government, for the violence and crimes” committed in Congo.
In response to a complaint and request for physical protection filed on June 2 by Congo’s self-exiled opposition leader and Kabila’s main rival, Moïse Katumbi, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a public letter on June 16, calling on the Congolese government to take all necessary measures to ensure that Katumbi can “return to Congo” and “participate freely and in complete safety, as a candidate, in the presidential elections,” which includes protecting him from arbitrary arrest or detention. After initially bringing charges against Katumbi for alleged recruitment of mercenaries, a court in Lubumbashi convicted him in absentia in June 2016 for forgery regarding a real estate deal many years earlier and sentenced him to three years in prison. Congo’s Catholic bishops have denounced the judicial proceedings as “nothing but farces.” This week Congo’s justice minister presented a possible new roadblock for Katumbi, saying that, if there’s evidence that he has dual nationality, he could not be a candidate in presidential elections.
African leaders have also taken a stand. On June 15, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and nine former African presidents launched an “urgent appeal” to President Kabila and other Congolese leaders for a peaceful, democratic transition. They warned that the future of the country is in “grave danger” in light of the government’s failure to resolve the escalating situation, “which represents a threat to the stability, prosperity and peace of the Great Lakes region, and indeed for Africa as a whole.”
Officials from Congo’s powerful western neighbor Angola also appear increasingly concerned about Kabila’s inability to resolve the crises facing the country, including horrific levels of violence in Congo’s central Kasai region that forced more than 30,000 people to flee across the border into Angola.
In what many viewed as a sign that Congolese officials are not “protected” and can be held accountable for past crimes, media reported recently that a Belgian court has opened an investigation into the role of Congo’s current justice minister, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, in the shooting down of a civilian jetliner in 1998.
Thambwe was already facing the heat, with many activists in Congo calling for his resignation after a series of prison breaks across the country. Five prisons have been attacked and more than 5,000 prisoners escaped in recent weeks, fueling insecurity and setting justice efforts back for years. On May 17, unknown assailants launched a large-scale, coordinated attack on the central prison in the capital, Kinshasa, allowing at least 4,000 prisoners to flee under mysterious circumstances. Two days later, 14 prisoners escaped in Kalemie, Tanganyika province, while another 68 reportedly broke free in Kasangulu in Kongo Central province. On June 10, assailants attacked the prosecutor’s office and a police prison in Matete, Kinshasa, setting 17 prisoners free. This incident was followed by a massive prison break the next day in Beni, North Kivu province, where more than 930 prisoners escaped. Early on June 19, shots were fired close to the prison in the town of Butembo, also in North Kivu province.
The Congolese government has also been under pressure given its refusal – so far – to accept an independent international investigation into alleged abuses in the Kasai region of central Congo by the Congolese army and militia groups. More than 3,300 people have been killed in the region since last August, according to the Catholic Church, while over 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed and more than 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
The renewed pressure on the government will only be effective if it is sustained, targeted, and well-coordinated at the national, regional, and international levels. This is needed to stop the escalation of violence, repression, and instability across the country and get progress toward a peaceful, democratic transition back on track.