Political violence threatens to undermine the historic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo scheduled for July 30, Human Rights Watch said today. At least four people were killed and 13 others injured last week during electoral campaigning in eastern North Kivu province, and one national assembly candidate fled the country, fearing for his life.
“The violence and intimidation raise questions about how free and fair the elections will be in hotly contested areas of Congo,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “The police and U.N. peacekeepers must keep order or people will be afraid to vote.”
On July 17, armed men shot into a crowd at a campaign rally in Rugarama for national assembly candidate Jean-Luc Mutokambali, killing four people and wounding 13. The injured included a 5-year-old girl who later lost her leg. Mutokambali, standing as an independent candidate, fled to Uganda in fear for his life.
Security forces injured three persons while breaking up a peaceful July 14 demonstration by supporters of the Movement of Congolese Patriots (MPC) in the North Kivu town of Goma. They also arrested at least eight persons for having participated in the demonstration. The MPC had provided 24 hours’ notice of the demonstration to authorities, as required by law, raising questions about why security forces had intervened.
A week before, on July 7, unidentified armed men ambushed teams campaigning for the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD) and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) in separate attacks in Mushango town. Four people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. The attackers stole money and essential campaign equipment, such as mobile phones.
Human rights defenders attempting to monitor pre-electoral conditions have also been threatened, adding to the climate of intimation. A group calling itself Baobab 33 sent emails to 10 prominent human rights defenders in Goma, accusing them of opposing the RCD, a former rebel movement turned political party that was once backed by Rwanda. They said they would “not allow their throats to be slashed” by the work of the activists.
Some 175,000 people who have fled their homes in the last four months to escape renewed fighting in North Kivu may not be able to vote because they fear returning to their home villages, where they were registered. The Independent Electoral Commission, responsible for organizing the elections, has not said how, or if, these and the hundreds of thousands of other displaced people across eastern Congo will be able to participate in the election. If large numbers of displaced persons are unable to vote, they and other Congolese may question the legitimacy of the electoral results.
On July 25, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, launched a new military and political movement, the National Congress for the People’s Defence, at a press conference at his military base in Bwito, near Kichanga, North Kivu. Nkunda, a member of the Tutsi minority and previously an RCD military leader, said his movement would react to any attempt to exclude minority groups from the new government. Adding to the fears of renewed violence in eastern DRC, Nkunda announced that his group would link with a murderous militia group operating in Ituri, the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC).
On July 27, the Congolese government decided to integrate Mathieu Ngojolo, interim president of the MRC, into the national army, in an apparent bid to assure his loyalty. Ngolojo was previously associated with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), a group accused of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ituri. According to United Nations sources, Ngojolo has received a “general amnesty” for his actions against the government and is seeking to persuade the government to grant him the rank of general.
The current government has appointed other former warlords as generals in the national army, ignoring credible information implicating them in grave violations of international humanitarian law. On July 17, they granted the post of colonel in the national army to Peter Karim, who had also been a FNI commander in Ituri.
“Security on voting day is essential if Congolese are to feel they have had a chance to make their voices heard,” said Des Forges. “But trading short-term order for accountability for war crimes is a losing game.”