(Kinshasa) – Political candidates and their supporters in the Democratic Republic of Congo should not incite violence and should refrain from using hate speech during the upcoming election campaign, Human Rights Watch said today. Congo is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on November 28, 2011.
Since March, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of instances of apparent ethnic hate speech and incitement to violence by political candidates and their supporters. Police have also used unnecessary or excessive force against political demonstrations. The verbal and physical assaults, primarily against opposition candidates and their supporters, have created a climate of fear in some areas and raised concerns about the credibility of the elections.
“Candidates who incite violence could provoke a bloody election campaign, and judicial authorities need to step in to stop it,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone aspiring to government office should also recognize the grave dangers of using hate speech.”
The official campaign begins on October 28 for what will be only the second democratic elections since Congo gained independence in 1960. President Joseph Kabila is vying for a second term against 10 other presidential candidates. Nearly 19,000 candidates are competing for 500 parliamentary seats.
Incitement to Violence and Hate Speech
Human Rights Watch and Congolese human rights groups have documented cases across the country in which candidates used apparent ethnic hate speech or incited gangs, youth, the unemployed, or members of armed groups to use violence and intimidation against their opponents.
In Katanga province, the president of the provincial assembly, Gabriel Kyungu, and others supporting Kabila, have frequently used offensive and inflammatory language against people from the neighboring Kasai provinces, the home of the opposition presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party. Kyungu is the leader of the National Union of Congolese Federalism (UNAFEC) party, a member of Kabila’s electoral alliance.
At the start of the electoral registration period in Katanga, on April 31, Kyungu appeared to use language in a public speech in Likasi, northern Katanga, that local residents would know referred to people from the Kasai provinces living in Katanga. People present during the speech told Human Rights Watch that he said, “There are too many mosquitos in the living room. Now is the time to apply insecticide.”
On August 1, a group of youth attacked the UDPS office and vehicles parked outside in Katanga’s capital, Lubumbashi, during a visit to the province by Tshisekedi. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that more than 20 buses filled with young UNAFEC supporters, on their way back to Lubumbashi after attending a UNAFEC party congress in Likasi, attacked the UDPS office. As they entered the city, the UNAFEC supporters shouted out the windows, “We have come to clean up the city of Lubumbashi; we can smell the odor of Kasaians,” while making hand gestures slicing their throats. When the UNAFEC supporters arrived at the UDPS office, they tore down the UDPS flags and threw rocks at the building and four vehicles parked outside.
Kyungu has previously been implicated in inciting violence against people from the Kasai provinces. In the early 1990s, when he was governor of Katanga province (then called Shaba), he repeatedly used hate speech against Kasaians. During his time in office, the local authorities forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Kasaians from the province and thousands died. This brutal period still echoes with many people in this region.
Similar ethnic hate speech has been used in North Kivu province in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said. In Masisi territory, a region long blighted by conflict and ethnic tensions, some Congolese candidates of Hutu and Tutsi ethnic origin who speak Kinyarwanda – often called Rwandophones – and their supporters, have appeared to incite violence against other ethnic groups.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Sylvain Seninga Ntamukunzi, a national parliamentarian running for re-election, during a public speech in Rubaya in March, called on the Rwandophone population to “liberate themselves of this domination, this slavery” by “a small people who don’t even know the origins of their ancestors,” referring to the non-Rwandophone ethnic groups of Masisi. A number of people then fled the area, claiming that members of the Hutu population threatened to “take up their machetes and exact revenge against those who have wronged them.”
In September, a Hutu militia leader and self-proclaimed chief called Munyamariba, who publicly supports Rwandophone political candidates, told a crowd gathered at the market in Lushebere, Masisi territory, “Whoever does not vote for the Rwandophone candidates must be eliminated.”
The authorities have sometimes excluded Rwandophones from elected office due to disputes about their right to Congolese citizenship. Rwandophone leaders have said they hope a number of Rwandophone candidates will win legislative seats in the upcoming election.
Elsewhere in Congo, politicians and their supporters have commented negatively on the ethnicity of their opponents or the opponents’ parents to claim they are not truly Congolese. In Equateur province, a radio station backed by opposition supporters linked to the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) regularly plays a song celebrating the “sons of the soil” – those indigenous to the area. This song was well known during the 2006 elections and was often linked to ethnic slurs against President Kabila and other candidates who were said to be of dubious parentage. In the 2006 elections, these types of insults contributed significantly to ethnic tensions and appeared to lead to violence in some areas.
All of the major political parties except the UDPS have signed Congo’s code of conduct for elections. The code specifically commits parties to demonstrate restraint in their discourse, to refrain from using any form of violence, and to avoid language of intimidation, hate speech, or incitement to violence. Human Rights Watch called on the UDPS to immediately sign the code.
“Ethnic slurs that could lead to violence should have no place in Congo’s election campaign,” Van Woudenberg said. “Candidates should be talking about ways to reduce Congo’s many human rights problems, not make them worse.”
Abuses Against Demonstrators
Prior to the campaign period, government security forces used unnecessary or excessive force against numerous political demonstrations in Kinshasa and elsewhere. For example, on October 6, police fired their weapons, ostensibly in the air, to disperse a UDPS demonstration in Kinshasa. One person was killed by a stray bullet and at least 10 others were wounded.
On September 1, in Mbuji Mayi, Kasai Orientale province, Congolese soldiers and police dispersed a peaceful UDPS demonstration by firing tear gas and live ammunition and beating demonstrators. Afterward, police arrested at least 32 UDPS members, some of whom were beaten in detention and held for 48 hours before being released.
In some cases, local officials or supporters of the ruling party allegedly took steps to prevent political rallies and demonstrations. Near Tshela, Bas-Congo province, for example, authorities allegedly paid local youth to cut down a tree to block the road and impede the arrival of Kamerhe, the UNC presidential candidate.
In March, local authorities and the police sought to stop a UNC candidate from meeting his supporters in Shabunda, South Kivu province, using intimidation and physical violence. Police deployed around the small airport and prevented UNC supporters from welcoming the candidate on his arrival to the town. When he attempted to walk to the UNC office, the police blocked his path, physically assaulted him with kicks and punches, and beat other UNC supporters, one of whom was seriously wounded. According to the candidate and other witnesses, the police commander said, “Go back. You cannot come into this town. If you are here we will arrest you. You came in an airplane and you will leave in a coffin.” The UNC candidate reported the assault, and the police commander was called in for questioning. He was later redeployed to another town.
Opposition party members have told Human Rights Watch that their campaign materials, including t-shirts, flags, and posters, have been blocked for months by officials at customs offices, impeding preparations for their campaigns.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials allow security forces to use only that degree of force necessary and proportionate to protect people and property, and to use intentional lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“Elections cannot be credible if candidates and their supporters cannot hold demonstrations free from attacks and intimidation,” Van Woudenberg said. “The government should ensure that unlawful tactics are immediately halted, that candidates are permitted to campaign freely and that force is used to control demonstrations only when absolutely necessary.”
In a public letter sent to all presidential candidates today, a coalition of 73 Congolese and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, called on candidates and their supporters to refrain from the use of hate speech and incitement to violence, and to ensure they respect Congolese law and the code of conduct throughout the campaign period.