Presentation at the roundtable: “Political, Electoral and Human Rights Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Learning from Experiences in South Africa and the SADC Region,” co-hosted by the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and Human Rights Watch

The Democratic Republic of Congo faces a worsening humanitarian, human rights, and security crisis. The consequences have been devastating for the Congolese people, with some 4.5 million people displaced from their homes – more than in any other country in Africa – and 2 million children at risk of starvation. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled into Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia in recent months – raising the specter of increased regional instability if the crisis is not contained. 

The South African government and the broader Southern African Development Community (SADC) region – which South Africa now chairs – can play a critical role in helping to bring durable peace, stability, and greater respect for human rights in the vast central African country.

The potential opportunities that a stable Congo could bring to the Congolese people and the broader region are mind boggling. The country is teeming with natural resources – gold, diamonds, coltan, tin, uranium, and oil – just to name a few. Congo is Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt– a metal that has tripled in value in the past 18 months, given the surge in demand for electric cars. Congo is home to immense biodiversity and the world’s second largest rainforest, which serves as a significant carbon sink for greenhouse gases. Congo’s rivers have the hydropower potential that could one day power half of sub-Saharan Africa. With 80 million hectares of arable land and diverse climate conditions, Congo has the agricultural potential to feed much of Africa. And the country’s volcanoes, gorillas, and stunning landscapes present enormous opportunities for the tourism industry.

Yet despite these riches, Congo is one of the world’s poorest countries in the world. Ten out of 100 children in Congo die before they reach the age of 5, and more than 40 percent have stunted growth due to malnutrition. Poor governance and largescale abuses by armed groups and members of the Congolese security forces – fueled by widespread impunity and struggles for control over the country’s vast resources – have stunted the country’s development and left countless victims. Today, more than 13 million Congolese affected by recent violence are in need of emergency assistance, including food, sanitation, shelter, and education, according to the United Nations.

Much of the violence that plagues Congo today is linked to the country’s broader political crisis, as President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit by delaying elections and quashing dissent. Security forces have killed over 300 people during largely peaceful protests since 2015. Hundreds of opposition supporters and democracy activists have been thrown in jail. Kabila’s ruling coalition has systematically banned meetings and demonstrations by the opposition while jailing hundreds of opposition leaders and supporters, as well as human rights and pro-democracy activists. Many have been held in secret detention facilities without charge or access to family members or lawyers. Others have been tried on trumped-up charges. Last July, unidentified armed men shot and nearly killed a judge who refused to hand down a ruling against an opposition leader. The government has also shut down Congolese media outlets, expelled hard-hitting international journalists and researchers, and periodically curtailed access to the internet and text messaging.

During the most recent protests – on December 31, January 21, and February 25 – Congolese security forces hit a new low by firing into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass, killing at least 18 people and wounding and arresting scores of others. When confronted by the heavily armed police and soldiers, some protesters, dressed in white or holding religious symbols – such as crosses, bibles, rosaries, and palms – sang hymns or knelt on the ground.

In the days leading up to the February 25 protests, ruling party officials and senior security officers paid at least several hundred youth recruits – including many from the ruling party’s youth league – and gave them instructions to infiltrate churches, arrest priests when they attempted to march after the services, beat those who resisted, and provoke violence and disorder to prevent the marches from going forward and to “justify” a brutal response from the security forces.

These latest protests were organized by the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC), a group of Catholic intellectuals, backed by Catholic priests and bishops in Congo. All the main political opposition leaders as well as many civil society groups and citizens’ movements supported the demonstrations. They appealed to all Congolese to protest the failure to implement the so-called St. Sylvestre Accord, a Catholic Church-mediated power-sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016. The deal provided Kabila an excuse to stay in power another year – beyond the end of his constitutional two-term limit on December 19, 2016 – but also a commitment to implement confidence-building measures and organize elections by the end of 2017. But instead, these commitments were largely flouted: the new government, the so-called National Follow-up Council (CNSA), and the electoral commission (CENI) excluded members of the main opposition coalition and are in full control of Kabila’s presidential majority coalition, while repression and election delays continue.

The CENI finally published a new electoral calendar in November, which set December 23, 2018 as the new date for elections, with the caveat that numerous “constraints” could push the date back even further. Yet Kabila himself has not demonstrated that he is preparing to step down or create a climate conducive to free, fair, and credible elections. In a rare press conference in January, Kabila refused to say explicitly that he will step down by the end of 2018 or that he will not attempt to run again. Some in Kabila’s majority coalition are still talking about a possible referendum or other changes to the electoral process that would allow Kabila to stay in power.

Many Congolese civil society groups have denounced the CENI’s calendar as merely another delaying tactic, and they have called on Kabila to step down immediately and for a citizens’ transition to be organized without Kabila that would restore constitutional order and organize credible elections. According to a recent poll by the New York University-based Congo Research Group and the Congolese polling agency, BERCI, a full 74 percent of Congolese support the demand for Kabila to step down before elections are held.

Kabila’s refusal to abide by the constitution and relinquish the presidency can partly be explained by the considerable fortune he and his family have amassed during his tenure and the hundreds of millions of dollars in mining revenue that have gone missing. Such corruption has helped leave the government bereft of funds to meet the basic needs of an impoverished population.

To make matters worse, well-placed security and intelligence sources have described to Human Rights Watch official efforts to sow violence and instability across much of the country in an apparently deliberate “strategy of chaos” to justify further election delays.

Since August 2016, an outbreak of violence in the country’s central Kasi region, involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups, has left up to 5,000 people dead. Last March, two UN investigators – Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish and Chilean dual national – were killed while investigating serious human rights abuses in the region. As the Congolese authorities continue to blame members of a local militia and have repeatedly interfered in the Congolese judicial investigation into the murders, Human Rights Watch research and Radio France Internationale and Reuters reports suggest government responsibility.

Since mid-December, a wave of horrific violence has engulfed Djugu territory, an area of northeastern Congo’s Ituri province that had been largely peaceful in recent years. The incredible speed at which assailants killed more than 250 civilians and torched scores of villages has taken many by surprise. More than 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, including tens of thousands of refugees who fled to neighboring Uganda.

Human Rights Watch has received terrifying accounts of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. In February, after an attack on Seseti village, a survivor described finding 15 bodies, including three children, the following morning. “They cut off the heads and arms of some… and even slit open their bellies,” he said. “We were too afraid to stay and bury them properly, so we just dug a small hole… and quickly left.”

While government officials have insisted that the recent Ituri violence is the consequence of inter-ethnic tensions between the ethnic Lendu and Hema communities, local leaders and survivors we spoke to have been left baffled. While low-level tensions existed – like in many parts of Congo – the communities were not preparing to go to war with each other. Many survivors referred to a “hidden hand” when describing those who might be behind the attacks: Seemingly professional killers came into their villages and hacked people to death with notable efficiency and brutality, in what appeared to be pre-meditated and well-planned attacks. Some alleged that government officials may be involved.

Large-scale violence has also continued in eastern Congo’s North and South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces. Today, over 120 armed groups are active in eastern Congo. Many of these groups receive support from the Congolese government and security forces, while others have formed coalitions against the Kabila government. Yet the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the security forces meant to protect them. According to the UN human rights office in Congo, some 1,180 people were extrajudicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, far more than those killed by any of the armed groups and a threefold increase over two years.

As the security forces are themselves fomenting much of the violence in Congo, this has in turn been used as an excuse for election delays. Last July, the CENI president, Corneille Nangaa, said that violence in the Kasais was one of the main reasons why elections would not be held in 2017. This February, he said the renewed violence in Ituri could have a “negative impact” on the electoral calendar.

While the logistics of organizing elections in Congo are no doubt challenging, the country has managed in the past – both in 2006 and 2011 when Kabila was elected for his first and second terms, despite persistent security threats.

The key question now is: What can be done today to convince Kabila to stop making excuses, agree to abide by the constitution and step down, and allow for the organization of credible elections – before more Congolese are killed, injured and imprisoned as they seek to exercise their basic human rights to peacefully demonstrate, speak out, and freely associate, and before a new outbreak of large-scale violence leads to new refugee flows across Congo’s borders?

Kabila has become increasingly isolated internationally. The United States, the European Union, and the UN Security Council have all imposed targeted sanctions – including travel bans and assets freezes – against senior Congolese government and security force officers responsible for serious human rights abuses, repression, and election delays. In December, the US sanctioned Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, one of Kabila’s close friends and financial associates who “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals” in Congo, as well as a number of individuals and companies associated with Gertler. Earlier this year, Belgium announced it is suspending all direct bilateral support to the Congolese government and redirecting its aid to humanitarian and civil society organizations.

Yet until now, Kabila has appeared to rely on support from the region – including from other leaders who have used repression, violence, and corruption to force through constitutional referendums and other maneuvers to entrench their hold on power while attempting to maintain a façade of democracy. Botswana has been a notable exception, with its Ministry of International Affairs stating this February that Congo is facing a “worsening humanitarian situation…mainly because its leader has persistently delayed the holding of elections and has lost control over the security of his country." Botswana urged "the international community to put more pressure on the leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo to relinquish power and pave the way for the ushering in of a new political dispensation." Some other countries have also expressed concerns publicly, including Angola. And some efforts have been made by SADC to address the crisis, including the appointment of a special envoy.

Yet much more could be done. Stronger political leadership from the region is needed to break the political and electoral deadlock that risks igniting a new war in Congo and plunging the entire region into severe instability.

The new presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa presents an important opportunity for a real regional shift in policy towards Congo. The South African government and SADC more broadly could support the Congolese people’s aspirations for democracy and human rights, and help prevent more violence and instability if they choose to take a strong position by urging Kabila to act in accordance with his country’s constitution and to allow for a peaceful transition to a newly elected leader. They should also insist that key human rights benchmarks are met to ensure that elections are truly credible. The messaging should be clear that there will be real consequences if these measures are not respected.

Taking such a position could play an important role in refocusing attention and helping to restore South Africa’s role as a leader and promoter of peace, security, equality, and human rights — in South Africa and beyond.

Thank you.