(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s new administration should demonstrate its human rights commitment by impartially investigating and prosecuting the killing of at least 10 people by security forces during post-election demonstrations on January 10, 2019. Many of those killed and injured were protesting Félix Tshisekedi’s disputed election victory in presidential elections held on December 30, 2018.
On January 10, Congo’s state-controlled electoral commission, the Commission électorale nationale indépendante (Independent National Electoral Commission, CENI), provisionally declared the opposition candidate Tshisekedi the president. This conflicted with leaked data from the commission and the Catholic Church observation mission that showed that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, won about 60 percent of the vote. Fayulu’s supporters from a broad array of political parties began protests in many cities across Congo. While some demonstrators engaged in violence, the security forces often responded with excessive force, including unnecessary lethal force.
“Although the killings occurred before he took office, President Tshisekedi’s response to the post-election violence is an important first test for his administration,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “After years of brutal government repression under Joseph Kabila, Tshisekedi should demonstrate that victims of abuses and their families can obtain justice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 66 people, including witnesses to the January 10 violence, victims and their families, activists, journalists, social workers, and political party leaders.
Security forces injured dozens of people during protests following the announcement of the provisional election results. At least 28 people suffered gunshot wounds in Kikwit, Kananga, Goma, and Kisangani when security forces dispersed demonstrators.
In Kikwit, Kwilu province, one of Fayulu’s electoral strongholds, security forces fatally shot five people on January 10. At 5 a.m. soldiers shot and killed a motorcycle-taxi driver who had approached an army barricade and ignored a call to turn back, three human rights activists said. Soldiers killed another man at about 11 a.m. who was on his way to a military camp to seek the release of a detained local radio host. Three of those killed were bystanders, their family members said: two 17-year-old boys and a 42-year-old man who was shot in the head on his way to the hospital to donate blood to his sick niece. During clashes that day between protesters and the security forces in Kikwit, at least 22 protesters were wounded by gunfire, and 16 police and three soldiers were injured by stones.
In Kisangani, Tshopo province, on the morning of January 10, young people took to the streets to protest the announcement of Tshisekedi’s victory. Police who were dispersing demonstrators shot and killed a 9-year-old boy. It is not clear whether police targeted the boy or he was killed by a stray bullet. The boy’s father said that local youth brought his son to him at about 3 p.m. with a bullet wound to his stomach. He died after surgery.
In Goma, North Kivu province, police dispersed demonstrators in the Karisimbi neighborhood and shot dead an 18-year-old man. His uncle said that his nephew, who was on his way home from school, had been wounded in the head and hip.
In Tshikapa, Kasai province, one of Tshisekedi’s electoral strongholds, a soldier fired into a crowd of apparently unarmed Kamwina Nsapu militia members and Tshisekedi supporters celebrating in the street after Tshisekedi’s victory was announced. Three were killed. The soldier was arrested and detained, but accused only of firing at a crowd without orders from his superior.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that security forces should “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, they should act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved, minimize injury, and preserve human life. Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Security forces shouldn’t be able to hide behind contested election results to shield their members who committed serious crimes from prosecution,” Sawyer said. “Those now in office are obligated to investigate those crimes and ensure impunity doesn’t remain the order of the day.”
Killings by Security Forces in Kikwit
A woman said that police in Kikwit, Kwilu province shot dead her 17-year-old son during protests a few hours after the provisional election results were announced:
It was around 10 a.m. My son left the house after he heard shots because he was worried about a boy he had sent [on an errand]. Unfortunately, he ran into police officers chasing demonstrators. They then shot him in his left arm, and the bullet penetrated his chest. He died immediately, and we buried him two days later. My son hadn’t even participated in the demonstrations.
The uncle of another 17-year-old boy said that security forces killed his nephew during the protests in Kikwit: “My nephew was coming home from [work]. On his way, he crossed paths with the demonstrators. He was then shot in the chest as security forces fired to disperse the crowd. He died on the spot.”
The sister of a 42-year-old man said that security forces shot her brother in the head during the protests in Kikwit, as he was on his way to the hospital to give blood to his sick niece, who needed a transfusion: “When he crossed the road [on his way to the hospital], he was shot in the head and died instantly. My brother was not protesting. I knew there was trouble that day in the neighborhood, but he had to go to the hospital. They killed him for nothing.”
Human Rights Watch received credible reports of seven additional people killed in Kikwit on January 10. The circumstances of these deaths remain unclear. Local human rights organizations said that at least 22 demonstrators were wounded by gunfire, and 16 police officers and three military personnel were injured by stones during clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
Political Arrests, Security Force Abuses
In Kikwit, a Congolese army general arrested a radio station host, Marcel Kungu, known as “Kiyoki,” and his son in their home on January 10. They were released a few hours later. Kungu said he was not told why he was arrested:
I am an opinion leader in Kikwit because I host an awareness program on a Catholic radio station. But I didn’t have a message to incite the population to revolt after the publication of the results or say anything else that could lead to my arrest. My arrest outraged many young people in Kikwit.
During protests in Kisangani on January 10, stray bullets injured at least two people. The authorities arrested and briefly detained 21 people. A 27-year-old man said that police, military, and Republican Guards dispersed demonstrators by shooting, and a bullet hit him on the right side and exited through his back:
About 10 a.m., I went out to buy some drinks to celebrate the victory of my uncle, elected as a member of parliament. I could hear shots being fired but I wasn’t afraid because they seemed to be far away. Suddenly, I felt as if I had been hit with a big rock on my back. I fell to the ground and later realized that I was hit by a bullet. People shouted that the soldiers had shot a person and started running all over the place to find cover, including my brother, who was with me. I was able to reach the hospital where I’m still getting treatment. My family carries this burden [of medical fees] as I’m not working. I’m only a student.
In Mbandaka, Equateur province, police fired teargas and bullets in the air to disperse supporters of the pro-Fayulu Lamuka (“wake up” in Lingala and Swahili, two of Congo’s four national languages) coalition as they demonstrated in front of the CENI compilation center on January 11 to demand the official election results. The local Lamuka leader was arrested and detained for three days.
In Kinshasa, security forces dispersed Fayulu supporters in the Gombe neighborhood on January 12. At least six people were injured and about 10 arrested. A man who saw this said: “We were at the Constitutional Court, singing and waiting for Fayulu to arrive [to submit his appeal regarding the provisional election results], when the police arrived and chased us away with teargas and shots fired in the air.”
A supporter who had gone to Fayulu’s residence to accompany him to the courthouse said that soldiers from the Republican Guard presidential security detail dispersed Fayulu’s supporters: “The Republican Guards chased us, hitting us with their guns and arresting people.... They climbed up the wall of Fayulu’s residence to get to the activists inside, but then a senior officer arrived on the scene and made the soldiers leave.”
In Butembo, North Kivu province, police and military officers arrested a political activist, Tembos Yotama, at his home on January 14. Two days earlier he had called for a general strike in the city on local radio stations to demand elections in Beni, Butembo, and Yumbi, three opposition areas where voting had been postponed. CENI’s last-minute decision to postpone the voting – officially based on security and health concerns – excluded more than 1.2 million voters from participating in the presidential elections. The authorities transferred Yotama to Goma and accused him of incitement to uprising and to revolt, and contempt for authority. He was provisionally released on January 30.
On January 14, security forces in Butembo arrested eight other people suspected of working closely with Yotama, including four of his neighbors. Four were held in an intelligence cell in Butembo and the other four in a police station. They were all released on January 24.
On January 21, police broke up a meeting planned by Fayulu at the headquarters of the opposition party Mouvement de libération du Congo (Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC) in Kinshasa’s Kasa-Vubu neighborhood. Police entered the compound, dispersed the Fayulu supporters, arrested and briefly detained a sound technician and driver, and confiscated the sound equipment, preventing the meeting. A journalist said that the police commander there prevented him from entering the MLC headquarters. He said she told him that she had been ordered not to let anyone in and not to allow the meeting to take place.
Another journalist said that police assaulted him at the MLC headquarters in Kinshasa on January 21:
Around 1 p.m., I tried to enter the headquarters. I identified myself at the first police checkpoint. I was let through there and the second checkpoint as well. When I got to the third checkpoint, the police officers there did not listen to me. They started pushing me violently, and I ran away. As I left, about eight or nine [officers] stopped me and hit me with their guns. It was thanks to the intervention of other colleagues [journalists] that I was able to get away.
Demonstrations and strikes have occurred across the country since Tshisekedi was sworn in as president on January 24. On January 27, students at the University of Lubumbashi protested power and water cuts and rising academic fees. The police intervened and shot and killed at least two students. The police shot dead a 56-year-old woman the following day in the same university neighborhood when police dispersed protesters. In a January 30 news release, the new cabinet director at the presidency, Vital Kamerhe, said that the commanding officer involved in the university shooting should face justice. The next day, four police officers were brought before the military court and they have since gone on trial.
Violence by Demonstrators, Clashes Between Political Rivals
Several clashes took place between Tshisekedi and Fayulu supporters in parts of Kinshasa after the provisional results were announced. Angry Lamuka supporters also committed violence.
A human rights activist said that he saw Tshisekedi supporters chanting provocative songs at Fayulu supporters around 6 a.m. in Kimbanseke neighborhood in Kinshasa on January 10. The Fayulu supporters then attacked the Tshisekedi supporters with stones and pieces of wood, sparking a fight between the two groups. Windows from the surrounding buildings were broken. In Kinshasa’s Kintambo commune on January 10, a group of Fayulu supporters beat up motorcyclists who were celebrating the announcement of Tshisekedi’s victory.
In many cases, police intervened to disperse demonstrators with teargas and bullets fired in the air.
In Kisangani, demonstrators looted the house of a CENI agent a few hours after the provisional results were announced. A witness said that the agent’s family fled their home the previous evening following rumors of an attack if Fayulu was not declared the winner. When police officers assigned to secure the house moved to another part of the city to restore public order, suspected Fayulu supporters ransacked the house. The police arrived just as the group attempted to set the house on fire.
In Kikwit, after the announcement, a group of Lamuka supporters looted public and private buildings, including the government district office. Police intervened and dispersed the group, some of whom threw stones at the police.
An activist from Kikwit said that Lamuka supporters engaged in violence against the security forces: “In the morning after the publication of the results, young people close to the Lamuka coalition attacked the police office in the Bongisa neighborhood. After beating the police officers there, they looted the office and took away police weapons and clothes.”
Some protesters in Kikwit attacked centers housing internally displaced people who had fled clashes in the Kasai area between the army and the Kamwina Nsapu militia since 2015. They looted a center known as “Amis d’enfants” (“Children’s Friends”) and a national reception center. Prisoners held in Kikwit’s main prison took advantage of the confusion and tried to escape. The authorities shot and killed some prisoners as they fled, two human rights activists reported.
On January 20, following the confirmation of the election results by the Constitutional Court, groups of young men protested in Bagata, Kwilu province. Some protesters attacked students who had ignored their call for a day of civil disobedience to protest the court’s decision, injuring two female students.