On April 24, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission finalized a nationwide process to update voter lists ahead of general elections slated for December 2023. But as citizens headed to voter registration centers, some were met with violence and discrimination.
In Goma, Bukavu, Nyagenzi, and Uvira in eastern Congo, groups of youths threatened, beat, and temporarily denied Banyamulenge – Congolese Tutsi from South Kivu province – access to registration centers because of their ethnicity.
Human Rights Watch spoke to victims, witnesses, and community leaders who confirmed the incidents, including attacks by “Wazalendo,” youth groups mobilized to defend their South Kivu localities against armed groups, including M23 rebels.
Since a surge in attacks by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in 2022, parties to the conflict have increasingly appealed to ethnic prejudices, triggering a wave of discrimination against Banyamulenge and Tutsi communities, whom many in Congo consider to be M23 supporters.
A Munyamulenge man told us that Wazalendo beat him and three of his friends as they went to register at a center in Uvira on February 17. “They hurt my arms, they hit me with nails.… They told us, ‘Banyamulenge are Rwandans, they are not going to be registered.’” He was ultimately able to register after the police arrived. A university staffer in Nyagenzi said Wazalendo threw stones at him when he went to register so he went back home. He finally enrolled after police came four days later.
Access to registration centers is essential for citizens to secure their voter’s card, a necessary document for voting also used as an identification document in Congo.
As the elections near and the crisis in eastern Congo continues unabated, attacks against Banyamulenge and Tutsis may interfere with other national processes, including the long-awaited population census and identification process.
Congolese authorities should ensure inclusive elections without fear of discrimination or intimidation on ethnic grounds. They should implement comprehensive voter education campaigns aimed at preventing ethnic-based discrimination, impartially enforce the law and appropriately prosecute anyone who commits ethnically motivated harassment or attacks, and prohibit discriminatory practices that may lead to further abuses.