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Election banners in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 9, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/Samy Ntumba Shambuyi
  • Election-related violence across the Democratic Republic of Congo risk undermining general elections scheduled for December 20, 2023.
  • Congolese authorities need to act urgently to prevent violence around the election to stop a dangerous situation from getting even worse.
  • Political parties and candidates should publicize their anti-violence stance and help to ensure that people have the opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice.

(Kinshasa) – Election-related violence across the Democratic Republic of Congo risks undermining general elections scheduled for December 20, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Congolese authorities should urgently and impartially investigate violent incidents linked to the elections and prosecute those responsible, regardless of their political affiliation.

Since early October, Human Rights Watch has documented clashes across the country between supporters of rival political parties that have resulted in assaults, sexual violence, and at least one death. Supporters of the ruling Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social, UDPS) have been implicated in threats and attacks against opposition party leaders and journalists. Opposition supporters have also been implicated in violence. Incidents of political violence continue to be reported.

“Congolese authorities need to act urgently to prevent violence before, during, and after the vote, to stop a dangerous situation from getting even worse,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Political parties and candidates should publicize their anti-violence stance and help ensure that people have the opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice.”

The elections are for president, members of national and provincial parliaments, and local offices. More than 1.5 million people will not be able to vote in areas of active conflict, mainly in the eastern North Kivu province but also in the western province of Mai-Ndombe. Millions of internally displaced people may also not be able to cast their ballots.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people by phone, including victims of violence, their family members, activists, political party members, journalists, medical staff, judicial and security sources, United Nations staff, and election observers.

In one major incident on November 7, supporters of President Félix Tshisekedi’s UDPS party clashed with supporters of Moïse Katumbi’s opposition party, Together for the Republic (Ensemble pour la République, known as Ensemble), at a rally in Kasumbalesa, in southeastern Haut-Katanga province. Katumbi’s supporters ransacked a local UDPS chapel’s office and UDPS supporters attacked and injured six people, raped at least two women, and sexually assaulted three others, according to witnesses as well as security, medical, and UN sources. Five police officers were injured. The authorities are not known to have investigated the attacks, including the reports of physical and sexual violence.

On November 13, the Independent National Electoral Commission (Commission Électorale Nationale Indépendante, CENI) invited presidential candidates to adopt a code of conduct ahead of the official election campaign, which began on November 19. The code of conduct outlines the candidates’ “determination to combat all forms of violence in the pre-electoral, electoral, and post-electoral periods.” By signing it, candidates would also commit to “respect[ing] the results of the ballot box and only use the legal channels ... to contest the results.” However, none of the main presidential candidates have signed it, some citing a lack of confidence in the electoral commission and its commitment to a free and fair election.

The violence and heightened tensions have also had an impact on media and journalists. On November 9, national intelligence agents arrested Raphael Ngoma, a journalist from the Moanda Community Radio in Moanda, Kongo Central province. He was detained on orders of the territory administrator, Amina Panda, who accused him of broadcasting false information about an opposition rally. He was released the next day without charge.

On December 7, Congolese group Journalist in Danger (Journaliste en Danger, JED) said that John Kanyunyu Kyota, a freelance journalist who collaborates with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, had been receiving threats by phone for his reporting on the election campaign. Fearing for his safety, Kanyunyu went into hiding.

Addressing the UN Security Council on December 11, the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Congo (Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, MONUSCO), Bintou Keita, said that “violent clashes between supporters of rival political parties [were] occurring in many provinces.” She also said that women political leaders and candidates were experiencing “intimidation as well as physical and verbal misogynistic attacks.” She said she was “alarmed by the proliferation of mis- and disinformation as well as hate speech, online and offline, in the context of the electoral campaign.”

Under international human rights law, authorities are obligated to take all reasonable steps to create and maintain an environment in which candidates, citizens, election officials, journalists, and civil society activists can operate free from violence and intimidation. Democratic elections require the protection of freedom of expression and access to information. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has issued detailed guidance on how to ensure freedom of opinion, expression, and access to information during elections.

The Congolese authorities should ensure the security and safety of all election observers operating in the country. Elections officials should publish the results by polling place, both at voting centers and on its website, as required by law, to deter any post-election violence and abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“Congolese citizens across the country should be able to exercise their right to vote safely,” Fessy said. “With the credibility of the electoral process at stake, Congolese authorities should put in place comprehensive plans to protect voters, candidates, election officials, observers, and journalists.”

For additional details and accounts, please see below.

The Violence in Kasumbalesa

On November 4, a ruling UDPS official known as “Lion’s Heart” warned Katumbi, the Ensemble presidential candidate, that he would risk “getting beaten up” if he campaigned in Kasumbalesa, a border town in southeastern Haut-Katanga province. “If he gets to Kasumbalesa, he'll face the biceps of … Fatshi béton’s children,” the official said, using President Tshisekedi’s nickname. The threatening speech, filmed during a UDPS rally, was widely circulated.

The following day, a provincial youth movement supporting Katumbi responded with heinous ethnic-based statements aimed at UDPS supporters, whose strongholds are in the Kasaï provinces. “We followed the UDPS communication that forbids a son of Katanga, the son of a Katangan native to enter his house,” the youth movement said. “If they want to challenge us at home [in Katanga], we'll also have to show that we're natives. We will be going to Kasumbalesa next week and we want to see who can stop us.”

Human Rights Watch previously documented ethnic tensions fueled by leaders of the neighboring Katanga and Kasai provinces during the 2011 elections, using hate speech and incitement to violence. These tensions have their roots in historical migration movements between the provinces. In the early 1990s, the then-Katangan authorities forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Kasaians from the province and thousands died.

On November 7, Ensemble supporters held a rally in Kasumbalesa. Rival UDPS supporters attacked the rally armed with wooden sticks. As the rally grew in numbers, crowds fought off the UDPS supporters.

After the rally, Ensemble supporters ransacked the local UDPS headquarters, triggering scuffles between the two groups. “Angry UDPS supporters attacked those of Ensemble, in particular the women,” a witness said. “I saw two women ... They were stripped naked, beaten up, and groped. If the police hadn't intervened, their situation would have been worse.”

A Congolese police officer deployed at the scene said that the police helped two women who had been stripped naked and sexually assaulted to escape the attackers. The officer said the police were understaffed and lacked adequate equipment to contain violent crowds. “If protesters use rocks, we also use rocks,” he said. “If they use sticks, we do the same.”

A 51-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that she had been beaten and raped:

My comrades and I were wearing T-shirts bearing the Ensemble insignia. After the rally, I was on my way to buy things to sell when I encountered a group of UDPS supporters who rushed at me and started beating me with sticks. I regained consciousness in the hospital, where I found myself with torn clothes. The doctor told me that I had been penetrated with a stick into my vagina.”

During the incident, assailants raped at least one other woman and stripped and groped three more, according to a witness and security, medical, and UN sources.

The authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the attacks and sexual violence and appropriately prosecute those found responsible. The authorities should ensure victims of sexual violence receive adequate medical and psychosocial care.

Other Election-Related Cases

On November 28, in the city of Kindu, an SUV apparently owned by Provincial Governor Afani Idrissa Mangala’s campaign team struck and killed Dido Kakisingi, 38, Katumbi’s youth league president for the eastern Maniema province. UDPS supporters initially attempted to block Katumbi’s convoy and a crowd of his supporters on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and Kakisingi requested assistance from security forces to clear the path. UDPS supporters then threw rocks at the convoy, injuring Kakisingi. A white SUV bearing the governor’s campaign ads and a UDPS flag then hit him, killing him. The police fired warning shots to disperse the crowds as tension escalated among rival supporters.

The authorities made two arrests in connection with Kakisingi’s death, according to judicial sources, but the investigation is stalling because of alleged political interference. “The public prosecutor’s office requested an autopsy,” a family member said. “But they refused to share the results with us.”

On November 4, people believed to be UDPS supporters attacked the convoy of the opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu. Fayulu and his supporters were heading to a pre-campaign rally in Tshikapa, Kasaï province. At least two people and one policeman were injured by rocks thrown at them. President Tshisekedi’s spokesperson, in a statement, condemned such “antidemocratic acts” and “regrett[ed] the political intolerance” that led to the incident.

On October 24, the provincial governor of Kasaï-Central, John Kabeya, a UDPS member, said at a rally that “if you want to get votes, go to other provinces, but here in Kasaï-Central, it is Tshilombo’s,” a reference to President Tshisekedi, who comes from the province. The government’s Communication and Broadcasting Board (Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel et de la communication, CSAC), which ensures press freedom as well as equal media access to candidates, said that Kabeya's statement was a “speech of shame” that “incit[ed] ethnic-regional hatred, exclusion, and discrimination,” banning its broadcast.

On November 18, police arrested Abel Amundala, Ensemble’s deputy youth leader and parliamentary candidate along with six members of his campaign team during a political meeting in Lubumbashi, Haut-Katanga province. Amundala said that they were taken to the police station and interrogated about their meeting. The police released them two hours later without charge.

On November 20, in Ngandajika, Lomami province, UDPS supporters attacked an Ensemble campaign convoy of trucks and motorcycles. UDPS supporters burned the motorcycle of Pierre Kaneka, Ensemble’s senior local official. Kaneka said that the police stationed nearby did not intervene. He said that almost simultaneously, another group of UDPS supporters attacked his residence, forcing his wife to flee. Later that night, UDPS supporters ransacked Ensemble’s local headquarters. Kaneka said he has filed a complaint and that one person allegedly involved in the attack had been arrested. Kaneka went into hiding for fear of reprisals.

International Concern

The African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have both deployed electoral observation missions to Congo. The Southern African Mission reiterated the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections that “emphasize the implementation of measures to prevent political violence, intimidation, and intolerance.”

In a November statement issued just days before the start of the official electoral campaign, the United States government called for a peaceful electoral process and said it would consider imposing targeted sanctions “against those who undermine democracy in [Congo].”

On December 8, the European Union warned it would impose targeted sanctions against “any person obstructing a consensual and peaceful solution towards the upcoming elections, including by acts of violence, repression or inciting violence, or by undermining the rule of law or involved in serious human rights violations or abuses.” The EU cancelled its countrywide observation mission after the Congolese authorities did not authorize the use of satellite equipment for its deployment. Some Congolese civil society groups said the government’s decision “[gave] the impression of a hidden agenda during the elections.” The EU deployed an eight-person expert mission to the capital, Kinshasa, instead.

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