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The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Commentary / Africa

The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa

Election fever has spread across Central Africa. For the second time since the end of the disastrous civil wars in the region, electoral processes have been launched in Burundi, Rwanda, Central African Republic and the Congo.

National governments have taken over a process that the international community had previously designed, financed, secured and driven. This year’s ballots are thus the first real test for the democratic consolidation in Central Africa. The biggest challenge for local peace-builders today is how to ensure free and transparent elections without outside help.

The 1990s were characterised by mass violence, with the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in Burundi, recurring insurgencies in Central African Republic, and manifold rebellions in the Congo. The past decade has been one of political transitioning, the end of dictatorial rule, and democratisation, with the exception of Rwanda. The current electoral processes are thus the direct result of the latter period.

Burundians started the electoral cycle with local elections on 24 May, which will be followed by presidential and legislative ballots in June and July respectively. Despite the end of the civil war in Burundi, ethnic cleavages that nurtured the conflict continue to play an important role in politics today.

Central African Republic, which has had a shaky national reconciliation process, is only slowly emerging from instability. In order to be re-elected after the coup that brought him to power in 2003, General François Bozizé tried to rush the elections. The apparent irregularities and technical blunders, however, drew the attention of the opposition and the international community. President Bozizé was forced to accept one postponement after the other. Elections were initially planned for April but got postponed to May, and now, they are scheduled for October.

In the Congo, the preparations for the presidential elections in 2011, which had been delayed considerably, have taken a start in an atmosphere of controversies. There are rumors around the revision of the constitution, the voting registration, and electoral laws, as well as the murder of Floribert Chebeya, the leader of the main Congolese human rights organisation.

Rwanda is a country that does not follow the regional pattern and that needs assistance in opening up democratic space. Since the end of the genocide in 1994, President Paul Kagame has dominated the political sphere. As the country is approaching presidential elections in August, the regime is becoming more insecure despite, or maybe because of, its 95% victory in the last ballots. Arrests of politicians from the inner circle of power and acts of aggression against political opponents have multiplied. Critical voices have been silenced as made clear by the eviction of Human Rights Watch and the suspension of two newspapers, accused of inducing public disorder.

A rapid electoral check-up shows how far these regimes have come, but at the same time it reveals how fragile their democratic gains are.

In Burundi, out of many political struggles, relatively independent electoral institutions have been created. The opposition was able to influence the composition of the current electoral commission, which had previously been packed only with loyalists of the regime. Improvements in the electoral registration process have prevented the worst manipulations. Registering voters, which used to be conducted by local partisan officials and which required an identification card that had to be purchased, has led to outcries by the opposition. The international community has come to the rescue by financing the documents.

However, authoritarian tendencies remain. Some officials loyal to the government.  have interrupted meetings of the opposition, closed some of its offices, and arrested some of its members. Acts of aggression against political figures and clashes between party youths show that the political pacification process is incomplete in a society traumatised by 13 years of war, where weapons are widespread and where many youths and demobilised are unemployed.

The situation has deteriorated after the elections, which national and international observers had qualified as fair. The opposition has denounced massive fraud and disowned the electoral commission. Candidates are retreating from the presidential elections on 28 June, leaving the President Pierre Nkurunziza as the sole contestant. While a return to war is unlikely, the electoral impasse has the potential to undermine the democratic gains that have been achieved.

In the Central African Republic, the Libreville Accord in 2008 was the start of a period of political pluralism, despite the fact that the president came from the ranks of the military. A diversified opposition and a free press have been consolidated during the Bozizé regime. However, the path to elections is still long and chaotic. The electoral commission, which is loyal to the president and widely dysfunctional, remains a point of contention as it has slowed down electoral preparations rather than advancing them.

Manipulations of voter registration are numerous, including demographic projections, tilted in favor of the president’s party. Lastly, the struggle for electoral victory has made the peace process of secondary importance. Only minor advances have been achieved with regard to the demobilisation and reintegration of rebels. The insecurity that prevails in a country in which 8 out of 14 prefectures are occupied by armed groups is a major obstacle to the organisation of electoral campaigns and polls.

Political violence, questionable outgoing government officials, and unequal power relations make a change of government highly likely. The current elections could either lead to a consolidation or to a deterioration of democracy — to avoid the latter, the international community faces the difficult task of ensuring electoral democratic standards without interfering in the electoral process, which nowadays is the full responsibility of national actors.

The mistrust, or even resentment, of the governments in Central Africa towards the international community makes an engagement even more difficult. The Rwandan president has openly criticised the international community for lecturing 11 million Rwandans about their rights and what is supposed to be good for them. In Burundi, the government has arranged for the replacement of the representative of the UN mission, which has been accused of being too close to the opposition. In the Congo, the desire to see the UN mission, MONUC, leave has much to do with the attempt to get rid of the “indiscrete eyes” of the international community during the 2011 elections. However, while the outgoing leaders denounce the interference of the international community, the Congolese opposition sees its presence as a crucial element to ensure a fair process.

The international community should lend its support to all these electoral processes, but in a more consultative and coherent way. They should focus on ensuring that the democratic gains are not reversed, while making sure that they leave full responsibility to the national governments. In short, the international community must guide, but not decide.

More specifically, this means that the international community needs to thoroughly evaluate the political situation before providing any electoral assistance. Once they are ready to give support, they should offer their expertise to election organisers and financial support for technical preparations (eg, voter registration, divisions into constituencies, civic education, logistics, etc). During the preparatory phase, the international community should play an advisory role, and during the implementing phase, an evaluative role by deploying a temporary police force to help secure the vote if necessary and an election observation mission to remain in the country until the election process is completed.

While the international community is more or less fulfilling its tasks in Central Africa, it does so in a cautious and sometimes even reluctant way — all without any particular coherence. It is often ready to finance, but rarely to evaluate (Rwanda, Central African Republic); and it is often ready to advise on preparations, but rarely to participate in securing elections (Burundi). Given the fact that the international community is only involved in certain parts of the process, it is easy to point to its failures, however. A more coherent approach would allow the international community to improve its dual role of advising and evaluating and in doing so strengthen its contribution to the democratic consolidation of the region.

In short, this year is a test for both the national and international actors. The former are responsible for the outcome of the elections. The challenge for the latter is to find the right balance of providing support for the electoral process without encroaching on national sovereignty. For that reason, neighboring countries and African institutions (regional or continental ones, such as the African Union) need to play the primary role: the regional initiative for peace in Burundi, made up of Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, is an example to consider. For the time being, the difficulty for the international community is to support the implementation of elections without taking over the responsibilities of national institutions.

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldier takes part in a foot patrol following an alleged ADF attack in the village of Manzalaho near Beni, 18 February 2020. AFP/ Alexis Huguet
Q&A / Africa

Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

The U.S. has designated two armed groups in the DRC and in Mozambique as terrorist organisations, claiming they are affiliated with the Islamic State, and creating potential legal peril for peacemakers who may deal with them. Crisis Group analyses the implications.

Which armed groups did the U.S. designate under its terrorism authorities and what is their backstory?

Last week the U.S Department of State designated two armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, as well as their leaders. U.S. officials allege that these two groups – the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the DRC, and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) in Mozambique – have become Islamic State (ISIS) franchises. It refers to them as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique). ASWJ is also known locally as Al-Shabaab, although it is distinct from its Somali namesake.

The U.S. designations come amid expressions of increasing alarm in Washington that despite the end of ISIS’s physical caliphate in the Levant, the group could be gaining influence elsewhere, especially in Africa. Already, local groups in Nigeria and the Sahel fight under ISIS’s banner. Since 2019, ISIS has stated that its “Central Africa Province” includes parts of the DRC and Mozambique, where it says it has developed alliances with local armed groups, including the ADF and ASWJ.

The ADF and ASWJ are groups whose violence has historically been first and foremost driven by local dynamics and grievances. They recruit mainly local fighters.

Although it emerged in the 1990s as an Islamist movement fighting the Ugandan state, the ADF has since the 2000s mostly been active in the northern part of the DRC’s North Kivu province, where it has recruited Congolese fighters, including by force, and entrenched itself by manipulating disputes among local chiefs and communities in areas under its control. Having developed tactical alliances with both senior army officers and armed groups fighting security forces, it both fuels and feeds off an internecine and murky conflict on the ground.

In Mozambique, ASWJ formed when frustrated youth, including local petty traders and poor fishermen, began building their own mosques and prayer houses in Cabo Delgado province and challenging established religious leaders they saw as too close to state authorities. As the police clamped down, they eventually took up arms, launching their first attack in 2017. Some former ruby miners, expelled from mining concessions earlier that year, also joined the fight, according to Crisis Group’s research.

There is some evidence of prior contacts between the two designated groups. Local observers and officials in the DRC and Mozambique say that there are some known cases of Mozambicans, including some of the leaders of ASWJ, travelling to the DRC for training, but these movements are believed to have ended years ago. The U.S. Department of State says the two groups are “distinct”.

Women wait in line during a World Food Program distribution at a school in Matuge district in northern Mozambique, 24 February 2021. AFP/Alfredo Zuniga

How dangerous are the ADF and ASWJ?

Both the ADF and ASWJ have grown more dangerous over the years, becoming increasingly bold in their attacks against security forces while inflicting terrible violence against civilians.

The ADF, long dormant in the DRC, first began resurfacing again in 2014, mainly committing atrocities against civilians in gruesome machete attacks. From 2017, the group then began turning its attention increasingly against government security forces and UN peacekeepers. Its operations became more sophisticated and used greater firepower. According to a December 2020 report by UN investigators in the DRC, the ADF has over time also become better at building improvised explosive devices, although it has nothing like the ISIS core’s expertise.

Recent Congolese military operations between late 2019 and October 2020 have killed hundreds of fighters belonging to the ADF, which Crisis Group’s research indicates is now split into competing factions. Some elements have moved east to the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains bordering Uganda, and some north into neighbouring Ituri province, where they have been involved in reported killings.

In Mozambique, ASWJ has become significantly more dangerous and sophisticated since it first started up in 2017. In the early stages of the insurgency, attackers grouped in small packs of a few fighters to attack remote police outposts or villages, often brandishing blunt weapons. But by early 2020, the insurgents had taken significant stockpiles of weapons from government security forces and were able to mount attacks on district capitals, including the port of Mocimboa da Praia. Government forces fled the city in August and have yet to retake it. Violence against civilians also escalated over the past year, as the insurgency swept south towards the provincial capital Pemba, with numerous credible reports of atrocities committed by ASWJ fighters.

In recent months, security forces working with foreign military contractors from South Africa have caused the group some setbacks, destroying some of their camps and storage facilities in the bush. Nevertheless, insurgents continue to regroup and mount guerrilla attacks on security forces, while also plundering villages for food.

Are countries in the region concerned about these groups?

Yes, although for the time being the DRC’s and Mozambique’s neighbours in the Great Lakes region and Southern Africa are less concerned about the groups’ possible territorial ambitions than the threat they might pose to public spaces in their capitals and other locations. Some worry that they will face the kind of attacks that Kenya has seen in recent years in Nairobi, or that Uganda saw in Kampala in 2010. Somalia’s Al-Shabaab jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi and Kampala attacks, although some Ugandan security sources believe the latter was carried out with assistance from ADF operatives. South Africa also shows signs of being worried about militant groups, including those from the Great Lakes region and Mozambique, using its territory as a base or safe haven, and about possible links between home-grown militants in South Africa and those in the DRC and Mozambique.

What is the Islamic State’s relationship with the two groups?

Crisis Group has shown in the past how ISIS was able to strengthen and shape the tactics of the Boko Haram faction that became the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) by deploying a limited amount of resources, training and instruction, although any influence ISIS possessed did not transform the movement’s overwhelmingly local aspirations. There is little to suggest that ISIS has gained anything like that level of sway over either the ADF or ASWJ, much less the ability to exert command and control over them.   

A recent study on the ADF by George Washington University, which some U.S. officials privately endorse, provides evidence that ISIS has given financial assistance to the DRC group, and that there have been communications between the two organisations. Specifically, the report details financial transactions between Waleed Ahmed Zein, an ISIS financial operative who was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury in September 2018, and his alleged ADF contacts. It additionally details cases where ISIS disseminated propaganda about ADF attacks and presents ISIS-published photos of ADF leader Seka Musa Baluku, who according to the study has pledged allegiance to the global ISIS leadership, preaching to his recruits.

The study also states, however, that it has found “no evidence of direct command and control orders” from ISIS to the ADF. The December 2020 UN report states that even if ISIS claimed 46 purported ADF attacks in 2020, compared to 29 in 2019, many of the claims inaccurately described the attacks’ locations and dates, leading the authors to conclude that ISIS had “limited knowledge and control” of these operations. In the meantime, sources close to the ADF say one ADF faction appears to have rejected ISIS and may even be turning against Baluku’s group.

Similarly, while there is evidence that ISIS has had some contact with jihadists in Mozambique, it is unclear how close or meaningful their ties are. In a report issued last year, UN investigators working on Somalia stated that Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, a native of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia and a member of an ISIS-linked Al-Shabaab splinter group, had travelled to Mozambique in early 2020. Regional security sources say he is a trainer and a bomb-maker. While ASWJ attacks did become more sophisticated in 2020, the group has yet to show evidence of explosive device capacities.

In addition, communication between the groups and some coordination in disseminating propaganda does not suggest especially close links. When ASWJ took control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia in August, ISIS did not broadcast this in its Al-Naba magazine for two weeks. Nor has it claimed any ASWJ attack as its own since October. U.S. officials say this is because the ISIS core’s media wing is under pressure that currently limits its output.

Are there foreign fighters in ASWJ?

Yes. The biggest cohort of foreigners fighting within the ranks of ASWJ, according to government officials, regional security sources and eyewitnesses interviewed by Crisis Group, are from Tanzania. Many of them appear to be acolytes of Aboud Rogo, a former Kenyan cleric who was linked to both al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in Somalia and who was assassinated in 2012. Abu Yasir Hassan, whom the U.S. has identified as ASWJ’s leader, is also Tanzanian.

What will be the effect of these designations and how might authorities in the DRC and Mozambique manage the fallout?

Among other things, the terrorism listings freeze all of the assets under U.S. jurisdiction that belong to the ADF and ASWJ or their designated leaders, and make it a U.S. criminal offense to knowingly provide material support to any of the designees.  

While the sanctions that flow from these designations in theory do not criminalise all contact with the two groups, they are extremely broad, and their implementation could create problems for both humanitarians and peacemakers. Humanitarian agencies may shrink from providing support to vulnerable populations in Mozambique and the DRC if they believe they might end up resourcing someone who could later be accused of being an ADF or ASWJ member. Government or UN officials who might want to put resources into the hands of insurgents or fighters in order to, for example, transport them to a forum for peace negotiations, could technically also fall foul of the material support restrictions that flow from the designations.

Nor is there much likelihood that the designations will lead to a quick dismantling of these armed groups, which manage much of their money in cash or via forms of money transfer that will require painstaking work to investigate and chase, and may put them beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. designations meanwhile could unintentionally send a counterproductive signal to political actors in the region. Especially in the DRC and Mozambique, where these measures are not fully understood even by top policymakers, they could be used by hardliners to justify calls for addressing the challenge posed by the ADF and ASWJ through military action alone. Diplomats in the region also now wonder whether the official unveiling of a U.S. military training program for Mozambique right after the sanctions were announced will be the thin end of the wedge for more U.S. military engagement in the gas-rich country. So far, however, the Mozambican government has signalled very clearly it does not want any foreign boots touching the soil of Cabo Delgado. Military operations in the DRC and Mozambique have recently dented both groups, but tackling the threat they pose will require a broader approach, including efforts to appeal to the Congolese and Mozambican citizens who respectively make up the bulk of fighters in both groups.

Contributors

Deputy Director, Africa Program
DinoMahtani
Deputy Project Director, Central Africa
PMvandeWalle
Senior Consultant, Southern Africa
PiersPigou
Researcher, Horn of Africa
Meron_El