The Gamble of Elections in the Congo
The Gamble of Elections in the Congo
Tensions dans la région des Grands-Lacs | Turmoil in the Great Lakes
Tensions dans la région des Grands-Lacs | Turmoil in the Great Lakes
Op-Ed / Africa

The Gamble of Elections in the Congo

Replacing the logic of guns with the logic of ballot boxes can be dangerous: former fighters may just return to the trenches if they cannot get what they want at the polls.

This could soon be the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 25 million voters are scheduled to go to the polls in late June. One of the former rebel groups, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), has little support outside of the Congolese Hutu and Tutsi communities of the eastern Congo. The movement, which at one time controlled almost a third of the country, will lose most of its power at the polls. At the same time, part of its former army is still intact, making violence almost inevitable in coming months. Nonetheless, neither the United Nations nor the Congolese government appears willing to act.

When the RCD signed the peace deal over three years ago, few in the party believed they would be held to their promise to participate in national elections. With election now around the corner, the RCD faces a bleak future. Most of the population sees them as a Rwandan aggressor and resent the high number of Hutus and Tutsis in their leadership.

The party will not win more than 40 of the 500 seats in the national assembly. In South Kivu, not a single member of the Congolese Tutsi community, which produced many former ministers and legislators, is likely to be elected to parliament. Politicians have been jumping ship to avoid going down with the RCD. Three of their ministers in the current government have left the party. Just last week the secretary general of the party, Mumba Gama, also defected.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re going to the polls,” one member of the RCD joked with me, “it feels more like going to the guillotine.”

A return to arms

Given this dreary scenario, some RCD hardliners decided to resort to force to assert power. In May 2004, RCD officers mutinied in Bukavu, laying waste to the border town before they fled. Violence broke out again in November the same year and in January 2006 in North Kivu. Each time, a small group of former RCD soldiers led by Hutu and Tutsi officers attacked the newly integrated national army. As a result, hundreds were killed and thousands displaced.

The main protagonist in these events has been Laurent Nkunda, a young Tutsi from the hills of North Kivu. His name is linked to numerous atrocities. In 2002, in response to an insurrection in Kisangani, he helped orchestrate the killing of over 160 civilians. When his troops sacked Bukavu in 2004, they killed and raped dozens of people. In one incident, Nkunda’s soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children while another soldier raped her three year-old daughter.

Nkunda is still at large in North Kivu. He commands around 400 troops and has the sympathy of perhaps a thousand more. His last attack was in January, and it is almost certain that, left to his own devices, Nkunda will launch another offensive in the coming months in order to derail the elections. While the Congolese government has issued a warrant for his arrest, and the UN has called for him to be brought to justice several times, neither the UN mission in the Congo nor the weak Congolese army have made his capture a priority.

Ethnicity rears its head

The conflict has taken on a dangerous ethnic tinge. As the dissidents are mostly Hutu and Tutsi, many Congolese see those communities as guilty for this aggression. Innocent civilians, including women and children, have had to pay for the crimes of the dissidents. After Nkunda’s troops launched the mutiny in Bukavu in 2004, the Congolese army executed over twenty Tutsi soldiers and civilians while they arrested many others. The entire Tutsi population of Bukavu – several thousand people – fled across the border into Rwanda.

These abuses continue. At the beginning of this month, twenty-two Tutsi youths were arrested at a border crossing in South Kivu and held without charge for several weeks. According to UN officials, Congolese border guards keep a register of all Tutsi crossing in and out of the Congo. In February, Tutsi soldiers were beaten in an army integration camp.

The crimes perpetrated by Tutsi commanders and the persecution of their community form a vicious circle. Many Tutsi officials held leadership positions during the war and, in the minds of most Congolese, power was identified with this small ethnic group. So was the brutality of the rebellion. A high-ranking Congolese army officer in Bukavu told me: “We will fight and kill to prevent the Tutsi from ruling us again.”

In part this animosity has led many Tutsi soldiers – even those who were not members of the RCD – to desert from the national army in recent months. Several hundred have withdrawn to the mountains of South Kivu and are allegedly in contact with Nkunda’s forces to the north. The words of Michel, a young Tutsi officer, echo those of the officer in Bukavu: “We will fight to prevent anyone from attacking our community.”

If RCD dissidents launch an attack, ethnic tensions could easily degenerate into widespread violence. After Nkunda’s January attack, youths took to the streets in North Kivu with machetes demanding revenge. While local authorities were able to avoid the worst it may not be so easy next time around.

Congolese politicians have not helped. There must be efforts to reconcile communities on a local level but, it being election season, no one wants to appear pro-Tutsi. President Kabila, who is likely to win at the polls, could go a long way towards calming tempers by opening a sincere dialogue about ethnicity in the eastern Congo. He could say that Tutsi and Hutu are Congolese like other tribes – many other communities claim that by definition they are not – and should not be blamed for the crimes of a few dissident officers. But, perhaps worried to lose votes, he has not.

Equally important as local reconciliation efforts, there must be an end to impunity. If nothing is done about Nkunda, he will launch another attack, killing people and burning houses. The Congolese army and United Nations peacekeeping troops must stop and arrest him before he acts. They would have the support of many Tutsi and Hutu leaders, who have repeatedly blamed Nkunda for giving their communities a bad name.

Elections are a good and necessary step. We need to move beyond the corruption and mismanagement of the current government. But, by definition, elections pit different parties against each other. In this case, the parties have guns. If we do not take the necessary precautions, elections could bring more violence to the eastern Congo.

Video / Africa

Tensions dans la région des Grands-Lacs | Turmoil in the Great Lakes

English version below / English subtitles available

FRANÇAIS: Depuis 25 ans, l'est de la République démocratique du Congo est devenu une zone de non-droit où opère une multitude de groupes armés locaux ou originaires des pays voisins. Les civils sont les premières victimes des violences dans cette région riche en ressources naturelles. 

Depuis fin 2021, avec l'accord de Kinshasa, l’Ouganda maintient une présence militaire dans l’est de la RDC pour combattre les Forces démocratiques alliées, un groupe armé aux origines ougandaises. Cette présence n’a toutefois pas permis d’endiguer les attaques. Dans le même temps, un groupe armé congolais que l’on croyait moribond, le Mouvement du 23 Mars, a refait surface sur fond de tensions entre les pays des Grands Lacs.

Pour amorcer une sortie des cycles de violence dans la région, notre analyste pour la RDC, Onesphore Sematumba, nous explique que le gouvernement congolais devrait à la fois tenter de mettre en place une diplomatie régionale pour apaiser les tensions entre pays des Grands Lacs et se concentrer sur l'adoption de mesures visant à résoudre les causes profondes de la violence dans l’est de la RDC.

ENGLISH: For the past 25 years, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a lawless zone where a multitude of local and foreign armed groups operate. Those who bear the biggest brunt of the violence in this resource-rich region are the civilians.

Since the end of 2021, Uganda has had a military presence in the eastern DRC, as requested by Kinshasa, to fight the Allied Democratic Forces, an armed group originating from Uganda. However, this intervention has not been able to put an end to the attacks. Meanwhile, a Congolese armed group thought to be no longer active, the March 23 Movement, has resurfaced against a backdrop of tensions between the Great Lakes countries.

Our DRC analyst, Onesphore Sematumba, explains that in order to break out of this cycle of violence, the Congolese government should attempt to implement regional diplomacy to ease tensions between Great Lakes countries, while simultaneously placing greater emphasis on measures to address the root causes of the violence in eastern DRC.


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