Congo election violence: Time to address root causes of conflict

Election violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week didn't surprise me. Nor did my country's last place ranking on the UN's Human Development Index. Congo's sources of conflict are known; the solutions are less obvious. But there are signs of hope and paths forward.

I wish I could say I was surprised when violence erupted during my country’s elections this week. I wish I could express disbelief when the United Nations Development Programme released its annual Index of Human Development earlier this month – and the Democratic Republic of Congo ranked last among all nations of the world. 

But I see my countrymen and -women every day, living their lives in a struggle to survive, and I see the violent conflict, which escalated during this week’s elections, that holds them back. Unless we transform our conflicts and address their known causes, DRC will remain trapped at the bottom. Fortunately, there are signs of hope and paths forward.

In the DRC, the sources of conflict are well known; it’s the specific solutions that are less obvious. One of the foremost issues the DRC faces is a painful economic reality.

The country is rich in valuable minerals and precious stones – yet the Congolese lack opportunities for basic education or economic advancement; 80 percent live on less than $2 a day. We suffer a much higher risk of disease, and perhaps most crucially, our society is beset with brutality and violence, often at the hands of those charged with our protection.

Indeed, this violence is at the root of our extreme poverty. The DRC’s last war officially ended in 2003, but continuing hostilities destroy economic progress, stifle growth, and lead to human rights violations on a massive scale.

The central government seems weak and lacks legitimacy. This week’s elections and the violence between sides further cloud the future of Congo’s governance. Tension in the cities is palpable; there are already too many dead from these elections.

Furthermore, many members of Congo’s army and police force maintain the cycle of violence and are the major perpetrators of human rights violations across the country. Even as men in the cities find themselves prosecuted under rape laws for failing to pay dowries, many soldiers, police, and rebel groups rape with impunity in the countryside. As more people are displaced by further violence, they are in turn at greater risk for rape and other abuses.

In the face of such disheartening news, it’s vital to note sources of hope: Wherever the army and police have been engaged in retraining, exposed to the testimonials of rape victims, and monitored from within their units, sexual violence has been reduced.

If we are to prevent election-related violence on a massive scale for the remainder of this election – and for those in the future – we must reach the Congolese people on an equally massive scale, to remind them how poorly violence has served them in the past and to present viable alternate approaches to existing conflicts.

In that vein, independent local radio stations have stepped up and are heavily engaged in encouraging peaceful participation in the electoral process, broadcasting in five different languages. Those same independent efforts at radio communication are bringing back the displaced to the places where violence has ended.

Such efforts won't be enough to turn my country around and guarantee a peaceful, democratic outcome of the elections. (Voting wrapped up today after days of logistical hurdles, tensions, and violence.)

But they represent a start, one on which we must build immediately.

Until we put an end to sexual violence at the hand of DRC’s security forces and rebel groups, efforts at national development will fail. Congo cannot be built on the backs of trauma victims. Moreover, until the basics of democracy are achieved, we won’t be able to advance toward truly democratic rule.

Elections, a free press, civil society, and professional security forces – these serve as a firewall between people and humanity’s baser instincts. In DRC, there is simply no firewall to prevent small-scale conflicts from blossoming into full-scale war, killing hundreds and displacing thousands – and we have seen, over and over, what that means for the Congolese.

There is a need, then, to work with greater urgency. There is a need to address intertribal and ethnic conflicts before they spread, and in particular take seriously the incalculable sexual trauma inflicted on women – half our population.

As the results of the election are tallied, the international community should strengthen its commitment to peace in the DRC. It can support the UN peacekeeping mission and enforce cleaner trade of minerals from war zones. The international community can also assist as we work to better train our security forces and help the victims of human rights abuses.

If human development is to happen, the humans in question must not live in fear. The violence in DRC has to end, even if only through a series of small, incremental steps. Only then will a nation as rich in natural resources as ours be able to begin its desperately needed climb up the ladder of development.

Sosthène Serge Nsimba is the Media and Governance Programs Director for Search for Common Ground, an international conflict transformation and peacebuilding nongovernmental organization.

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