Democratic Republic of Congo: Another atrocity in the making?

Democratic Republic of Congo incumbent president Joseph Kabila and challenger Etienne Tshisekedi in protracted dispute over November 2011 election results.

Supporters of opposition UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi gather in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa

During her 2009 visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the arrest and punishment of militiamen responsible for the widespread sexual violence and broader human rights violations that have devastated the eastern Congo for more than a decade. She described the situation as “one of mankind’s greatest atrocities.” But since flawed November 2011 elections led to renewed violence in other parts of the country, she has failed to defend human rights—and political rights—in the DRC with the same conviction.

Incumbent president Joseph Kabila and his main challenger, Etienne Tshisekedi, are now embroiled in a protracted dispute over the election results. At stake is control over the DRC’s vast natural resources and rapidly growing population, and both men appear willing to unravel the country’s modest democratic advancements, achieved through partly free elections in 2006, and to transform the most recent elections from a somewhat democratic process to a simple power grab.

President Kabila has an undeniable advantage in this pursuit, ironically as a result of his gravely disappointing governance record and autocratic tendencies. He used his firm control over the country’s security forces, state apparatus, and state media to undermine the electoral process. He consistently delayed electoral reforms, repressed political opponents, hijacked the country’s electoral commission, manipulated the voter rolls, rewrote the constitution, and ensured overwhelming media coverage of his campaign.

Despite these efforts, it was Tshisekedi who actually stole the limelight in the run-up to election day. A politically schizophrenic veteran who alternately served and opposed the dictatorial regime of Mobutu Sese Seko (1965–97), he emerged as an unlikely frontrunner for the presidency. He had a proven track record of sabotaging democratic processes, from his role in the 1960 coup and complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the DRC’s first independence leader, to his boycott of the 2006 elections. In a moment of preconceived epiphany, Tshisekedi declared at the outset of his presidential campaign in early November that the Congolese people “proclaimed me president a long time ago,” thereby igniting the political powder keg that has ravaged the country for the past month.

In this vast and nearly impossible-to-govern country, where regional and ethnic divisions are still pronounced and where taking up arms comes more naturally than casting ballots, the irresponsible actions of both Kabila and Tshisekedi portend nothing but more conflict and carnage.

In the post-election crisis, Tshisekedi has proven to be a callous provocateur, loudly reaffirming his belief that he is the rightly elected president while deploying his supporters in the capital, Kinshasa, both as cannon fodder and to keep the Kabila camp constantly under siege. In turn, Kabila has responded with guns blazing, both literally and figuratively, in an attempt to maintain his grip on power. Having manipulated the electoral process, he secured a Supreme Court ruling that declared him the winner and sent security forces into the streets to suppress dissent. Both leaders in this dispute, acting like political hooligans, risk provoking a civil war. While the conflict remains restricted to a few regions to date, with relatively few casualties reported, a broader conflict remains a possibility and the political outcome is already clear: the country’s nascent democratic institutions have been wrecked.

The muted response of the international community to this unfolding calamity has been shocking and reprehensible. Opportunities for more corrective pressure before the election were neglected, and it took nearly a month after the vote for anyone of notable international stature to address the situation. Secretary Clinton eventually expressed her disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision to swiftly confirm Kabila as the victor, but she never mentioned Kabila or Tshisekedi by name. There was no public condemnation of their actions or the crimes that have taken place surrounding the vote, nor any call for accountability.
The international community has largely stood aside as the fragile democratic process fell to pieces in the Congo, and the country faces a growing risk that “one of mankind's greatest atrocities” may reemerge.

-Vukasin Petrovic is the Director for Africa Programs at Freedom House

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