President Kabila Should Ensure Credible Vote, Abide by Constitution
|Government repression in the Democratic Republic of Congo six months before scheduled elections has heightened concerns of widespread political violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
On June 23, 2018, the Catholic Church’s Lay Coordination Committee (CLC) said in a letter to the African Union that it was preparing new protests and described a “total crisis of confidence” in the electoral process and the risks of “a certain and generalized chaos.”
Concerned governments and regional bodies should increase pressure on President Joseph Kabila and other senior officials to take urgent steps to enable free and fair elections before year’s end. Over the past three years, Congo’s ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy and government security forces have used repression, violence, and corruption to extend their hold on power. Kabila remains in office beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in December 2016.
“There is still considerable uncertainty whether President Kabila will step down in accordance with the constitution and permit a credible vote that would mark Congo’s first democratic transition since independence,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kabila’s failure to do so would heighten the risk of large-scale violence and instability, with potentially devastating consequences across the region.”
Elections are now scheduled for December 23, 2018. However, Kabila has yet to declare publicly that he will step down, and the authorities could cite a host of technical, financial, and logistical constraints to call for further delays. Repression against the political opposition and human rights and pro-democracy activists has continued unabated, Human Rights Watch said.
Large-scale violence has also continued in many parts of the country, leaving close to 4.5 million people displaced, more than in any other country in Africa. Much of the violence has links to the political crisis and some appears to be part of a deliberate government strategy of chaos to justify election delays, according to well-placed security and intelligence sources.
During nationwide protests led by Catholic Church lay leaders on December 31, 2017, and on January 21 and February 25, 2018, security forces fired live bullets and teargas into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and protest marches following Sunday Mass.
Security forces killed at least 18 people, including the prominent pro-democracy activist Rossy Mukendi, and wounded or arrested dozens of others. The security forces fired teargas into three maternity wards in the capital, Kinshasa, where demonstrators had fled, threatening the lives of newborn babies.
Prior to the February 25 protests, ruling party officials recruited and paid several hundred youth to infiltrate churches, arrest priests when they attempted to march after the services, and beat those who resisted. The youth were also instructed to provoke violence and disorder to prevent the marches from going forward and to “justify” a brutal response from the security forces.
Ruling party youth league members have been trained and mobilized to carry out similar violent disruptions during upcoming protests, five members told Human Rights Watch.
“For the moment, we’re on standby,” one said. “We’re waiting for the Catholics to plan the next protest, and then we’ll organize our counter-demonstrations. This time, it will be terrible.”
On April 25, security forces brutally repressed a protest led by the citizens’ movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA) in Beni, in eastern Congo, arresting 42 people and injuring four others. On May 1, security forces arrested 27 activists during a LUCHA protest in Goma. On June 10, a leading LUCHA activist, Luc Nkulula, died in a suspicious fire at his home in Goma.
Meanwhile, ruling party officials have carried out increasingly brazen campaigning for Kabila to remain in power in disregard of the constitution and the Catholic Church-mediated New Year’s Eve agreement which clearly prevent him from running again. Banners and billboards have gone up across the country with messages such as: “Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” A video clip distributed on social media delivers a similar message, as have ruling party officials during media interviews and what appear to be campaign rallies for the president.
Confidence in the electoral process has been further damaged by the insistence of the national electoral commission (CENI) on using electronic voting machines, which have never been tested during an election in Congo and which political opposition and civil society leaders see as a tool to facilitate fraud.
The numerous irregularities highlighted in the audit of the voter roll by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), including 16.6% of voters who registered without fingerprints, have raised further concerns.
This is compounded by the perceived lack of independence of the CENI, the Constitutional Court, and the judicial system more broadly, and the lack of transparency regarding the financing of the electoral process.
These concerns were highlighted in a joint statement from 177 Congolese human rights groups and citizens’ movements on June 4. Rights groups and United Nations experts also fear that draft legislation on the agenda in the ongoing extraordinary session of parliament would place severe new restrictions on the ability of Congolese and international nongovernmental organizations to operate freely and independently in Congo.
The political crisis is on the agenda of the ongoing African Union summit. High-level visits to Congo are planned in the coming weeks, including a joint visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and AU Chairperson Moussa Faki.
“Upcoming high-level visits and regional meetings create important opportunities to deliver strong and coordinated messages to President Kabila and other top Congolese officials,” Sawyer said. “Visiting leaders should be clear that further delays in holding the December 23 elections, a Kabila re-election run, or further efforts to block opposition candidates will carry severe consequences.”