Forthcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo could intensify tensions in a country that already hosts the most violent human conflict since World War II or act as a catalyst for repairing a “badly broken country,” a Washington conference heard today.
“People expected the elections would produce leaders who would deliver solutions and solve their problems,” he told a conference at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, jointly organized with the National Endowment for Democracy and the Eastern Congo Initiative.
But disillusion quickly set in as “society came under assault,” said Chouchou Namegabe, a civil society activist from South Kivu. Women were the first to feel “abandoned” by the state as they became prey to an epidemic of sexual violence.
With at least 1000 rapes per day – more than one a minute – the DRC has the world’s worst recorded incidence of “sexual terrorism,” US Senator Richard Durbin told the conference.
The presidential and legislative elections set for November 28 could be a critical turning point, but not a panacea, she said. The key priority is to “establish rule of law instead of rule of the gun” and to end the culture of impunity, starting with the arrest of the most powerful perpetrators of atrocities and sexual violence such as General Bosco Ntaganda.
Recent elections in sub-Saharan Africa have unleashed latent ethnic tensions and sparked widespread violence, most recently in Ivory Coast where 3,000 people were killed in clashes between supporters of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and backers of his rival Alassane Ouattara.
“We saw and we learned from what happened in Ivory Coast, and we’re afraid that there will be open conflict in the DRC after the vote,” Namegabe told AFP.
Elections may exacerbate tribal and other rivalries, said the National Democratic Institute’s Barrie Freeman. “But what is the alternative for ensuring transparency, combating institutionalized corruption,” and providing voters with at least some chance of holding leaders accountable, she asked.
About 31 million citizens, half of the population, have registered to vote in the elections, but there are concerns over the credibility of the electoral register and the government has made no serious effort to engage in a dialogue with opposition parties or civil society. Security issues are also a concern given that the international community’s footprint will be lighter this time around.
“Unlike the DRC’s transition elections of 2006, the 2011 electoral process is firmly in the hands of Congolese themselves,” Freeman recently noted. “The role of the international community – and in particular the UN – is much lighter now, as these elections are expected to consolidate gains made during the past five years and further the DRC along the democratic path of its own choosing.”
From the vantage point the “most marginalized and disempowered”– its women – Congo is a state where “nothing works” and which is “going backwards” said women’s rights advocate Catherine Kathungu.
“We need successes to generate a sense that progress is possible,” she said, welcoming the proposed prosecution of high-level rights abusers. In the meantime, civil society groups must continue to “break the silence” by raising awareness and fostering solidarity with victims.
Preventing conflict, sexual violence and human rights atrocities is an impossible task in a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, lacking basic infrastructure and functioning state institutions, said Scott Campbell, of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
While it may sometimes feel like “shouting into the wind,” the UN pursued a twin track approach, he said, pursuing top-level commanders but also working locally, “providing civil society with the tools and assistance they need” and acting as a tribune for their issues in the wider international community.
After two trips to this “badly broken country,” Sen. Durbin was nevertheless encouraged by the work of civil society activists, groups like Heal Africa and doctors like gynecologist Denis Mukwege.
As Mukwege recently told a Capitol Hill hearing, we need to stop treating the consequences of sexual violence and address the root cause – the scramble for the country’s natural resources, Durbin said. The extraction of just four minerals – tungsten, gold, tin and coltan – generates more than $1 billion a year in eastern Congo alone, according to UN figures. Coltan, used to produce microchips, ‘is so widely used in cell phones that it’s been said that we are all carrying a piece of Congo in our pockets.”
By enforcing the conflict minerals provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, “we can make it harder for warlords to buy guns and commit atrocities,” he said. “And we can help ensure that Congo’s resources are a source of development, not misery, for the Congolese people.”
The November elections will see incumbent President Joseph Kabila facing a challenge from opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president currently on trial at The Hague for war crimes, has also declared his candidacy.
“Tshisekedi said in an interview in Belgium that, whatever happens, Kabila won’t win the election, and Kabila has said that, whatever happens, he will win the election,” said Donat M’Baya.”In other words, neither candidate is prepared to admit defeat. So we’re going to end up with the result being disputed, and the dispute will be settled with bloodshed, as we have the habit of doing in the Congo.”
Kabila could even win in the first round, he said, as he recently endorsed changes to the electoral law under which only a simple majority is needed to elect the president and 500 parliamentarians to a five-year mandate, with no chance of a run-off vote.
“Congo doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions,” M’Baya told the conference, echoing President Barack Obama’s address in Ghana in which he said that Africa needs “strong institutions, not strong men.”
With 5.4 million conflict-related deaths and over 400,000 rapes a year, Congo’s problems may seem insurmountable, said actor and director Ben Affleck, addressing the conference by video-link. But events over recent months have demonstrated that apparently entrenched forces can be swept away by “common citizens finding their voice.”
He remains involved with the Eastern Congo Initiative because of the incredible potential and inspiring example of the Congolese people. They would include the “strong individuals working tirelessly against immense odds” that Cindy McCain, his ECI colleague, encountered on her latest trip to the DRC with the International Republican Institute. “Congo has grim statistics, but a flourishing civil society” she said.
Floribert Chebeya was one such tireless human rights defender since the age of 20, said NED president Carl Gershman, when he established Voice of the Voiceless (Voix des sans Voix) while still a student under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. The veteran activist was found dead in his car near Kinshasa in June last year after being summoned to a meeting with the chief of police chief. A senior police official, Daniel Mukalay Wa Mateso, was recently sentenced to death for his murder and for the abduction and disappearance of fellow activist Fidele Bazana Edadi.
The reaction to the killings was overwhelming, said Gershman. But even more telling than the condemnations by the European Union, the United States, and the UN was the response of Floribert’s fellow citizens.
“People were deeply angered and saddened,” he said. “Over the 27 years that he toiled in the name of the voiceless, sending ripples of hope to people who feared that their own suffering might be forgotten, Floribert’s work was rarely acknowledged. But now ordinary Congolese throughout the country began to take notice of what he had done and stood for.”
It was in posthumous recognition of that life and work that he presented the NED’s Democracy Service Medal to Floribert’s wife Annie.
“His singular charisma and his capacity for leadership brought him the esteem and admiration of his colleagues and partners,” she told the meeting. He represented the other Congo, as attentive to his family as he was committed to his work, loyal to the law and to a set of ethics that are clearly alien to the country’s rulers.
“Those who’ve decided to govern the Congo in terror, the massive human rights violations, the impunity and corruption, obeyed no law or morality,” she said. But the Congolese people will respect and maintain the legacy of Floribert Chebeya, Fidele Bazana and other fallen activists, including human rights defender Pascal Kabungulu, the journalists Mwamba Bapuya, Serge Maheshe, Franck Ngykie and his wife, and the followers of Bundu dia Kongo.