Bracing for election-related violence in eastern DRC

Published: 8 Dec 2018
By: Thijs Van Laer


Finally, they are taking place. On 23 December, citizens in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are going to the polls. After more than two years of postponements, it now looks like in January a new president will be sworn in. This might look like the first peaceful transition of power since the country’s independence, but the chances of a peaceful vote and real political change are quite small. Instead, Congolese face an election process unlikely to be free and fair, which could exacerbate already escalating violence and leave the international community struggling to respond.

A fragile electoral environment

Voters face a choice between supporting the continuation of the current system by voting for President Joseph Kabila’s former minister of interior and candidate of choice, Ramazani Shadary, or opting for one of the two main opposition candidates. The opposition agreed, at least for 24 hours, to support a unified opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, but this momentum dissolved when two political heavyweights, Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe, withdrew their support from the opposition coalition.

The two latter have now formed their own coalition, with Tshisekedi as presidential candidate and Kamerhe as his prime minister (if (the former wins) and dauphin (or candidate of choice) for the next elections. Fayulu maintains the support of several heavy hitters, including former Governor of Katanga Province Moise Katumbi and former rebel leader and Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba. The opposition’s failure to unite has been the best possible Christmas gift for the current ruling coalition, which in 2011 increased its chances by replacing a two-round presidential election with a single round, depriving the opposition of the opportunity to throw itself behind a front runner emerging after the first round.

The chances of the current ruling coalition are increased by obstructions to organised, free, fair and transparent elections. On the organisational side, the government and the electoral commission are behind schedule in training voting officials and deploying electoral material across the vast country, and have refused international financial and logistical support. The serious repression of protests and restrictions of political space and expression obstruct the freedom of the vote. Despite the appearance of a normal campaign, there is no level playing field for the different candidates: Shadary and his allies are able to instrumentalise the state apparatus, while other candidates are likely to face obstruction by state services. Nor are the elections fully transparent, given the controversy around the electronic voting machines and the voting register, which opposition supporters fear could be used to falsify results. The electoral observer missions which were most critical of the flawed 2011 elections will not be present this time.

While most attention, of course, goes the presidential race, voters will also elect a new national parliament. Members of parliament have profited from the slippage of the electoral calendar, extending their stay in the Palais du Peuple for two years. Many MPs are likely to be replaced, as they were in the last elections.

Even less in the spotlight is the election of provincial deputies. The last provincial election took place in 2006, prior to the split of the former 11 provinces into to the current 26. The democratic deficit of the newly created provinces, who have been ruled until now by appointed leaders, can finally be addressed. It is likely, however, to be followed by backdoor deals related to the indirect election of governors and senators – a prerogative of the newly elected provincial MPs. The breakup of provinces was seen as a move to weaken the powerful Katanga province, then led by Moise Katumbi, but has also resulted in tensions in other parts of the country.

Ripple effects in the east

This electoral cycle could negatively influence security in some the country’s already volatile regions. Previous IRRI research has already demonstrated the impact that national dynamics have on local violence. In the Kivu provinces, armed groups ride the wave of popular discontent against the central government to mobilise recruits, legitimise their activities, and forge new coalitions. Politicians around the country will use armed mobilisation to influence the vote, or to challenge the outcome and hold power if they are voted out.

The eastern provinces played a major role in Kabila’s 2006 electoral victory, but his main ally in the Kivus, Vital Kamerhe, has since defected to the opposition. He ran as an opposition candidate in 2011, and now supports Tshisekedi (although his name remains on the ballot). Despite his origins in the eastern Maniema province, Shadary – who has little political capital of his own – will struggle to gain an electoral foothold in the east. Since Kabila’s first election, when many credited him for reuniting the country after war, voters’ frustration in the east has increased due to the lacklustre efforts by Kinshasa to tackle insecurity and rampant poverty. Adding to the discontent, several protests against electoral delays in the east (as elsewhere) have been met with brutal repression by government security services. Many of the groups and individuals who organised those protests are unlikely to accept the results of a fraught electoral process and are likely to take the streets again, although it remains to be seen what impact such protest would have.

During previous electoral processes, those in power used armed groups to influence the vote in the east. In 2011, for example, then-rebel group Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) forged an uneasy alliance with Kabila, forcing people in parts of North-Kivu under its control to vote for him. When the alliance fell apart, including because of their perceived lack of political representation after the elections, former CNDP elements formed a new group, M23, which was defeated in 2013. Former M23 elements have recently been accused of participating in the repression of protesters.

While M23 is no longer present, other armed groups cooperate with the government and might be used to influence voting by attacking polling stations or coercing voters. Such alliances are mostly informal and shift regularly to the highest bidder or away from the most significant threat at the moment. Failed integration of armed groups in the national army, trade and racketeering networks and meddling by local or national politicians have blurred the line between the many armed groups and the national army and institutions.

Other groups in the Kivus, however, have taken an increasingly anti-government position and seized on the electoral delays and manipulations to legitimise and expand their activities. The UN Group of Experts, for example, have described how armed groups in North-Kivu, have bolstered their ranks by claiming that the Kinshasa government is rendered illegitimate because of the electoral delays and expressed concern that armed actors may be use the previous delays in the electoral process to promote acts of violence. In the likely case of contestation over electoral fraud in urban centres, disgruntled youth might be vulnerable to recruitment by such groups.

Many people from Ituri interviewed by IRRI blamed the Congolese government for instigating the violence that suddenly erupted in Djugu and displaced 340,000 people a year ago in an attempt to delay the elections. So far, there is no proof that Kinshasa organised or supported the violence, but local officials played a negative role and the lack of trust between citizens and their government has been exposed. Shadary failed to impress when he visited Bunia to address the Djugu massacres as minister of the interior, and government officials have continued to misrepresent the conflict as a purely ethnic one.

In Beni, attacks attributed to former Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have again dramatically increased in recent months. Residents doubt the government’s willingness to defeat the rebels, or even accuse it of complicity. The UN has sanctioned the government’s military commander in the region for supporting an ADF sub-group responsible for attacks on civilians. Many have been internally displaced because of the violence, and nearby localities are occupied by armed groups, prompting civil society groups to plead for movement of polling stations.

On top of this, the provinces of North-Kivu and Ituri have been hit by an Ebola outbreak, which further complicates the electoral process and has so far been impossible to contain due to the ongoing insecurity.

Armed groups have been part of the landscape of South Kivu province for more than two decades, but here as well, the electoral process could worsen the situation. One of the principal armed groups is led by former military commander Yakutumba, who has said he wants to unify rebel forces to oust Kabila. In October 2017, he nearly took Uvira, a main town in the region, but was beaten back by MONUSCO. His group has reportedly recently faced serious losses at the hands of the military and has not been able to build such coalition amongst an increasingly fractured landscape of armed groups. Yakutumba’s actions have both threatened Burundian refugees in the DRC as well as forced Congolese to flee over Lake Tanganyika into Burundi. Furthermore, some 85,000 people have been displaced due to inter-communal violence in the areas around Uvira. As this violence has been nourished by struggles over power, elections might add fuel to the fire. In 2011, the elections contributed to the violence as some of the key local actors ran for office, and candidates financed armed groups to support their bids for power.

It will be also important to look further south, to the north of the former Katanga province. Kabila and several of his cronies have roots there, but have failed to let their spoils trickle down to the community. The breakup of the former Katanga province into four new provinces has not benefited the north, which sees itself cut off from the mineral wealth in the south. Some of the ensuing frustration has been channelled through armed groups and inter-community clashes which have pushed thousands of refugees into Zambia. Many suspect involvement of individuals linked to Kabila in these events, who are also likely to use such involvement to influence elections and their position after the results have been announced.

International response

The international community has struggled to respond appropriately to this complex and contested situation around elections and conflict. Earlier this year, IRRI conducted an analysis of how events in the DRC may impact the influx of refugees into Uganda. Many international actors were surprised by the numbers of people we projected could flee to Uganda (or conveniently used this to convince their head offices to send more money to Uganda). While the worst-case scenarios have luckily not materialised so far, the sudden outbreak of violence in Ituri and the escalation of armed clashes in North Kivu in 2018 caught humanitarian actors in Uganda off guard. By the end of the year, almost three times as many Congolese refugees will have arrived in Uganda compared to 2016 and 2017. As violence obstructs the response to the Ebola crisis in North-Kivu and Ituri (bordering Uganda), humanitarian actors in Uganda are rightly worried and preparing for the possibility that the disease may spread across the border.

Regional and international actors, however, need to do more than just humanitarian planning. The regional bloc Southern African Development Community (SADC) and some of its members, Angola and South Africa, have been critical in finally pushing Kabila to accept elections and a handover of power. But they since have seemed to relax pressure, and have been meeting Shadary while not meeting other candidates. Other international actors have also failed to sufficiently push the Congolese government to provide conditions for free and fair elections or tackle the causes of violence in the east, and have seen a continuous reduction in their access to the DRC’s political elite. These diplomats, too, should prepare for different scenarios, including a contested Shadary win, and increased violence in the east.

As we wrote before, due to intensified and increasingly complex conflicts in the Kivus, new violence elsewhere and the electoral process, this year has been extremely challenging for MONUSCO, the UN mission in the country. It has increasingly come under attack by armed groups, including recently around Beni, and has regularly been accused of not doing enough to protect civilians. During these crucial months, the mission will be under serious pressure to prove it has learned from criticisms about its effectiveness and responsiveness, and will have to deal with a Congolese government displeased with international scrutiny and focused on its own leadership wrangles.

The last years have taught us that events in the DRC are increasingly hard to understand, let alone predict. But only the resilience of Congo’s citizens seems capable of preserving hope in a context where the governing elite seems set on maintaining its system of state capture, and is nourishing ongoing conflicts. International actors will have to ensure they maintain pressure to try to avoid a further escalation in violence, before and after elections, and will have to smartly calibrate its response to the elections, its winners and its losers.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Resolving Displacement, Responsibility to Protect R2P
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Democratic Republic of Congo
Type: IRRI Blog