The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been witnessing unrest in the lead-up to presidential election, which the government of incumbent President Joseph Kabila has postponed from November 2016 to April 2018.
The election could represent the first democratic transition of power after decades of civil war, political instability and deadly coups in DRC.
Kabila, who became president following his father’s assassination in 2001, is bound by the constitution to step down as he has served two consecutive terms in power. The leader, who has been accused of trying to seek a third term, said the election should be postponed as the country is not ready and more time was needed to revise voter rolls and raise funds.
Earlier this month, the ruling coalition and other parties – with the exception of the main opposition bloc – agreed to delay the election and keep Kabila in office until April 2018.
The move is expected to create instability in the country, where dozens of people were killed in the capital Kinshasa in September as they were protesting against the plan to delay the vote.
“Over the last year, every major protest against Kabila running for a third presidential term and delaying the vote has sparked a crackdown either by the army or the police,” Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics at Soas university, London, told Words in the Bucket.
“Tragically, this cycle of election delay, protest – especially in the major Congolese cities – and violent crackdown is likely to continue until the vote is finally held. However, it is unlikely to lead to civil war because the opposition is highly fragmented and mostly unarmed,” Clark, whose research work focuses on the African Great Lake region, continued.
Clark and other analysts fear that instability in DRC could also have repercussions in the neighbouring countries, which have a long history of spillovers of their conflicts into DRC and vice-versa.
Conflicts in the African Great Lakes region have often been interconnected due to ethnic divisions among transnational ethnic groups, the presence of rebel groups across different countries, the fight for natural resources and mass-displacement of people who cross countries to flee violence.
Ethnic tensions and the threat posed by rebel groups, which often find shelter into neighbouring countries, from where they continue to carry out attacks, are some of the main drivers of transnational conflicts in the region.
For example, Hutu and Tutsi groups from Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC were directly involved in the two Congo wars, which involved eight African nations (nine if we include the alleged deployment of Sudanese troops), between 1996 and 2003.
As explained by the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord):
“Transnational ethnic groups and porous boundaries facilitate the ‘inter-contamination’ of violent conflict.[..] At one time or another, every single Great Lakes Region country has received refugees from its neighbours.” As all these refugees are characterized by a strong ethnic background, it is very easy to see how the conflicts spread into the host countries, since there are similar ethnic groups and dynamics across borders.
“Once a conflict with an ethnic factor erupts in Rwanda, Burundi or eastern DRC, it is very easy for politicians and other elites who have direct interests to manipulate and exploit these ethnic ties to create alliances,” the report added.
The First Congo War (1996-97) – which resulted in the overthrowing of military dictator Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, open sympathiser of the Hutu people – was sparked when Rwanda (and then Uganda) started supporting Congolese Tutsi rebels headed by rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila (Joseph Kabila’s father). Rwanda’s main fear was that Hutu militias (Interahamwe) who had sought refuge in eastern DRC in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, were planning to return and invade the country, now ruled by Tutsi President Paul Kagame.
When Kabila took office, Hutu militia from Rwanda formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a name that suggested the group – still active in eastern DRC – would try to change regime in Rwanda.
During his office – lasted until his assassination in 2001 – Kabila was accused of alienating his allies Rwanda and Uganda. The fact that he expelled Rwandan and Ugandan forces from DRC, was one the main factors that triggered the Second Congo War (1998-2003), which saw Tutsi-led rebels pitted against Kabila’s forces.
Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi backed rebel forces.
In 1998, Angola intervened in support of Kabila claiming the country was concerned that, should Congolese rebels win, they could “give aid to the rebel Unita movement in Angola”. The Angolan government also claimed it had “true evidence” that Unita was supporting Congolese rebels against Kabila.
The Second Congo War, also known as the Great African war, resulted in the death of more than five million people. The conflict pitted Congolese forces aided by Angola, Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe and allegedly Sudan as well as some rebel groups against Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi Unita and other militia groups.
Harry Verhoeven, professor of government at Georgetown University, believes that, due to the historical background, uncertainty in Kinshasa can play a destabilising role in the rest of the region, with countries including Angola and Rwanda watching closely and rather nervously the unfolding events in DRC.
“If a new person comes to power, how will he treat my enemies? Will this person be in good terms with me? All this kind of uncertainty is one problem,” he told Words in the Bucket.
Verhoven added that the perceived weakness of the government in Kinshasa also plays a major role in propagating instability across the region, as countries feel that any deal struck with Kinshasa “means nothing on the ground and in the peripheral areas,” particularly in the North and South Kivu, where armed groups operate.
“If for example the Rwanda Patriotic Front [RPF] in Kigali feels an agreement they signed with Joseph [Kabila] is not working out, they would be very tempted to increasingly support one group to get what they want in the first place from Kinshasa,” he said. “If there was a strong government in place, there would be no issue. But there is not. Many armed and non-armed groups are likely to receive further support.”
“This means that these foreign countries almost always certainly have to intervene themselves directly or indirectly,” he continued. “Neighbouring countries, even though they don’t want chaos, also feel very reluctant to sign any kind of agreement with him [Kabila], because he is on his way out. That’s what really poisons the regional politics at the moment.”
Instability and violence in DRC have been exacerbated by the presence of dozens of rebel groups. The rebels – some of which relocated from neighbouring nations, such as Burundi and Uganda, or were formed by rebels and genocidaires who fled prosecution, such as the FDLR – have often been accused of committing atrocities against the local population.
According to Verhoven, almost all the rebel groups, Congolese and foreign, receive some foreign assistance by neighbouring countries and could exploit instability in Kinshasa “because of the link with outside partners.”
Furthermore, a violent build-up to the election in DRC could result in the displacement of thousands of people, who would flee to neighbouring countries to escape violence.
“Instability in the DRC always has regional repercussions. It disrupts trade, especially with Burundi and Rwanda,” Clark said. “If the election build-up is violent – as has been the case in the past – this can cause the mass displacement of the population across borders. Kabila’s government has also often stirred up anti-Tutsi sentiment in the Kivus as an electoral tactic. Kagame’s government in Kigali will keep a close eye on any attacks against the Tutsi population in eastern DRC, just as they are doing in relation to Nkurunziza’s government in Burundi.”
The scale of violence and unrest in DRC – likely to occur before and after the vote is hard to predict at the moment. What is certain, is that neighbouring countries will watch closely the political process that could have negative repercussions in the whole region, causing mass-displacement of people and the military intervention of nations that feel their national security is at stake.
The Congolese embassy in London has not replied to a request for comments.