Start of Main Content

Atrocity Risk in Congo Increases as Elections Near

This post was co-authored by Mollie Zapata and Rachel Samuels.

With violence ongoing in multiple parts of the country and a high-stakes presidential election in a few days, it would be hard to argue that spotlighting risks of atrocities in the DRC constitutes early warning. Nevertheless, the Early Warning Project’s multi-method approach suggests that there is an urgent need to analyze and respond to risks of future mass atrocities in the DRC. In particular, Congo-watchers should think critically about how the upcoming election, and its outcome, might exacerbate atrocity risks throughout the country.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently ranks #1 (highest risk) in the Early Warning Project's annual Statistical Risk Assessment. Our model estimates a nearly 1 in 3 chance of a new mass killing beginning in 2018 or 2019 in the DRC. In addition, the Early Warning Project public opinion pool, which uses the “wisdom-of-the-crowd” to estimate mass killing risk, suggests that the risk is rising. Forecasters currently estimate a 25% risk consensus judgment in between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019, up from 5% at the beginning of November. This kind of dramatic jump is rare in our opinion pool; a similar increase was seen in the consensus judgment on Burma/Myanmar in August-September of 2016, following news about an escalation of violence against Rohingya populations. 

Fears that the upcoming election could be a possible trigger point for escalating violence seem to be driving this spike among forecasters (to see comments and additional data, users must create a free anonymous login).

For example, one forecaster described his or her assessment as follows: "Given that the existing political and social conditions are ripe for conflict, large-scale violence can break-out suddenly and for seemingly minor reasons. If the outcome of elections is disputed, or leaves one or more party aggrieved, the approaching election could be one of these reasons, especially if there is perception of fraud." 

Whether or not the election triggers violence, those watching the DRC should consider how election outcomes might alter or perpetuate the current security dynamics throughout the country. The DRC’s high-risk ranking suggests the need for further analysis of the situation, specifically through an atrocity prevention lens.

Contentious Elections and Ongoing Crises 

The presidential election is now (as of December 20) set to occur on December 30, 2018. This election was originally slated for November of 2016, but has been repeatedly postponed based on government claims of high election costs and difficulties with voter registrationMany experts posit that the delays can be linked to President Kabila’s desire to stay in power. These delays resulted in a political crisis beginning in December 2016 and resulted in many extrajudicial killings of perceived opposition supporters. 

The DRC has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. President Kabila has now promised to step down upon the election of his successor in December. The ruling party, part of a new coalition named Common Front for Congo, selected former Minister of the Interior and Party Secretary Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as its candidate. Experts fear heightened opposition protests if he wins. Because the chances of a contested election are high, groups from the international community (the AU and the SADC) will be observing this election

Elections are not the only crisis facing DRC. The Early Warning Project identifies an ongoing mass killing perpetrated by various militias in the northeast, but note that the statistical analysis referenced above predicts the chances for a new onset of mass killing. Other flashpoints in DRC today include recent mass violence in southern Kasai, mass displacement in Ituri, and an ongoing Ebola threat amid continuing violence in Beni. 

Warning signs and plausible scenarios

The DRC exhibits virtually all of the mass atrocity risk factors identified by Scott Straus, including large-scale instability, armed conflict, and prior discrimination or violence against a particular group. There is also evidence in the DRC of multiple warning signs that often occur before a mass killing takes place, such as: the removal of moderates from leadership or public service, tension and polarizationstockpiling weapons, and impunity for past crimes

Beyond identifying risk factors and warning signs, analysts should consider what plausible near-future scenarios would include mass atrocities, as prescribed in the Department of State/USAID Atrocity Assessment Framework. Focusing on plausible pathways to mass atrocities helps draw attention to scenarios that "might be unlikely but high impact, meriting consideration because they would result in high numbers of civilians injured or killed."

Some plausible mass atrocity scenarios in the DRC relate to the presidential elections. In the event of an opposition victory, the government could crack down on opposition supporters, including through ethnically motivated killings. If Shadary is elected and the opposition responds with continuing or escalating protests, security forces could continue to respond with violence. It is also plausible that some of the many armed groups that emerged following the 2016 crisis might perpetrate violence against perceived Kabila/Shadary supporters. 

Other scenarios might not have obvious linkages to election process or outcome. For example, non-state armed groups and government-backed militias contribute to instability and violence throughout the country, and any of these conflicts could potentially escalate to a mass killing, separate from the outcome of the December election; however, the new leadership’s approach to these crises could significantly alter the conflict dynamics in each region.


While experts and media outlets have issued many reports on the election and violence across the DRC, the situation warrants heightened attention beyond election day to the risk of a new mass killing beginning in the coming months. Even if the election itself runs more smoothly than expected, violence and instability may ensue weeks or even months after results are announced.