July 16, 2021
Sylvain Saluseke is a Congolese pro-democracy activist and member of LUCHA (or “Struggle for Change”), a non-violent and non-partisan youth civil society movement advocating for democracy and social justice. He is also the Managing Director of the Global Access Health Network.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been consistently ranked among the five highest-risk countries for mass atrocities, according to the Early Warning Project. We are concerned that ongoing risk for violence against civilians persists, including mass killings and large-scale sexual and gender-based violence. This post is part of a series in which Congolese experts discuss the ongoing violence and risk of future mass atrocities. The assertions, opinions, and conclusions in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
What is the current state of violent conflict in the DRC?
The Democratic Republic of Congo is in an ongoing state of armed conflict and has experienced nearly continuous instability for decades. Populations feel powerless as killings continue and perpetrators are able to operate with impunity.
Today, there are two focal points for violence in Ituri and North Kivu—the Beni, Butembo, and Bunia areas. While the conflict in Ituri could be described as inter-ethnic, the ongoing massacres in the Beni area have been driven by rebel motivations and are becoming increasingly religious with violence perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group the US government determined has ties to the Islamic State. While often eclipsed by the scale of conflict in the East, inter-ethnic tensions and violent conflict in the Kasai region also merit attention.
What are the drivers of this violence?
Overall, conflict in the Congo is driven by social, political, and economic reasons. I believe that in most cases economic reasons can explain why people engage in or support violence. People feel desperate about their access to resources and that insecurity makes them susceptible to accepting and spreading us-versus-them rhetoric and even vulnerable to armed group recruitment.
In Ituri, the conflict is often discussed in terms of land. People argue that the “others” are being more violent and use that as justification to push them off land for farming and herding—effectively to limit their livelihoods. This leads to a cycle of inter-group conflict as each struggles to secure economic stability for themselves and their families.
On top of these tensions the conflicts across Eastern Congo are growing more complex each year as external interests continue to be involved. Uganda, Rwanda, and Congolese military leaders want access to resources and continuing conflict ensures continuation of their access to the region.
How is the government responding?
The Congolese government has imposed a state of security emergency (“l'état de siege”) in Ituri and North Kivu, and the military is now supposed to be going after perpetrators of violence. While there have been fewer attacks by “insurgents” since the siege was imposed in May, there has been a significant increase in human rights abuses by the military. As it takes over the region, the military is now eroding civilian capacity to run provinces. It is unclear whether this was the plan all along, or the military engaged and was overwhelmed by the challenges and forced to improvise. The siege also means that civilians are unable to go about their normal farming and herding activities, exacerbating existing economic pressures.
Considering the negative impacts, it seems like the siege strategy is not working. According to the Constitution, it should not go beyond a third renewal or go beyond a month. However, we are now into the second month of siege and the President will likely ask to renew it again. The government is entirely focused on burnishing its public image and the short-term objective of winning the next election, and is neglecting core economic and social issues as it pursues this goal.
Who are the main perpetrators of violence against civilians?
In Eastern Congo, the perpetrators of violence are well-known. There are many rogue elements in the state security apparatus, as well as Ugandan rebels (ADF) and some Rwandan Army proxies. Across the country, President Tshisekedi has continued former President Kabila’s tactic of arresting people speaking out for civil rights or criticizing the government, and this strategy is only increasing as we near the country’s 2023 presidential election.
Which regions of the country are most at risk of mass atrocities over the next two years?
The current conflict in Beni, Butembo, and Bunia will inevitably continue until we see the government change its strategy. Additionally, the area around Fizi in South Kivu is of concern. There, we have inter-ethnic conflict between the Babembe, Bashi, Banyamulenge, Bafuliiru, etc. All sides have their own militias and are perpetrating attacks on civilians. Finally, I have my eyes on grand Katanga, where violence is not ongoing but risks are quite high.
Which regions are not receiving sufficient attention to their risk of mass atrocities?
I cannot stress enough that we have to watch grand Katanga. It is a very volatile region right now—tensions are palpable and mass violence has occurred there in the past—and if we do not address the upcoming political tensions it could break out into violence. The Katangese feel they are being invaded and their economy is being taken over by people from Kasai. (Notably, Kasai is facing food insecurity right now, leading to an influx of Kasains into Katanga and further exacerbating tensions.)
Relatedly, Kasai itself is a potential hotbed for violence. There was a period of very bad killings in Kasai in 2016-17. I fear that because President Tshisekedi is from Kasai, we may see a media blackout if violence escalates there again; he would not want to be seen as allowing violence in his own backyard in advance of the elections.
Are there potential future triggers that could lead to increased targeting of civilians?
The 2023 elections are my primary concern for triggering violence. A new law was introduced in Parliament to block anyone with a non-Congolese parent from running for president, which is seen by some Katanganese as targeting Moïse Katumbi, a likely presidential candidate from Katanga. If people are prevented from running, or elections are postponed, we may see a new onset of conflict.
Here are two other potential triggers to watch: First, the escape from justice of two high-profile securocrats of former president Kabila, raising questions of where they went, what resources they had accumulated, and would they return? Second, because the DRC is a weak state, we must always be concerned about interference or conflict spill-over by neighboring countries: the Central African Republic, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, and others.
What actions would you suggest to the international community to help prevent mass atrocities in the DRC?
- Support democratic process before elections, and support democratic process after the vote occurs. A lot of the instability we’re seeing today is because of elections of 2018, when the United States and other governments accepted and supported a deal between Kabila and Tshisekedi. The current president is struggling to run the government, in part because many Congolese do not see his election as legitimate.
- Prevent mass atrocities by strengthening institutions and the state’s capacity to deal with its social, economic, and political challenges. Until people are able to provide meals and security for their loved ones, they’ll be easily used for conflict.
This post was edited by Mollie Zapata, Research Manager at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.