Start of Main Content

Political Repression Threatens Increased Violence Against Civilians in Congo

By Laura Seay Three months after presidential and parliamentary elections and despite new members of the National Assembly having assumed their posts, the Democratic Republic of Congo still faces its most significant political crisis since the 2002 end of its international and civil wars. Opposition leader and head of the UDPS party Etienne Tshisekedi and his supporters firmly believe that he won the disputed November 28 elections, in which victory was claimed by incumbent President Joseph Kabila despite widespread reports of electoral fraud and intimidation. Leaders of the country’s powerful Catholic Church are also backing Tshisekedi’s challenge to Kabila’s legitimacy. Despite having scheduled several protest marches, strikes, and his own presidential inauguration ceremony, however, Tshisekedi and his allies have yet to mobilize enough popular support to pose a significant challenge to Kabila’s rule. Tshisekedi has largely been kept under de facto house arrest since early December. His supporters who have attempted to rally in Kinshasa and other opposition stronghold cities have been prevented from doing so by Congo’s elite Presidential Guard and other security forces, which have not hesitated to use violence and tear gas against UDPS supporters. Tshisekedi responded to this violence by ordering his party’s deputies not to attend the parliamentary session currently underway and by continuing to refuse to recognize the Kabila government’s legitimacy. Tshisekedi has few friends in this fight. While his support from the Congolese Diaspora in the United States and Europe is strong, Western actors in Kinshasa have largely concluded that little can be done in this crisis and seem content to let Kabila remain in power for another five years. While almost everyone outside of Kabila’s government agrees that the elections were clearly neither free nor fair, diplomats and other observers in the region rightfully point out that there is no data that could give a reasonable degree of certainty as to who actually won the polls. Holding another round of elections is financially and logistically unfeasible, and aside from the fact that Kabila would be almost entirely unlikely to allow it to happen, there is little appetite in the United Nations and among donors to support a second attempt. But are the donors right? Many Congo watchers argue that the donors’ arguments on this issue present a false dichotomy. That we do not know who won the elections does not mean that there are no alternatives to accepting the results as they were officially announced. Indeed, donor states have at least some opportunities to exercise leverage and to pressure Kabila to negotiate with the opposition and to improve democratic institutions and practices in the DRC. Donated funds constitute a significant portion of the Congolese budget, for example, and there is no reason that donors could not tie this aid to improved governance outcomes, including organizing the forthcoming local elections in a more fair and open manner. Donors could also fund investigations into what went wrong during the 2011 elections and what factors – including massive corruption – must be immediately addressed to avoid another electoral crisis in the future. Could donors pressure Kabila to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with Tshisekedi and other opposition leaders? Yes, but this is unlikely to yield results, as neither Kabila nor Tshisekedi believe they should have to share power. Internationally-negotiated power-sharing solutions have not worked well in Zimbabwe or Kenya, and there is little reason to think that such a strategy would work in the DRC, especially given that Congolese political institutions are significantly weaker than their counterparts even in Zimbabwe. The death of Kabila’s trusted advisor and master political and economic manipulator, Augustin Katumba Mwanke, in a Bukavu plane crash earlier this month, has left a great deal of uncertainty as to who will make critical decisions as the country moves forward. It is a time of great uncertainty for Kabila, his allies, and all Congolese, which means that it is also an ideal time for donors to show that they will use their leverage to force changes in what is an increasingly authoritarian state. Congo has not yet reached the point of a Cote d’Ivoire-style violent crisis, and for that, the international community should be grateful. We have not seen the massive atrocities, crimes against humanity, or a full-scale civil war many analysts feared in the lead-up to the elections. However, growing repression against those who dissent politically – be it Tshisekedi’s unofficial house arrest, the assassination of journalists, or the torture of low-level functionaries who publicly criticize the administration – is a sign that democracy in the DRC is far from consolidation. The time to put Congo back on course is now. Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches courses on African politics, conflict, and international affairs. She also maintains an academic blog examining Africa politics, security, development and advocacy at: The views expressed here are her own.