Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; the Congo) has been ongoing since the 1990s. The country has faced political repression and instability since it achieved independence in 1960. DRC is the fourth largest African country by population and the most populous francophone country in the world and is home to an abundance of vital natural resources. Despite its massive human capital and resource endowment, peace has eluded the Congo, and human security challenges proliferate. Currently, the eastern DRC is the site of ethnic conflict and violent resource competition involving ethnic militias, Congolese security forces, UN troops, and complex external interests.
With six months to go before the elections, the campaign is shaping up to be very tense in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the opposition raging against a regime determined to stay in power, against a backdrop of conflict in the east and social crisis.
A single-round presidential election is scheduled for 20 December in this vast country of some 100 million inhabitants, along with elections for national and provincial deputies and local councillors. Félix Tshisekedi, President since January 2019, is running for a second five-year term.
Having experienced this at the time of the previous elections, which were postponed for two years, some Congolese still have doubts about the organisation of the vote in time and are expecting what they call a “landslide”.
But the authorities insist that the elections will indeed take place “within the constitutional timeframe” and, above all, the National Electoral Commission (CENI) has so far kept to its timetable.
It has “enrolled” (registered) voters and issued them with cards. This has enabled it to redo the electoral register, which was cleaned up by an “external audit” and served as the basis for the law on the “distribution of seats”, which was promptly passed by Parliament and promulgated on 15 June.
Technically, “the CENI has demonstrated that it can meet the deadlines… A shift is less and less likely”, notes Trésor Kibangula, political analyst at the Ebuteli research institute.
Confidence and transparency are a different story.
At the end of last year, Ebuteli expressed concern that the electoral process was “badly underway”, with the risk of “violent demonstrations”. At issue: the highly controversial composition of the CENI itself and the Constitutional Court, the last electoral lock.
“In fact, at the legal level, the government has all the levers”, says another observer of Congolese politics, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For several weeks now, the groups of four opponents who are declared presidential candidates have been organising demonstrations to demand an overhaul of these bodies, which they believe will lead to fraud and chaos.
These opponents, Martin Fayulu, Moïse Katumbi, Matata Ponyo and Delly Sesanga, also consider that the electoral register is “fanciful”, because “enrolment” could not take place in territories plagued by armed violence and because the “audit” was carried out in a record time of five days.
The police violently repressed one of their marches on 20 May, leading to numerous protests from the powerful Catholic Church, civil society, and the international community, with a declaration from around fifteen embassies calling for “competitive, peaceful, inclusive and transparent” elections.
The camp of former president Joseph Kabila (2001-2019), meanwhile, has so far asked its supporters to boycott the electoral process.
According to Trésor Kibangula, there is still “one chance to regain public confidence”, and that is to organise “a new independent and transparent audit of the electoral register”. This “could help to reduce political tensions”, without having to postpone the vote, says the analyst.
“The opposition continues to demand guarantees of transparency, but at the same time it must start preparing” for the elections, he also said.
Political science professor Alphonse Maindo is among those who believe that “good elections” on 20 December are impossible. Instead, he advocates a “transition” that would enable the country to prepare properly, including by “mobilizing the necessary resources”.
“The next few months are going to be explosive, with demonstrations, arrests, trials and so on”, fears the academic, who last year was one of the signatories of a declaration calling on Denis Mukwege to stand in the presidential elections. The famous doctor, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of women who have been raped, has not yet said anything about his intentions.
Observers are also expecting a high level of abstention, due to a lack of confidence in the electoral process and the political class in general, but also because the main concern of many Congolese, squeezed by unemployment and inflation, is to feed their families.
The DRC has a very rich subsoil, but two-thirds of its inhabitants live below the poverty line.
Since 1996, conflict in eastern DRC has led to approximately six million deaths. The First Congo War (1996—1997), began in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, during which ethnic Hutu extremists killed an estimated one million minority ethnic Tutsis and non-extremist Hutus in Rwanda (DRC’s neighbor to the east). During and following the genocide, nearly two million Hutu refugees crossed the Congolese border, mostly settling in refugee camps in the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. A small subset of those Rwandans who entered DRC were Hutu extremists who feared retribution or prosecution at home and began organizing militias within the Congo. Pressure intensified as Tutsi militias organized against the Hutu groups and as foreign powers began taking sides.
In 2022, around 11,300 refugees from the DRC, mainly those who had sought asylum in Zambia, voluntarily repatriated to Kinshasa and the southern provinces of Haut-Katanga and Kasai, compared to 700 in 2021. A total of 12,600 Congolese refugees departed from sub-Saharan Africa, mainly Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia, for resettlement in a third country, primarily the United States of America, Canada, Norway and Sweden. This was more than a 50% increase from 8,000 departures in 2021. In November 2022, a revised UNHCR position on returns to the DRC was issued, serving to guide the granting of refugee status to new asylum-seekers from the eastern DRC provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu.
The humanitarian response for the DRC situation was severely underfunded. The $605 million required by the 2022 DRC Regional RRP was only 35% funded, and UNHCR’s $364.6 million financial ask for the DRC response, including activities within the DRC and in countries hosting refugees from the DRC, was only 47% funded. This funding shortfall deeply affected the response: as of September 2022, only 50% of IDP survivors of gender-based violence in the DRC had received psychosocial care; four out of every five IDPs in the DRC had not received adequate shelter support and were forced to find temporary shelter, or resorted to returning to their homes despite the risks; and 84% of refugee children in the provinces of Ituri and Haut-Uele were at risk of dropping out of school.