GOMA, 16 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are a near certainty, despite the obstacles that threaten a smooth transition to democracy. What is largely uncertain, however, is how stable the country will be in the aftermath of the polls.
Among the main concerns raised by Congolese and international observers are issues such as strengthening the integrated national army; securing the eastern part of the country from northern Katanga and the Kivus to the northeastern district of Ituri; and applying measures to prevent conflict if some losing candidates reject the election results.
Recent incidents in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu are part of efforts to destabilise the country's electoral process, said Jean-Marie Kati Kati Muhongya, a civil rights activist and political analyst in Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
"Democracy is a relatively new concept among the Congolese," he said. "One has to remember that the Congo is entering democracy without democrats."
He added that the Congolese were used to dictatorship - "from the traditional chiefs to the couuntry's coloniser to the [late president] Mobutu Sese Seko, to the warlords who engaged in civil conflict, right up to the governor's authority".
Another issue central to the DRC's stability is ethnicity, especially in the east. According to Kati Kati, everything is based on ethnic considerations - be it politics, economics or even sectors such as education and development of infrastructure. Congo's sheer dimensions - some 2.3 million sq km, roughly the size of Western Europe - amplify the difficulties. South Kivu alone is 65,000 sq km, the size of the countries of Burundi and Rwanda combined. The distance between the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern provinces, for instance, is more than 1,000 km. This, coupled with insecurity and poor infrastructure, has prevented President Joseph Kabila's transitional government in Kinshasa from stamping its full authority in the mineral-rich east and northeast.
The DRC's transitional government was established in 2003, after five years of civil war that a Congolese observer called the "years of the rebellion". Political parties and former rebel movements signed an accord in Sun City, South Africa, in April 2003 that allowed the formation of a transitional government with a president assisted by four vice-presidents.
Years of dictatorships
Understanding the volatility of eastern DRC requires a review of the country's precolonial, colonial and postcolonial history.
Before colonialism, people lived in chiefdoms, under the rule of a traditional chief, or mwami, who had absolute authority. From 1881 until 1908, the country was the personal fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II. The Belgian Congo, as it was then called, then became a colony of Belgium until independence on 30 June 1960. It was also during Belgium's colonisation that a group of Rwandans - now referred to as Rwandophones - settled in the Kivus, with the colonial power's approval. Conflict in the Republic of Congo emerged soon after independence, resulting in the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba - in which some Western powers were heavily implicated, according to some analysts. From the early 1960s until the 1990s, Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country - which he named Zaire in 1971 - with Western support through a dictatorial regime. It was under Mobutu that militias, known as the Mayi-Mayi, became organised into powerful, armed groups in various parts of the country. [see separate story on the Net: From protection to insurgency - history of the Mayi-Mayi]
In 1996, an uprising against Mobutu began in the east. On 17 May 1997, rebel forces of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL), led by Laurent Kabila, took the capital, Kinshasa, and changed the country's name to Democratic Republic of Congo, ending 31 years of Mobutu's rule. Between 1998 and 2003, various rebel groups fought against Kabila's government. One of these rebel movements, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la démocratie (RCD-Goma), was based in Goma, with Azarias Ruberwa as its leader. He is currently one of the vice-presidents in the transitional government. Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001 by one of his guards, was succeeded by his son Joseph, the current head of state.
In the midst of the civil conflict in DRC, there was genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994, which led to an influx of Rwandan refugees into eastern Congo, specifically North and South Kivu. Rwanda, along with Uganda, had supported Kabila in his rebellion against Mobutu. In the course of Kabila's advance to Kinshasa from the east, the Rwandan government claimed that militiamen known as "Interahamwe" and soldiers of its former army, the Forces armees Rwandaise (known as the ex-FAR), were among the Rwandan refugees in Congo. These militiamen and the ex-FAR, most of whom were members of the majority Hutu ethnic group, have been largely blamed for the genocide that claimed an estimated 937,000 people - most of them minority Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus - according to the Rwandan government.
In 1996, Rwandan troops attacked camps in the Kivus where the Rwandans had sought refuge, forcing the refugees, including non-combatants, to flee into the dense tropical forest that covers much of the country. Elements of Interahamwe and ex-FAR joined forces to create the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), thus creating a mainly Hutu rebel movement seeking to oust the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi.
Perpetrators of insecurity in the east
The FDLR, local militias, former rebel combatants and Ugandan rebels calling themselves Uganda's Allied Democratic Forces/National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF/NALU) have all contributed to insecurity in the east.
With the transitional government's formation of an integrated national army - comprised of former rebel fighters, militia and soldiers from the former national army - the Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo (FARDC) became the fourth party to the insecurity. The FARDC has at times fuelled rather than quelled insecurity in the Kivus. FARDC soldiers, most of whom do not receive their salaries, have no food and lack the means to support their families. Subsequently, they have forced the local communities to support them. They have been accused of widespread human rights violations, looting, and raping and even killing civilians.
The United Nations Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, has a 17,000-strong presence in the country and, together with the integrated FARDC brigades, has helped secure parts of the east. However, these efforts have been frustrated by continued militia and rebel attacks against civilians as well as the proliferation of small arms - the result of a porous border with neighbouring countries and years without government authority.
The problem with North Kivu
Stanislas Kisangani Endanda, a political-science professor at the University of Goma, said there were really two conflicts occurring simultaneously in the Kivus: the government's battle to flush out the FDLR and neutralise armed rebel groups, and the war between the various militia groups for control over the region's abundant minerals and other natural resources.
"North Kivu, especially, has huge social and political problems. The government's authority is not well established, and the economy is not benefiting the local people," Kisangani said. "Even as it is said that Rwandan troops have withdrawn from Congo [in December 2002], they left behind an elaborate information and political network."
Contrary to the widely held belief that tension in eastern Congo is mainly spurred by the quest to control resources, Kisangani viewed it as being in essence a war over political and ethnic dominance.
"Many [business] people here [in Goma] are Rwandophones. They have an economic network with links to the government," he said. "They continue exploiting the land and its resources; they continue to get rich and go on to buy more weapons. … It is like a mafia. In fact, it is these mafioso who are causing problems in North Kivu. This mafia has profited from the country's historical and structural problems."
Kisangani said this group of Rwandophones was frustrating the government's efforts to improve roads in the province so it could continue its economic-growth activities. "For instance, the government, in conjunction with [German] Agro Action [AAA] was in the process of rehabilitating the road to Walikale [Territory], but the mafia provoked war and AAA property was seized by attackers, forcing the road works to stop," he said. "The mafioso use planes to get to Walikale, and so they continue their exploitation. In the meantime, cheaper efforts to get goods to the people are frustrated because there is no road."
He said fighting that in early 2006, instigated by renegade Congolese soldiers in Rutshuru Territory of North Kivu, was an example of the Rwandophone group's efforts to foster continued insecurity. He claimed the group's armed wing uses renegade soldiers, such as those led by Gen Laurent Nkunda, to fuel ethnic tension and ensure continued insecurity.
"The problem we face, ahead of the elections, is this mafia," Kisangani said. "Many of them are Tutsis. If elections are held and, because of their minority figures, they don't win the seats they will contest, then we may not have peace. … The mafia could even be supporting the FDLR by giving them arms, to encourage them to continue fighting in a bid to have their illegal trade continue."
He also said the Rwandophone group had infiltrated Congo's army, meaning that some of the national troops were loyal to Nkunda and the Rwandophone group and others had remained loyal to the Kabila government.
"When Nkunda took Bukavu [in June 2004], a lot of army officials were aware of this before it happened. Some of these people have led the army since the Rwanda genocide," he said. "If we go to the polls with a weak FARDC, the polls won't be peaceful and the period after the elections won't also be peaceful."
Situation in South Kivu
In South Kivu, the main actors fuelling insecurity are the FDLR, local militias and the army - especially in areas where the army acts alone, without MONUC's logistic support.
According to MONUC, there are 15,000 FDLR in Congo - 10,000 of whom are in North Kivu and the rest in South Kivu. However, despite the majority of FDLR being in North Kivu, they are committing more atrocities in South Kivu. The reason for this, according to Alpha Sow, the head of MONUC in Bukavu, is because Goma was an RCD stronghold and since Rwanda backed RCD-Goma, the FDLR could not commit as many atrocities in the region.
Since the repatriation of all foreign groups in the DRC started four years ago, some 13,000 combatants and their dependants returned home, mostly to Rwanda, but also to Burundi and Uganda. However, security for the local communities is still difficult, said Peter van Holder, the liaison officer for Oxfam-Solidarites in Bukavu.
"In areas like Kitutu [Mwenga Territory], rebel activity is intense. I know that the population in Mwenga suffers insecurity a great deal, with FDLR being the main perpetrators of the insecurity," he said.
Moreover, insecurity for civilians in South Kivu's Kitutu, Shabunda and Mwenga areas had been blamed on the government solders. "Since they are not paid, they intimidate and harass the populations into supporting them," van Holder said. The beneficiaries of Oxfam aid - who often receive seeds to plant and animals to breed - were often afraid to work in their fields because of security concerns.
Since May-June 2004, when Gen Laurent Nkunda occupied Bukavu, the Congolese government has increased its military presence in the region. Instead of one brigade covering both North and South Kivu, the government has deployed a brigade for each province. According to Sow, the brigade deployed in South Kivu is in all the "sensitive areas".
Civilians, who are already grappling with poverty, disease and other social ills, have borne the brunt of all the fighting between the army, on one side, and the militias and rebels on the other that has ravaged eastern Congo since 1996. Although the number of displaced people fluctuates depending on the level of security in an area, the estimated number of displaced in North and South Kivu was at least 750,000 in February 2006.
Joseph Inganji, MONUC's humanitarian affairs officer in Bukavu, said an estimated 270,000 displaced people were in South Kivu alone. However, Inganji said another 140,000 previously displaced people had returned to their homes because security had improved. While security was better in non-FDLR areas, it had deteriorated in FDLR areas, he said. Still, displaced or at home, most people in the region needed help.
Inganji said government troops that had been deployed in the province were as much a problem as the FDLR. "Both pillage, rape, tax and generally harass civilians," he said. "This leads to population movements."
In the territory of Walungu alone, some 12,000 women had been raped since 2002.
In some areas where the FDLR was active - like Mwenga, Shabunda and Kabare territories - the security situation had not improved. In the south of the province - Walungu Territory - there had been improvement because of MONUC's work.
"With MONUC's presence, all IDPs [internally displaced persons] that had been in a stadium in the area have gone back to their villages, although sporadic attacks by the FDLR continue in some areas," he said. "We now see that the 152,000 Congolese refugees in Tanzania have started returning home, some of them spontaneously [without assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)]. Even those in Burundi have started returning."
Claude Mululu, liaison officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bukavu, said FDLR and military operations by the government army were the two causes of population displacement in the province. A civilian militia, known as "Raia Batomboki" (Congolese Swahili for "Angry Civilians") had also caused displacement in parts of South Kivu, he said.
Humanitarian workers often lack access to vulnerable populations because of insecurity, Mululu said. He gave the example of Bunyakiri area, where local NGOs had reported in February that 11,000 to 13,000 civilians were displaced following FDLR attacks. Access to them was difficult because armed escorts were required to cross a huge stretch of forest.
Drought in the Rusizi Plains has also caused displacement, Mululu said, as families have left their homes in search of food. This has been worsened by outbreaks of the mosaic disease, that affects the cassava crop. Cassava, a root tuber, is a staple food in the region. A disease affecting banana plantations has also hit the province, further threatening food security and hampering efforts by humanitarian actors to resettle the displaced.
The UN and NGOs estimated there were 576,911 displaced in North Kivu as of 6 February. The head of OCHA in Goma, Patrick Lavand'homme, said that since late December 2005, the province had seen a huge increase in displacement figures. He attributed the jump to joint military operations by MONUC and the army against the Ugandan ADF/NALU in Beni Territory.
"Up to now, the military operations in Beni have led to 41,000 IDPs, who have no access to their fields because of the operations," he said.
The other large population movement in the province began in mid-January following fighting between the army and Nkunda's renegade soldiers. This occurred mainly in Rutshuru Territory, he said, and resulted in the displacement of at least 50,000 people.
Lavand'homme said most of the newly displaced had received humanitarian aid. However, they still needed protection from continued attacks by militias, ADF/NALU and the FDLR, as well as ongoing military operations.
"Most of those displaced fled their homes in December, during the harvest period, meaning they were unable to harvest the crops in the fields," he said. "Now we are at the planting season and they remain displaced. If FARDC does not secure the area, these people won't plant, and this poses a serious food security problem in coming months."
Humanitarian actors faced several challenges, including lack of adequate capacity to respond to the large population movement; difficult access to the vulnerable people; and lack of funding, especially for the provision of medical care. As humanitarian workers in the east struggle to overcome these challenges, the transitional government continues making efforts to establish its authority.
Politics, military efforts
President Kabila has made two visits to Bukavu since December 2005. During his last visit in February, he announced that he would transfer part of the military's high command from Kinshasa to Bukavu. This high command would take care of the east and the northeast areas of the country - from Ituri to northern Katanga.
Alpha Sow said the Kabila government had transferred the 3rd Brigade in Kitona to Bukavu to replace members of the 10th Brigade, most of which had gone for integration with other former fighters at a centre in Luberizi, Kamanyola Territory.
"The idea here is to send fresh troops - trained and with more effective support - to deal with this problem [of the FDLR and local militias]," he said.
MONUC had raised the issue of human rights violations by the army with the government in Kinshasa.
"We have received an initial response. The government has pledged to ensure that these abuses end.
"There have been cases of rape, looting and other human rights abuses, some of them committed by members of the FARDC, especially in Bunyakiri in Kalehe Territory. This has made civilians think that the FARDC targets them. As a result, 60 percent of the population displacement in this area has been attributed to the FARDC - those from the 10th Military Region," Sow said.
Regarding the civilian militia "Raia Batomboki", Sow said the group was not out to do any harm. "They just wanted to protect themselves against the FDLR," he said.
Gearing up for polls
With the government in the process of integrating the national army and rotating troops, hope for successful elections continues across the country, with politicians preparing for the first elections to be held in more than 40 years. The Independent Electoral Commission has announced that the first in a series of polls would take place by the end of June.
In North and South Kivu, politicians are already testing the waters - although campaigning is yet to begin officially. North Kivu Governor Eugene Serufuli, a member of RCD who will try to retain the governorship, said the country was "ready for the elections".
One of Serufuli's challengers, businessman Victor Ngezayo, who is head of the Mouvement des patriotes Congolais, said the government needed to secure the region and ensure a comprehensive voter registration before the elections are held. He said the government must resolve the issue of some 40,000 Congolese Tutsis who are living in camps in Rwanda and have missed the registration deadline to take part in the elections. The government's effort to repatriate these people would go a long way in fostering reconciliation in the Kivus, he said. National reconciliation, strengthening of the army and police, as well as resolving the ethnic tension in the Kivus, would improve chances of peace during and after the elections, he said.
For Serufuli, issues that need urgent attention include neutralising armed groups in the Kivus, integration and strengthening of the military and national reconciliation.
"The other problem is that of refugees and the internally displaced people," he said. "The electoral commission should make efforts to ensure that all these people register as voters."
Successful elections across the country depend on many factors, but the main one is security for all. As political science professor Kisangani said, "The biggest problem is the weakness of the army and the police - the weakness of the country's whole security system."