A Crucial Moment for D.R. Congo

Elections Pose Promise and Unpredictability for Humanitarian Efforts
Farm in D.R. Congo
Farm in D.R. Congo

Despite its recent history of political instability and recurring humanitarian crises, last year the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo celebrated 50 years of independence from Belgium. Despite the huge challenges faced by the country since its birth on 30 June 1960, the government ensured that the celebrations spanned the length and breadth of the D.R. Congo and with the pomp of military parades and a host of grand ceremonies across the country. The population met these festivities with its usual mix of optimism and caution, most Congolese I knew celebrated quietly at home thinking it wiser to stay indoors than venture into the streets—the safer option for a population all too familiar with violence and conflict.

The humanitarian community largely avoided the festivities. Wary of how the country might receive this milestone—as a catalyst for voicing political frustrations or commonly-held perceptions of the country’s declining fortunes—many nongovernmental organizations closed their offices, introduced greater security measures and supplied their so-called “hibernation boxes” (apartments, offices and the like) in anticipation of political fallout. At the time, I was living in Bukavu, the picturesque lakeside town in South Kivu to the country’s East, an area that was the focal point of many past atrocities. The mood was slightly tense as the national celebrations approached, and just days before the anniversary, there was a bank robbery in broad daylight in the center of the town, just yards from my office. The robbery left one police officer dead and an unlucky bystander in critical condition, and we all held our breath waiting for what we thought would be an inevitable descent into chaos and violence.

Yet, despite what could have been, the event did not trigger the political chaos we’d feared, and a relative calm won out: the robbery was apparently dealt with quietly, civic peace was maintained, the central marketplaces hummed with normal activity, and the soldiers continued to practice drills for the upcoming ceremonies. Ultimately, the June 30 anniversary came and went, more memorable for the newly painted government buildings, the unexpected outpouring of national pride as communities cleaned up their neighborhoods, as for the discarded souvenir Congolese Franc notes from the colonial days and scattered beer bottles from the previous night’s festivities.

Avoiding a Repeat of 2007

Though the anniversary—and the second national elections since independence—remained somewhat peaceful, when trouble does flare in D.R. Congo it is rarely predictable. As the elections proceeded last Monday—and accusations of electoral roll tampering, pre-stuffed ballot boxes and other fraud flew through the polls—we heard a number of recurring questions among the humanitarian community: How could a potential run-off between incumbent President Joseph Kabila and his rebel rival Etienne Tshisekedi affect the relative calm that prevailed? Will we be forced to suspend our programs and for how long? What will happen to the vulnerable communities we serve if we are cut off? We have been here before.

In 2006, the D.R. Congo held its first free elections in 45 years; they concluded without a clear presidential winner, sparking clashes in the capital and a run-off that culminated in widespread violence on the streets of Kinshasa between supporters of President Kabila and former Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba. Although Kabila eventually triumphed, a major source of political instability raged in the Kivus to the East where the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda regularly clashed with the Congolese national army. From 2007 to 2009, the Kivus witnessed widespread population displacement as people fled rebel forces known for their brutality and atrocities.

This year’s campaign process between Kabila and his opponents has been disruptive, even before the elections and the potential run-off: in the past month, Action Against Hunger had to overcome a sudden shortage of air and ground transportation—campaigning politicians booked nearly everything—as well as program interruptions due to spontaneous political rallies and other campaign events. Despite these setbacks, our efforts continued apace, reaching some 8,000 people in October with the water, sanitation & hygiene services, food security & livelihoods support and therapeutic nutrition programs we currently run across the D.R. Congo.

This could change on Monday as the results come in. There are two likely outcomes, with many twists within each. The first scenario is that Kabila wins outright; the second: that Kabila loses (likely to Tshisekedi), but claims victory anyway or wins through fraud. Either case poses a high risk of violence.

Almost no observers think Kabila will hand over power voluntarily, regardless of the election results, and Tshisekedi supporters could protest violently even if Kabila legitimately wins the election. There’s also the international political community to consider. Despite Kabila’s repeated calls to end UN peacekeeping in the DR Congo, the UN and other international actors have a good working relationship his administration—he is, at least, a known quantity. There has been speculation that no matter what, the UN and other countries will back Kabila, whom they see as no more corrupt than any other politician, even if he is accused of fraud.

Keeping Humanitarian Workers Safe

This the context in which the humanitarian community works in the D.R. Congo, struggling to reach vulnerable populations across massive distances amidst political upheavals. And yet even humanitarian workers, though protected under some of the Geneva conventions, have become the targets of this violence. Despite a UN peacekeeping force of 20,000 uniformed soldiers, attacks increased in the D.R. Congo immediately before the elections—in October alone, five humanitarian workers were killed in South Kivu, while other attacks have ranged from extortion to hostage taking to using humanitarian vehicles to carry military equipment. Since August of this year, militias have carried out 25 attacks in North Kivu province and 15 in South Kivu. Since January 2011, the two provinces have suffered nearly 140 such incidences.

With an organizational presence in the D.R. Congo since 1996, Action Against Hunger welcomed the ability of our Congolese colleagues and the populations we serve to take part in the democratic process. The energy and optimism we saw in recent weeks was refreshing, and we don’t want to leave. Despite some media accounts, our staff returned to Kinshasa a day earlier than planned after the elections, but with violence expected, we have sent them to Brazzaville once more. No one wants to see this hope and exhilaration unravel—and the last thing the D.R. Congo needs is another episode of widespread, protracted violence. Some 20 percent of Congolese children die before reaching their fifth birthday—not to mention the millions of civilians who have suffered brutality or perished in the last decades as a result of conflict. So as we wait for the outcome, Action Against Hunger is trying to strike the right balance caution and continuity.

If political insecurity further hinders humanitarian actors in their work and prevents access to the people who most need our help, the Congolese will only suffer further. I sincerely hope that in a country beset by so many difficulties, transparency and democratic values will turn the tide toward a continued peaceful electoral process at this important juncture. We are still waiting and hoping.

About Action Against Hunger USA

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Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure families can access clean water, food, training, and health care. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.