Date: 15 DEC 2023
Analysts: FO, NA, AA
As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) approaches its general elections, the political climate is charged with uncertainty and regional instability, particularly due to the intensified actions of the M23 rebel group in the East. The DRC transitioned power smoothly between civilian leaders in 2019 for the first time, signaling a moment of relative stability, but the current situation may threaten the democratic progress achieved.
Incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi faces re-election amidst criticism of unfulfilled promises and challenges controlling the violence in the East, which undermines his campaign. Moise Katumbi emerges as a strong contender with regional influence and financial backing but faces scrutiny over his mixed heritage and questions of national allegiance. The candidacy of Martin Fayulu has been weakened due to his late entry into the race, while Nobel Laureate Denis Mukwege, despite his outsider status and popularity for his humanitarian work, is not expected to lead.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame's alleged involvement with the M23 could have a significant indirect impact on the DRC's elections, exacerbating regional tensions. The conduct of the military and the credibility of the electoral body are paramount for a peaceful election process. The DRC's complex ethnic dynamics also play a pivotal role in the political landscape, with politicians often exploiting these divisions for gain.
The elections in the DRC are not only critical for the country's trajectory but also have implications for the broader region, including influences from membership in multiple regional economic communities. How the DRC navigates these challenges will be crucial for maintaining stability and continuing the path toward democratic governance.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a nation rich in natural resources and cultural diversity, stands on the precipice of a significant political moment as it prepares for its upcoming general elections. After achieving an unprecedented and peaceful transition of power in 2019, the nation now contends with escalating regional instability and the resurgence of M23 rebel activities in the East. The outcome of these elections will not only shape the DRC's future but also resonate across Africa, where the DRC plays a crucial geopolitical role. With a backdrop of international attention, regional dynamics, and the pressing concerns of its citizens, the DRC must navigate through these complex challenges to continue its journey toward sustained democratic governance.
General Elections: 2023
As the second-largest country in Africa by land area, the fourth-most populous, and one of the continent's richest in terms of natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo has faced a tumultuous history. In recent weeks, the nation's attention has focused on the upcoming general elections. Remarkably, January 2019 marked the first instance of a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian leader to another in the country's history.
The 2019 transition signaled a degree of stability to citizens and the international community, attracting investors interested in the nation's abundant resources. However, events in the east, among other factors, have introduced uncertainties concerning the forthcoming electoral process.
In the weeks preceding the December elections, M23 rebels have escalated their operations, posing a threat to major towns and cities in the fragile eastern regions. After a period of dormancy, this predominantly Tutsi group has reignited its campaign, with Goma—the principal city of North Kivu—becoming a significant target. Suspected support from neighboring Rwanda has brought the M23's activities into the spotlight for both the government in Kinshasa and East African regional actors. In response, regional forces from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, and others have stepped in to protect populated areas from the threat. Additionally, the United Nations maintains a mission in the region.
Despite the presence of these regional and international forces, their efforts have not sufficiently deterred the rebels from escalating the crisis. The recent increase in attacks and casualties adds to the complexity of the situation. Moreover, protests by locals against the UN forces have further muddied the waters. The brewing tensions between the DRC and Rwanda also carry the alarming potential to spark an interstate conflict with severe ramifications. Both nations have engaged in recent military acquisitions, hinting at an emerging arms race that could lead to miscalculations and armed clashes.
The coinciding of heightened tensions in Eastern DR Congo with the imminent elections is unlikely to be a mere coincidence. Although the overall situation remains grim, it involves a multifaceted mix of actors, each pursuing divergent and often difficult-to-reconcile interests. A thorough analysis could categorize these state and non-state actors, shedding light on the intricacies of their differing agendas.
Political and Security: Assessment Overview
DRC Election Security Brief
Election-related protests are anticipated in the DRC, with the scale and violence potential being uncertain.
President Tshisekedi's reelection could be contested, primarily if he loses, with fears of political violence.
Tshisekedi is favored to win due to a divided opposition, as Katumbi and Fayulu have not united, and Fayulu is unwilling to step down despite some support consolidating around Katumbi.
The opposition may not accept a Tshisekedi victory, hinted by accusations of electoral fraud, suggesting a pre-emptive narrative for disputing the results.
Pre-election: Possibility of small-scale protests and sporadic violence.
Election day: Risks of significant demonstrations and isolated violence, mirroring the 2018 election's 11-day results delay.
Post-election results: Increased chances of violent unrest, especially with fraud allegations or opposition triumph.
Inauguration: Military deployment and communication restrictions might be employed by the government for security enforcement.
At 60 years of age, Felix Tshisekedi, the incumbent, has presided over the Democratic Republic of Congo since January 2019. The forthcoming election serves as a critical assessment of his five-year tenure in Kinshasa. The 2018 election that ushered him into power was contested by a principal opposition figure, Martin Fayulu—who is also vying for the presidency in next week's elections. President Tshisekedi heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. Hailing from a distinguished political lineage, Tshisekedi was no stranger to politics prior to his 2018 electoral victory, given that his father was a veteran politician and served as Prime Minister before his demise in 2017.
Despite the unfulfilled promises that galvanized his campaign—attributable to both domestic and international challenges—Tshisekedi has substantially elevated the political profile of the DR Congo. Contrasted with his predecessor, who faced international censure for tendencies of personalizing power and deferring elections, the current president has garnered favorable engagement with international actors. With the notable exception of Paul Kagame of Rwanda, he has fostered cordial relations with neighboring leaders.
In 2022, under Tshisekedi's leadership, the DR Congo joined the East African Community (EAC), which brought in a stabilization force from Kenya to address the deteriorating security situation in the East. Furthermore, recent months saw him engage with Xi Jinping to renegotiate certain terms of a resource-for-infrastructure agreement between their respective countries. Meanwhile, domestically, there have been some reforms regarding investment.
However, the handling of violence in Eastern Congo presents a significant hurdle for the president's re-election campaign. This includes inter-ethnic conflicts, violent extremism, and the resurgence of the M23 rebellion, the latter of which has notably heightened tensions across the broader Eastern and Central African region. Tshisekedi has solicited support from regional actors while openly accusing Paul Kagame of instigating the rebellion. The exchange of accusations has intensified recently, culminating in the Congolese leader's controversial reference to Kagame as "Hitler" a few days ago. Additionally, opposition from Eastern residents to the EAC forces has precipitated their recent withdrawal from the area.
Despite these impediments, a fragmented opposition, along with the benefits of incumbency, may provide Tshisekedi an advantage over his rivals. Given the intricate political landscape and the multitude of challenges, a second term for Tshisekedi would not be unexpected.
Moïse Katumbi, having served as the Governor of the resource-rich Katanga region from 2007 to 2015, is also a seasoned political figure. Widely recognized as an astute businessman and football investor, Katumbi's influence in Katanga—the economic powerhouse of the Central African nation—renders his candidacy regionally significant. He has effectively negotiated with some contenders to withdraw from the race and endorse his bid. While such political maneuvering can be costly in the African context, these alliances have notably bolstered his campaign.
Notwithstanding, questions surrounding his identity have become a focal point for his adversaries. Born to an Italian father and a Congolese mother—with suspected Zambian ancestry—Katumbi's national allegiance has come under scrutiny. His previous possession of Italian citizenship further complicates this issue.
As the election slated for December 20 approaches, Katumbi is widely regarded as the incumbent president's foremost challenger. In a nation where access to resources is a pivotal factor for electoral success, Katumbi is reputed to possess the financial means necessary for a formidable political contest. His entrepreneurial success has garnered the attention of many unemployed youths, underscoring his appeal among this demographic. Should an unexpected outcome arise in the elections, Katumbi stands as the most probable candidate to achieve such a result.
Martin Fayulu, who narrowly missed the presidency as the runner-up in the previous general elections, turned 67 just a few weeks ago. Convinced of his victory in the last electoral contest, many observers anticipated an early declaration of his candidacy. Instead, Fayulu maintained a strategic silence that kept the electorate in suspense until September of last year, when he formally announced his intention to run. This delay has resulted in a somewhat sluggish momentum for his campaign. It appears that Katumbi, in particular, has capitalized on Fayulu's waning fortunes, gaining ground since the closely fought 2018 race with Tshisekedi.
Among the main contenders, Dr. Denis Mukwege (68) is considered the political outsider. He has earned significant respect among the Congolese population, particularly in the tumultuous East. As a gynecologist and Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. Mukwege has devoted decades to caring for women who have undergone sexual abuse—a particularly salient issue, given that rape has been employed as a weapon by various warring factions within the country. His longstanding commitment to this cause has won him the affection and support of many Congolese people.
Dr. Mukwege announced his candidacy in October, launching a campaign from South Kivu that centers on anti-corruption measures and the pursuit of stability. His unequivocal critique of the political establishment and his pledge to usher in a new era for the Democratic Republic of Congo have fueled his campaign. For some, his positioning as an "outsider" may afford him a surprising level of support at the polls. However, despite the potential for a strong showing in terms of vote numbers, he is not widely considered a front-runner in the race.
Although Rwandan President Paul Kagame is not a participant in the DR Congo's December elections, his actions have significant potential to influence the outcome, either directly or indirectly. Numerous reports implicate Rwanda in supporting the M23 rebels, composed mainly of ethnic Tutsis, asserting that they receive logistic and operational backing from the relatively small East African nation.
Efforts expended over months at the regional and continental levels to initiate dialogue between Kagame and Tshisekedi have so far been fruitless. Accusations of regional destabilization fly from Kinshasa toward Kigali, while Kagame reciprocates with comparable allegations. The prospect of heightened violence before, during, and after the elections remains a concern, with Rwanda's purported involvement making it an inextricable part of the regional security equation. The ongoing exchange of acerbic rhetoric between the leaders of these two nations has only served to exacerbate the situation.
Regional and Organizational Complexities
The intricacies of the DR Congo's electoral landscape extend beyond individual contenders and regional dynamics, encompassing a multitude of groups and institutions. Key among these are ethnic constituencies, civil society organizations, and the independent electoral commission. Despite the country's challenges with institutional strengthening, certain institutions and groups hold substantial sway over the upcoming elections.
The Military Factor
In a nation that has grappled with instability since its independence, the military of the Democratic Republic of Congo ranks as one of the most engaged on the continent, confronting rebellions, secessionist movements, and inter-ethnic conflicts. The military as an institution has been notably shaped by these challenges. Historically, the influence exerted by individual leaders, from Mobutu Sese Seko to Joseph Kabila, has had a profound effect on the military, sometimes eroding its capabilities and at other times consolidating its power for narrow ends.
A persistent issue for the military is the widespread unprofessional behavior among its personnel, undermining its legitimacy and effectiveness as the entity tasked with the state's use of force. Over the years, numerous reports have implicated military forces in civilian massacres across the nation.
The elections next week will see the military assume a pivotal role in securing the general populace and thwarting potential disruptions by rebels and extremists, particularly in the East. The ability of the military to perform its duties efficiently and professionally is vital for the successful conduct of the elections. Given recent training initiatives and reforms, some analysts maintain that the military stands a reasonable chance of ensuring security during and after post-elections.
As the M23 rebels threaten to seize territories recently vacated by EAC forces, the burden of securing the country, especially the volatile East, rests with the military. The efficacy of the military's response will significantly depend on the effectiveness of recent enhancements and training efforts.
The Electoral Body
The independent electoral commission of the DR Congo, consistent with many state institutions within the country, has yet to achieve the level of proficiency and reliability found in analogous bodies across the continent and beyond. The 2018 elections were marred by extensive reports of irregularities and technical issues.
Despite these obstacles, the elections concluded with the first peaceful transition of power between heads of state in the nation's history, maintaining a degree of legitimacy. Although concerns have been voiced by opposition parties and civil society organizations, confidence in the electoral commission's ability to administer the upcoming elections remains unshaken.
For the imminent elections to be regarded as more credible and an improvement upon the previous ones, it is imperative that the electoral commission upholds its independence. Unwavering commitment to transparency and accountability is crucial throughout the process. The precarious security situation in the country could be exacerbated if the commission were perceived as partial or engaging in practices that unduly benefit one contender over another.
In the DRC, as in many African countries, ethnic affiliations profoundly shape the political landscape. Candidates typically rely first and foremost on the backing of their ethnic bases. The political sphere often sees the manipulation of ethnic distinctions and biases for political gain. With hundreds of ethnic groups, languages, and dialects spanning the nation's vast territory, the DRC presents a complicated tableau in which historical exploitation of these differences has negatively impacted stability.
A particularly volatile ethnic tension that may be leveraged during the election is the ongoing Hema-Lendu conflict in the northeast. The grisly confrontations between the predominantly pastoralist Hema and the agrarian Lendu have been entrenched by political actors over the years, including during the lengthy tenure of former ruler Mobutu.
In light of the hotly contested nature of the upcoming elections—which are pivotal to the country's long-term stability and the continuation of its nascent democratic journey—the careful navigation of inter-ethnic relations is critical.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds significant geopolitical importance within multiple regional zones on the African continent. When it joined the East African Community (EAC) in 2022, the DRC became unique in the region, belonging to three major regional economic communities, including the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Consequently, regional powers from different sub-regions—including the nine countries that border it—have vested interests in the DRC's internal affairs.
The surge in attacks by the Islamic State, Central Africa Province (ISCAP), particularly in western Uganda, has reinvigorated Kampala's focus on the eastern DRC. The Islamist group, also known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has established its presence in the DRC's Ituri region. Therefore, a smoothly conducted election in the DRC aligns with the interests of Uganda and several other states in the region, with Rwanda being a notable exception due to differing interests.
General Election Implications
Similar to experiences in Senegal, the DRC's general elections could be affected by violence in the East. The legitimacy of the elections hinges on inclusive participation, which is threatened if populations in the densely populated eastern regions are impeded from voting. The M23 rebels and their alleged backers are cognizant of this dynamic and may be exploiting it for strategic purposes, as suggested by the recent escalation in the conflict.
Additionally, the Congolese security forces are currently under considerable strain due to the expansive security measures required nationwide in preparation for the elections. Recognizing the consequent vacuum in the east, the M23 has seized the opportunity to intensify attacks on multiple targets. This situation is exacerbated by concerns regarding the Congolese military's professionalism, as highlighted by incidents such as the lethal use of force against protesters decrying the UN forces' presence—a situation that has been subject to investigation and legal proceedings but spotlighted the military's challenges.
Local political actors, including opposition factions, may also seek to leverage the turmoil for electoral gain as the elections draw near. Any chance to undermine the incumbent government is likely to be seized by the opposition, particularly given the significant public concern over insecurity. The escalation of conflict could, therefore, disadvantage the government at the polls, a calculus the opposition is likely aware of. Nevertheless, a fragmented opposition may still benefit the incumbent in the election outcome.
Rwanda's perceived involvement in the DRC's conflicts could potentially lead to a further intensification of the crisis, in an attempt to undermine President Felix Tshisekedi's administration. With numerous reports suggesting Kigali's support for the M23, any increase in hostilities might serve as a strategy for Rwanda to strengthen its position in the ongoing tensions. The smaller nation could be influencing the very conditions that its alleged proxy, the M23, is capitalizing on within the DRC.
Conclusion and Safety Recommendations for Operations in the DRC
In light of the upcoming general elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the current political and security landscape, individuals and organizations operating within the country should observe heightened awareness and diligence. The intersection of regional dynamics, internal political rivalries, and security challenges necessitates a well-informed and proactive stance on safety.
Expanded Safety and Security Guidance
Stay Informed: Continuously monitor local news and international media for updates on election-related developments and security advisories. Utilize reliable sources and avoid spreading unverified information that could contribute to tensions.
Communication Plan: Maintain a robust communication plan that includes emergency contacts, regular check-ins, and access to reliable communication tools. Ensure that all personnel understand the protocol in case of an emergency.
Understand Regional Variance: Recognize that security conditions may vary significantly between regions of the DRC, particularly with the East experiencing higher levels of instability. Tailor safety measures to the specific regional context.
Limit Movement: During periods of heightened tension, limit non-essential travel, particularly to areas with a known presence of armed groups or a history of electoral violence. Plan and vet any travel carefully, ensuring secure transportation and accommodations.
Engage with Local Communities: Build and maintain relationships with local communities and authorities. Understanding local dynamics and sentiments can provide crucial insights into potential risks and culturally appropriate behaviors.
Respect Curfews and Restrictions: Adhere to any curfews, movement restrictions, or security procedures put in place by the Congolese government or local authorities.
Review Security Protocols: Regularly review and update organization-specific security protocols. Conduct drills and training for staff to ensure preparedness for various security scenarios.
Crisis Management: Have a crisis management plan in place that includes evacuation procedures, medical emergency responses, and contingencies for the continuity of operations.
Legal Compliance and Ethical Conduct: Ensure all activities comply with local laws and regulations, and maintain a commitment to ethical conduct, particularly in interactions with local institutions and during the sensitive electoral period.
Psychological Support: Be cognizant of the psychological impact that a high-stress environment may have on individuals. Provide access to support services and encourage self-care among staff members.
By adhering to these guidelines, those operating within the DRC can contribute to their safety and security, as well as to the broader stability of the communities in which they operate. The coming weeks will be a critical time for the DRC, and it is incumbent upon all actors to act responsibly and with regard to the complex environment of this pivotal moment in the country's history.
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