When Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi, was finally sworn in more than a year and a half ago, in January 2019, his long-delayed inauguration came with several explicitly seen a peace transfer of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960, promises can quickly become just words in an already tedious and fragile national situation. Among the pledges to end corruption, impunity, and bad governance, President Tshisekedi vowed to “guarantee to each citizen the respect of the exercise of their fundamental rights,” which included justice for scores of victims of violent clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators since elections for president were first delayed in 2016.
To his credit, President Felix Tshisekedi has tried to restore some confidence in the government with the release of hundreds of political prisoners previously jailed by then-President Joseph Kabila during his previous 18 year term or service. Other officials in exile were also allowed to return to the DRC. Tshisekedi has also tried to improve education in the volatile nation by pledging to offer free primary school to all DRC, coupled with the hiring of an estimated 40,000 new teachers in 2019. Yet justice for demonstrators killed during violent protests across the country, particularly in the capital Kinshasa, has not only stalled, but is seemingly moving backwards as the cries of so many victim’s families are threatened to tailspin into obscurity.
As reported by Amnesty International in June, “Many [survivors] expressed frustration at the authorities’ inertia to investigate and prosecute those responsible,” for the deaths of protestors at the hands of police and security forces reaching as far back as 2015. For after at least three apparently fruitless investigations between 2016 and 2018, there are indications further investigations may not be in the offing, as his own words President Tshisekedi said he would not “poke into the past.” President Tshisekedi removed the Director of the National Intelligence Agency Kalev Mutondo in March 2019. Mutondo was widely considered to be the orchestrator of the anti-dissident campaign waged by former President Joseph Kabila. Yet many other senior security officials, accused of the most heinous human rights abuses, remained at their posts.
Indeed, the election victory of Felix Tshisekedi over Martin Fayulu in December 2018 would eventually become the first official transfer of power via the ballot box in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former DRC President Kabila ascended to the office of the president after the assassination of his father, Laurent, in 2001 by his bodyguard during a period of bloody civil war that eventually ended in 2003. Kabila would serve two five year terms winning two disputed elections in 2006 and 2011. The DRC’s constitution does not allow for a third presidential term, but in 2016 President Kabila failed to step down claiming that fair and corrupt-free elections could not be conducted.
Opposition leaders saw the government’s delay in holding elections as a mere continuation of the corruption that became a staple for the DRC’s political landscape and a systemic element of the Kabila administration. The DRC was once again hurled into political turmoil. Protests and violence erupted throughout the Central African nation. Disgruntled citizens and proponents of President Kabila took to the streets, so did the nation’s security forces, who were often accompanied by the Congolese Army. Heavy-handed and brutal tactics were employed to deal with massive protests. On many occasions, tear gas, followed by hails of live ammunition was used to disperse the crowds. Even the nation’s capital Kinshasa was swept upon the upheaval, and according to the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), violence against protestors and extrajudicial killings amassed a body count of an estimated 1000 people. Coupled with a 40% increase in human rights violations during this period, the DRC tumbled dangerously close to another civil war.
While millions were and continue to be internally displaced, according to Global Conflict Tracker, the UN personnel of approximately 20,025 peacekeepers and relief workers were unable to curtail a situation spiralling out of control. A 2018 UN report led by Human Right Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted the violence levied by the Police Nationale Congolese Army, was “unlawful, unjustified, and disproportionate.” And adding to the already deteriorated confidence between Congolese citizens with their central government, the report showed, “indications that Congolese security services have attempted to cover up these human rights violations by removing the bodies of victims and obstructing the work of national and international observers.”
Freedom of assembly and rights to due process were clearly being violated. With systematic corruption permeating throughout the police, judiciary, taxation, state-run corporations, and all other branches of government it became increasingly, “difficult to establish rule of law to cultivate civilian trust in the state.” Even freedoms of press and expression were infringed upon with “media outlets gagged by the government.” All the while outgoing President Kabila steadfastly maintained, “that the outcome of the December  vote will not produce the legitimacy that free and fair elections are intended to generate.”
The foreshadowing of the outgoing president was correct in his assessment but perhaps incorrect in his reasoning. Allegations of voter suppression, irregularities in the process, and interference by militia and other armed groups, coupled with leaked data that suggested Martin Fayulu, not Felix Tshisekedi, earned 60% of the vote which sparked an independent review by the Catholic Church. This caused further derision followed by further anti-government protests and more violence metered-out by security forces charged with wrangling the demonstrators.
More protesters died and the international community was forced to respond. In February 2019, the U.S. State Department placed visa restrictions on three electoral commission senior officials, as well as the National Assembly and President of the Constitutional Court for suspected corruption and obstruction of the presidential election. The following month the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), placed financial sanctions on these same officials. In December of that same year, MONUSCO, the UN effort, led by France, to maintain stability was forced to renew its charter.
In the midst of such ongoing violence and civil upheaval the government, between 2016 and 2018, made three failed attempts at investigating violence against protesters. In September 2016 former President Kabila sanctioned a committee to examine anti-demonstrator violence and concluded that the majority of those killed were identified as “looters.” A second committee was established to investigate violence of security forces against protesters in February 2018 and recommended punishment of those involved. Yet by April of the year not a single recommendation from the committee was acted upon, leading to “six human rights organizations on the committee stepping down.” A third committee was established in 2018 but was unable to complete its investigation as ministry and presidential campaigns got underway.
Since then, the hopes of families and loved ones of victims looking for justice stalled and any efforts towards punishing those responsible would be delayed indefinitely based on the apparent reluctance of President Tshisekedi to delve into the past. However further pursuits for justice may face other challenges.
Parliamentary control still remains overwhelmingly in the hands of former President Joseph Kabila’s former party. His Common Front for Congo still controls two-thirds of the 109 seats in the Senate or Upper Chamber of the Congolese Parliament. Those loyal to Kabila still maintain a near 80% control of government institutions including the majority of the ministries and the army, “undermining his successor Felix Tshisekedi’s ability to govern independently.”
Understanding the implications of this disparity, in March 2019 President Tshisekedi attempted, unsuccessfully, to block newly elected senators from taking office. The imbalance has forced the president and Kabila’s party to arrange for a power sharing agreement that has yet to be formalized or ratified.
Later that month in March 2019, talks for the power sharing deal began, though knowledge of which was, “denied by both parties.” Yet “the DRC has a long history of failed powers haring deals,” according to a March 2019 article from The Conversation. Three separate deals in 2002, 2009, and 2017 all seemed to end in failure, because the systemic issues of corruption, insecurity, violence, and civil conflict could never be tampered down enough to achieve any lasting political stability. All of the factors would likely perpetuate the delay or more worryingly indefinitely table any pursuit of justice for the families of killed protestors either by the already existent litany of issues plaguing the DRC or simply as the result of a sheer lack of political will.