Democratic Republic of Congo Situation Summary – Security Risks and Travel Advice
6 Jul 2017
President Kabila’s refusal to hold elections and step down from office before the end of 2016, has created a national political crisis, and led to a resurgence of armed conflict in some provinces of the country. Village massacres and reciprocal attacks on security forces have all been reported since December 2016 after mediation talks were held. In many respects, some analysts view the DRC as close to a failed state.
Democratic Republic of Congo Situation Summary – Security Risks and Travel Advice
- Tensions continue to increase in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as President Kabila delays stepping down from his position and continues to crackdown on opposition figures and the media.
- It is estimated over one million people have been internally displaced so far in the conflict.
- According to the current agreement, elections are expected to be held before the end of 2017.
Armed Conflict: President Kabila’s refusal to hold elections and step down from office before the end of 2016, has created a national political crisis, and led to a resurgence of armed conflict in some provinces of the country. Numerous deaths have already been reported and are likely to continue to escalate as a political resolution appears unlikely in the short-term. Village massacres and reciprocal attacks on security forces have all been reported since December 2016 after mediation talks were held. Security concerns in Kinshasa led to the cancellation of Independence Day celebrations on 30 June, although this was downplayed in official statements by the government. The cost of hosting such large celebrations would be an additional burden on an already failing economy. It has been estimated that over one million people have already been internally displaced or sought refuge in neighbouring states since October 2016. These figures are comparable and exceed displacement figures from the Syrian or Yemen conflicts. In many respects, some analysts view the DRC as close to a failed state.
Solace Global Comment
The Man in the Power Seat
President Joseph Kabila assumed the office after his father was assassinated in 2001. The DRC has a long history of heads of state who act only in their own interests and not that of the public need. Until recently, Joseph Kabila was received well in the international community, in particular for his inflated role in ending the long running conflicts of the troubled state from 1996-2003. An estimated 5 million people were killed in the war, which required the assistance of the largest UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) to maintain peace and stability. Officially, President Kabila has claimed it was not possible to run an election in 2016 in the DRC due to financial and logistical problems. In the meantime, the constitutional court ruled in his favour to remain in power until an election is able to be held. This is in spite of the constitution which limits the presidency to two terms, of which Kabila has served. Critics have argued Kabila’s interests are more personal due to the number of businesses his family own in each sector of the economy. The crackdown on opposition, whether politicians, activists, or journalists, in Kinshasa and outlying provinces, has only served to fuel further unrest and discontent towards the presidency.
Who are the Alternative?
Due to the large geographical size of the state, opposition figures are numerous and political groups are often fractured. Former presidents, such as Mobutu Sese Seko, have long been able to exploit this weakness in the political infrastructure. The opposition coalition, known as the Rassemblement, were present at the talks mediated by the Congolese Catholic Church in late December 2016. On the 31 December, an agreement was reached with President Kabila in which a transitional government would be created and elections were promised to be held before the end of 2017. In addition, it was stated that Kabila would not stand as a new candidate or amend the constitution to remain in power. The New Year’s Eve agreement is approaching failure as the opposition and government clash over position appointments, such as the Prime Minister, in the transitional government. The most popular opposition figure, Etienne Tshisekedi, died in February 2017 in Brussels, Belgium. His body has yet to be returned to the DRC to be buried, a source of contention for opposition groups who claim the government fear the burial of Tshisekedi in his home country may rally more support against President Kabila. Moise Katumbi is now the most popular figure, however as he remains in exile, the task of unifying the opposition is more difficult.
Where is the Violence?
The central Kasai region has witnessed the most armed conflict recently. Over forty mass graves are reported to have been discovered in the region. According to the Catholic Church, around 3,300 have been killed since October 2016. Kasai has been identified as an opposition stronghold. Unrest was triggered when a local chief, seen as a subversive figure, was killed by the army on 12 August 2016. In response, local communities formed a militia known as Kamuina Asapu, to which government security forces have responded brutally. There are reportedly government funded militias in the region, such as the Bana Mura, who have destroyed villages and are accused of committing brutal murders and amputations of women and children. So far, two UN experts, American and Swedish citizens, who were conducting an investigation in the DRC on the current crisis have been killed. Their team of four Congolese who assisted them, one translator and three motorbike drivers, are still missing. The unrest in Kasai has proved a convenient excuse for Kabila’s delay in conducting elections or transferring executive powers.
What is the Solution?
There are a variety of means by which international pressure can be applied to bring a resolution to the ongoing conflict, the aims being: the protection of the constitution from being manipulated by the presidency, the holding of fair elections, and the peaceful transition of power to a new executive office-holder. Not all DRC neighbours are welcome to offer mediation or assistance, such as Rwanda or Uganda, who are viewed with great suspicion due to historical clashes. Angola is a more favourable alternative and already harbours numerous refugees fleeing the violence. The US or the UK would be viewed as the most favourable mediators domestically, however the US has shown limited foreign policy attention to Sub-Saharan Africa since the start of Trump’s presidency. Targeted sanctions have already been applied to officials in Kabila’s government, as a means to apply indirect pressure. However, such measures have not always proven effective.
The DRC has a conflict-ridden history, and is familiar with violence committed by armed militias controlling large territories with weak or low government infrastructure or security. If the opposition militia in the Kasai region are able to successfully push out government forces, the potential for a domino effect in other regions or the capital still remains low. A spill-over effect has historically required outside support from another regional neighbour, none of which have an interest or the ability to support such a campaign in the DRC currently. At present, a solution to the conflict in the DRC will require sustained engagement by the international community at all levels of government. In the meantime, the numbers of internally displaced or killed are expected to continue to rise. If elections are not held before the end of 2017, it is likely the DRC will return to civil war.
SECURITY ADVICEArmed ConflictHigh
Travellers to the DRC should be aware there are significant security threats throughout the country. There is a high potential for spontaneous and violent demonstrations in cities or towns, in addition to the high threat posed by armed militia groups throughout the provinces. Travelling in close proximity in the border regions should be avoided, particularly in the eastern Kivu region bordering Rwanda and Burundi. Likewise, travel to the Kasai region is currently not recommended due to the levels of unrest, general lawlessness, and active militias such as the Bana Mura. The security environment in Kinshasa remains volatile due to the government crackdowns on the opposition. Furthermore, security infrastructure in the capital is weak as evidenced by the large jail break in May 2017, in which the militia Bundu dia Kongo were able to release an opposition leader along with numerous other inmates. At present, the need to travel to the DRC should be reconsidered, and delayed if possible.
Travellers already in country should ensure there are appropriate security measures in place already. These may include, close protection, local translators, and armed escorts. It is important to note, the presence of the UN peacekeeping forces is viewed unfavourably by some Congolese and are therefore also susceptible to being targeted by militias. All travellers must ensure there is an evacuation plan in place in the event of an emergency or further rapid decline in the country. The use of travel-tracking technology is strongly recommended in order to monitor all journey movements, as well as notify others should an incident occur.
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