Obama Needs to Intervene in Congo to Prevent 2011 Elections Violence

As they prepare for presidential elections in November, Congolese fear their country will become the next Ivory Coast. The U.S. should intervene to prevent more violence and slaughter in another African nation, writes Annie Rashidi-Mulumba.

United Nations soldiers walked past a poster of Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila in 2008. (Karel Prinsloo / AP Photo)

Elections are a thorny issue in much of Africa, as recent events in Ivory Coast demonstrated. After five months of massive and systematic human rights abuse of the Ivorian population, the French government and the United Nations intervened to find a lasting solution to the stalemate. Some Africans consider the intervention an intrusion into internal affairs. But we failed to find an African solution to an African crisis—and so, others believe the intervention contributed to the recognition long-contested election results, and prevented more slaughter.

More intervention might be required in Africa. In 2011 alone, 17 presidential elections will be held across the continent, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a vote is scheduled for November. The political situation in the DRC—including reforms of the country’s constitution regarding laws on elections and presidential powers, and apparent efforts by the government to marginalize opponents—has created conditions that could lead to the kind of conflict that occurred in Ivory Coast. The United States and the international community need to pay attention to events in the DRC and take steps to stabilize the situation on the ground ahead of elections. President Obama has already been asked—in a move backed by dozens of Congress members— to designate a special envoy to the country.

The Congolese government recently embarked on major reforms of the constitution. Key changes include limiting the presidential election to one round and eliminating the runoff system—meaning a candidate only needs a plurality to win—and giving the president the power to dissolve provincial assemblies and remove governors. The opposition, however, has boycotted parliamentary elections, claiming that President Joseph Kabila is seeking to shore up his power. The changes also are perceived as a way for Kabila to exclude rivals from a presidential runoff. The revised election law, for example, puts an age cap of 65 on presidential candidates. This provision is seen as a ruse to disqualify Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress, who is 78, and has been a key opposition figure since the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, who was in power from 1965 to 1997.

The amended law also excludes political parties in existence less than five years from participating in elections. This automatically disqualifies the Union for the Congolese Nation, founded last December by Vital Kamerhe, former national assembly president. The new party underscored Kamerhe’s break with Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy—and signaled his intention to run.

The new law also stipulates that a presidential candidate must have been residing in the DRC for the past two years. Many believe this change is aimed at Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. The MLC is the most popular political party in the capital, Kinshasa, and is the remnant of Mobutu’s power base. Bemba was arrested near Brussels in 2008, and is currently detained at the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. His supporters, who believe his detention is politically motivated, await the official declaration of his candidacy.

The various factions seem to be waiting to worsen an already unstable environment.

All these factors predict a bleak outcome for the upcoming elections, and many Congolese are very concerned. It is critical that measures be put in place to ensure free and fair elections in the DRC—a successful election process would in turn reinforce democratic institutions and practices, while promoting economic growth. Anything less would undermine public confidence in the electoral and political process—and most likely lead to violence.

Congolese fear their country will plunge into Ivory Coast-like chaos, given that the various factions seem to be waiting to worsen an already unstable environment. The DRC has been in turmoil for 20 years now. Both the government’s military and rebel groups continue to commit systematic and pervasive gang rapes of women, with impunity. Recently, in my hometown of Fizi, South Kivu, confrontations between government forces and locals escalated to violence, and soldiers raped more than 60 women. Most of the country is insecure, with the Lord’s Resistance Army from neighboring Uganda having free rein to kill civilians, abduct children, and plunder resources in northeast Congo.

What happened in Ivory Coast should persuade the DRC to seek international mediation to avoid violence. There are many people and organizations in the Congo working tirelessly for peace, justice, and healing—good work that can be more effective if we receive greater support.

Since the beginning of the unrest that began in Tunisia and has spread across the Middle East, the United States has provided support and aid to national populations seeking democracy and stability. Right now, there is a letter sitting on Obama’s desk, signed by a bipartisan group of 35 members of the House, asking that the president dispatch a special envoy to help with the crisis of scarce resources and mass rape in eastern Congo. An identical request is circulating in the Senate. The hope is that the president will take action in time to have an impact on the upcoming elections.

Annie Rashidi-Mulumba is a consultant on human rights for the United Nations, focusing on refugees in West Africa. She is the director of the Congolese Female Lawyers Association, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the lives of sexually abused victims in Congo.