WASHINGTON — The Democratic Republic of Congo has announced a schedule for elections, but civil society advocates and academics warned a congressional committee Thursday that the United States should not simply accept that as a sign that elections are on track, as the country continues to see violent conflict, human rights abuses, and humanitarian crises that are caused in part by what many in the country see as an illegitimate government.
President Joseph Kabila’s second term ended at the end of 2016, but he refused to step down, after postponing elections citing violence and logistical challenges. At the end of 2016, Kabila and opposition parties agreed to hold elections by the end of 2017, but that will not happen. The latest calendar has elections slated now for Dec. 23, 2018. Many in the country see the continued delays as an attempt by Kabila to retain power, with some saying that he is helping create the violence that he cites as a reason for election delays, according to testimony at the hearing.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was recently in the DRC where she met with Kabila and put pressure on him to hold elections. While there, she made clear that sanctions were possible if his government does not move forward with elections, Rep. Chris Smith, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, said at the hearing.
“I think that the State Department and the administration and us on the committee have to monitor progress and if it is deemed insufficient, we must use every tool we have to pressure this government,” said Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California, who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, at the hearing. “If we do not address the political instability, the violence and unrest across the country will only escalate.”
The U.S. is working to push all parties to advance the electoral process, continue without further delays, and work in the framework of the constitution, said Donald Yamamoto, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department, at the hearing. The State Department will work to ensure that the election calendar announced Nov. 5 is implemented. “I believe there is an opportunity for progress despite the challenges,” he said.
On the brink
The DRC “is teetering on the brink of crisis” in a way that has not been seen since 2003, said Cheryl Anderson, the acting assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Africa bureau. Apart from postponing elections, the government has taken harsh steps to repress peaceful protests and continues to imprison journalists, human rights activist, and opposition leaders.
“The government needs to take immediate steps to allow civil society, journalists, and citizens to express themselves, protect the human rights of its citizens, and ensure that all political parties are afforded equitable access to the media and their rights to assemble peacefully are respected,” Anderson said.
The U.S. has been working in the DRC on the election and political processes since 2013, investing about $37 million in the effort. USAID’s work has focused on supporting domestic election observers, civic voter education, technical assistance to the electoral commission, strengthening political parties, and ensuring human rights are respected in the process. While the new electoral calendar may be a step in the right direction, voter registration is months behind schedule and the governments must fund election activities, she said.
But the current U.S. response is not enough, according to several of the experts who testified at the hearing.
“I believe that we should not be, as the government seems to propose, blissfully naive that we’ll hold an election by ,” said Mvemba Dizolele, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Dizolele didn’t mince words, repeating “Kabila must go” throughout his testimony, criticizing the president for plundering the country and creating deadly violence.
Dizolele called for immediate sanctions on Kabila, his family and his inner circle, urging the U.S. to take action now, rather than wait for continued bad behavior and the failure of further electoral promises.
Congress has had hearings on the DRC for years “to little effect on the ground,” he said, adding that without action “these hearings are abstract discussions.”
Are targeted sanctions an answer?
Sanctions may work because Kabila is holding on to power in part to continue enriching himself and his allies. U.S. sanctions could limit their ability to do business, go to the U.S., or send their children to study in the U.S. And with sanctions targeted at a group of individuals, rather than the country, they should not have ill effects on Congolese citizens, Dizolele said.
“Kabila only understands the language of force,” and sanctions are one type of force, he said.
He was not alone in calling for sanctions, the rest of the panel testifying said they could be an important tool, and several urged that they be applied immediately.
Sanctions are on the table, Yamamoto said, pointing out that there are currently six Congolese individuals who have been sanctioned. He did not say whether the U.S. was currently weighing sanctions against Kabila or others in the DRC.
Some civil society activists in the DRC are also calling for Kabila to resign, said Fred Bauma, a Congolese human rights activist who spent more than a year in jail. But those efforts to pressure the president to step down have been shut down by national and military police who in the past few weeks shot a group of young people who were peacefully demonstrating in Goma.
“The only sustainable solution is the immediate resignation of Kabila,” and for him to replaced by a respected civilian or team that will organize elections, Bauma said.
The U.S. and international partners should push Kabila to resign, he said, adding that in addition it should impose sanctions, require that the U.N. and its peacekeeping mission stop any support to Congolese security forces, and state clearly that the U.S. will not back an electoral process that doesn’t result in free and fair elections.
While a focus on elections is important, there are other issues that cannot be overlooked, several of the experts said. The humanitarian crisis in the country is severe — with about 3.9 million internally displaced people in the DRC, the most in sub-Saharan Africa, and an additional roughly 600,000 Congolese who have fled the country.
The U.S., along with bilateral and multilateral partners, are responding to the humanitarian crisis, particularly in the Kasai region. But despite scaling up funding, it has been difficult to scale up operations with both security and logistics challenges, Anderson said.
Development organizations, and the U.S. government, should also be careful not forget that there are other issues causing violence and that there should be a parallel effort to support bottom-up peacebuilding efforts, said Severine Autesserre, a political science professor at Barnard College and Columbia University.
As interventions and peacebuilding programs are designed, they should be created by local people who have the right knowledge, capacity, and skills to better address the challenges than international actors, she said. Those local organizations or actors who are successful should be funded, protected, and supported.
Smith closed the hearing by acknowledging the need for urgent action, saying that he and Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California who is the ranking member on the subcommittee, are drafting a bill they plan to introduce soon. The legislation would call on the administration to take action in the DRC to address the election delays and human rights abuses.
Smith said the bill will be “looking for bold, demonstrative action,” adding that talk is cheap so the U.S. must make sure it is backed by something like sanctions.
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