CONGO: An Unruly Election Campaign Mirrors Congo's Lingering Political Instability

Friday, November 11, 2011
New York Times
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
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First, Cmdr. Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka ordered his militia to join an attack on a group of villages in eastern Congo, where the fighters gang-raped at least 387 women, men, girls and boys, according to a United Nations report of the atrocities. One of the candidates in Walikale is accused in a mass rape. Now he wants the villagers' votes.

Commander Sheka, who is wanted by the Congolese government for his involvement in the 2010 mass rape, in the Walikale area of eastern Congo, is one of the most vivid symbols of Congo's lingering insecurity and impunity as the country prepares for its second general elections since the end of its civil war.

Even with an arrest warrant hanging over his head, Commander Sheka, the leader of the Congolese rebel group Mai-Mai Sheka, is running to represent Walikale in Parliament.

More than a week into the campaign season, violence and controversy are bubbling up. Many analysts expect President Joseph Kabila to win another five-year term in a relatively peaceful vote on Nov. 28, though he has lost a lot of support in the country's troubled east. Beyond that, logistical delays and a suppression of human rights are endangering the process, the United Nations says.

“The kind of intimidation, threats, incitement, arbitrary arrests and violence that we have documented is unacceptable,” the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said Wednesday in conjunction with a report on the election.

Much of Congo's ballot materials, papers printed in South Africa and China, have yet to arrive.

One of Mr. Kabila's leading challengers, Etienne Tshisekedi, has lingered in South Africa as well. On Monday, he referred to himself as “president” in an interview with a Congolese television station and called on the government to release his jailed supporters.

“Or else I will call on fighters across the country to break down prison doors and release their comrades,” Mr. Tshisekedi was quoted as saying.

The African Union has grown worried over Congo's election, with the group's chairman, Jean Ping, visiting the capital, Kinshasa, this week and calling for peace leading up to vote. Political violence has already erupted in different corners of the country.

In Kinshasa last week, armed men opened fire on campaign representatives for Mr. Tshisekedi. In the southern city of Lubumbashi on Saturday and Monday, his supporters clashed with another opposition party, leaving more than a dozen people injured. And in the eastern city of Goma last weekend, gunfire broke out after a popular musician singing campaign songs for the opposition was abducted and his fellow ethnic Hunde protested.

“The vote will be subject to much greater local variation, depending on the popularity of local leaders, priests and customary chiefs, who are allied to different political parties,” making the outcome “difficult to call,” said Jason Stearns, an author and Congo analyst.

“The election will be very close,” he added, with “a high probability of urban unrest.”

Congo's election includes a number of dubious candidates, some suspected of being criminals. One presidential candidate, Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, is a former rebel leader whose militia carried out a massacre at a hospital and the surrounding area in 2002 during Congo's civil war. The fighters slaughtered any patient who looked to be from the Hema and Bira groups, killing more than 1,000, according to Human Rights Watch. After the war, Mr. Nyamwisi became Congo's minister of regional cooperation.

Another candidate is François-Joseph Nzanga Mobutu, the son of the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was overthrown in 1997.

As for Commander Sheka, he is one of about 19,000 candidates for Congo's National Assembly, the lower and main chamber of Congo's Parliament. Commander Sheka, listed as a “trader” on Congo's election Web site, is one of 65 running in Walikale.

“Congolese authorities should be arresting Sheka for mass rape whether he is running for office or not,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a news release. “The failure to arrest someone who is out publicly campaigning for votes sends a message that even the most egregious crimes will go unpunished.”

Despite numerous peace treaties and reconciliation with neighboring Rwanda, Congo faces widespread instability and a vacuum where a governmental presence is lacking. There may be no symptom of the country's struggles quite like Congo's rape epidemic, a chilling example of which took place in Walikale.

Between July 30 and Aug. 2, 2010, Commander Sheka's troops, along with two other rebel groups, moved through 13 villages in Walikale, raping hundreds of villagers, including children and elderly women, and abducting 116 people.

Congolese authorities supported by the United Nations tried to arrest Commander Sheka in July while he was spending the night at the home of a friend in the Congolese Army in Goma, Human Rights Watch said, but he escaped, apparently after he was tipped off. In September, he registered as an independent candidate for the National Assembly.

“We were a bit surprised when we heard about Sheka's registration as a candidate for the National Assembly,” said Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, the top United Nations official in North Kivu Province, where Walikale is located. According to Congolese law, Commander Sheka would be immune from prosecution if elected, Ms. Sellassie said, but that “does not mean that he is not going to face justice at one point,” arguing that immunity could be lifted.

Congo's elections, particularly the presidential race, may be a barometer of how well drastic geopolitical changes in Africa's Great Lakes region have been received in Congo, especially concerning Congo's relationship with its neighbor Rwanda.

Mr. Kabila won the 2006 presidential election almost entirely on votes from eastern Congo, where he is from and where he has remained popular for his nationalistic and confrontational stance against Rwanda during years of tension between the nations.

But in 2009, Mr. Kabila invited Rwandan troops into Congolese territory to help root out Rwandan rebels in the area in exchange for renewed diplomatic relations, leading many in eastern Congo to believe that Mr. Kabila had betrayed them.

Still, a constitutional amendment passed this year says that a candidate does not have to win more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected.

“The big difference between the last elections and this year's is one of motivation,” said Mr. Stearns, the Congo analyst. “Kabila has lost a lot of his support in the east, his voting base during last elections,” but “he has been able to stitch together a strong network of influential leaders and has been able to divide the opposition vote.”