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As the DRC holds another election, the fight of the Congolese people is still for liberation

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Picture: CENIRDC / Taken December 20, 2023 People cast their votes in the elections in DRC. Forty-four million people were eligible to cast their votes in the presidential and parliamentary elections in the DRC on December 20. The vote has been held amid an intensification of violence in the mineral-rich eastern provinces, leaving millions displaced.

By Tanupriya Singh

Forty-four million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were eligible to cast their ballots on December 20, as the country held its presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections.

Incumbent president Félix Tshisekedi is seeking a second five-year-term, standing against 18 other candidates in Wednesday’s elections. Among his top opponents are Moïse Katumbi, millionaire businessman and former governor of the mineral rich Katanga province; Dr Denis Mukwege, a medical doctor who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with survivors of rape amid the ongoing conflict in the DRC; and Martin Fayulu, a former ExxonMobil executive and long-time opposition figure.

This will mark the second time that Tshisekedi and Fayulu are contesting for the presidency. Though Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the 2018 elections that removed President Joseph Kabila from power, analysis of the results published later, confirmed the allegations from progressive voices that the elections had been stolen from Fayulu.

While foreign countries had initially raised questions about the outcomes, they ultimately backed Tshisekedi’s election. This included the US, which despite having accepted the outcome as “democratic”, went on to impose sanctions on electoral officials.

The polls themselves had been held in the wake of the Telema (or “Stand up”) protests in the DRC, with the youth at the forefront, against the Kabila regime’s attempts to stay in power. Some allege that Tshisekedi struck a last-minute deal with Kabila, making him president while the former leader continued to retain power, with his party securing super-majorities in Parliament.

What is considered the DRC’s “one peaceful transfer of power”, represented for those who had been fighting for change, the “hijacking” of a years-long struggle.

In October 2023, Corneille Nangaa, who had been head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), confirmed in an interview with France24, that Tshisekedi and Kabila had signed an “Agreement for Stability and Peace”, while denying that it prevented Fayulu from becoming president.

“This should already tell the world that the Congolese people are not choosing their leaders, that there are deals that are being imposed upon them,” Kambale Musavuli, an activist and writer from the Centre for Research on Congo-Kinshasa, told Peoples Dispatch.

However, Nangaa – who was sanctioned by the US for “persistent corruption” to “obstruct and delay preparations for credible and inclusive elections” – has been in the news in recent days for different reasons. On December 15, the former CENI head announced the formation of the “Congo River Alliance” to challenge Tshisekedi.

Among the members of this “politico-military alliance” is the M23, a proxy rebel force backed by Rwanda that has been waging war in the eastern provinces of the DRC.

“Nangaa has not been held accountable for what he has done. Even now that he has had this mea culpa moment for the hijacking of what was a crucial election, he has aligned himself with militia groups who are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the DRC.”

Moreover, Nangaa held his press conference in Kenya, which is not only Kinshasa’s fellow member-state in the East African Community (EAC), but in fact led the deployment of the bloc’s regional force (EACRF) to address the war in Congo’s eastern provinces in 2022.

The EACRF withdrew from the DRC on December 17, with its one-year deployment marked by repeated protests by the Congolese people against its failure to respond to the M23. Despite the announcement of ceasefires under what are known as the Nairobi and Luanda processes, the rebel force continued its offensive, even reaching areas that had supposedly been handed over to the EACRF.

Another wave of attacks in the beginning of October in the territories of Ruthsuru, Masisi, and Nyiragongo in the province of North Kivu, which has seen the worst of the fighting as the M23 has tried to advance to the strategic capital of Goma, had displaced 570,000 people by November 20 alone.

As the DRC headed to the polls on Wednesday, seven million of its citizens remained displaced from their homes.

Meanwhile, the announcement of the “Congo River Alliance” sparked diplomatic tensions between the DRC and Kenya, and Kinshasa also denied permission to the EAC to dispatch an electoral observation mission to the country.

The elections in DRC have represented a massive logistical undertaking in a country that is the size of western Europe. The period preceding the elections saw reports of delays in the publishing of electoral rolls and the provision of voter cards. Significant delays were reported at polling stations on Wednesday, with voting extended to Thursday in some areas.

In the eastern region, North Kivu and Ituri have been under a state of siege for over two years, placing all civilian institutions under military and police control and imposing restrictions on movement. According to French broadcaster RFI, voter registration could not take place in Rutshuru and Masisi, parts of which are still under the control of the M23. As a result, people in these areas may be excluded from the polls.

Congolese people still want to choose own leaders

Elections inevitably raise questions about the prospects of change. However, Musavuli noted that the frontrunners of Wednesday’s election belonged to the local elite in the country, including Katumbi who allegedly used state institutions during his tenure as the governor of Katanga to expand the monopoly of his businesses in certain services, as well as gaining access to mining concessions.

Meanwhile, though Mukwege has support among the youth as an alternative to the existing system, he is not as known across the country, and importantly, does not belong to a political party. The latter would pose serious challenges for Mukwege even if he were to be elected, Musavuli stated, due to the structure of the Congolese state.

“The DRC is a semi-presidential system, under which the president is elected by the people, but the prime minister is nominated by the Parliament. If Mukwege wants a prime minister of his choosing, he will have to negotiate with the National Assembly and the Senate, which are run until today by Kabila.”

“So, when you look at the candidates and the possibility of change, it is clear that a radical shift will not take place even if any of them win.”

Musavuli emphasised, “What the Congolese people are fighting for are still the very basic needs of life. They want security, they want the war in the east to end, for Rwanda and Uganda to stop interfering in the DRC, for people who have been displaced to return to their homes … The people want food. Congo has over 80 million hectares of arable land, which has the capacity to feed the African continent, yet many of the people who have been displaced are on the brink of starvation.”

According to the World Food Programme, 25.4 million people, or a quarter of the country’s population, are facing food insecurity in what has been called “the largest hunger emergency in the world”.

“People are not getting what they need. While the government has announced that primary education is now free, it did not provide adequate support to teachers and schools for the students in the country to have a decent education. They tell us there are peace accords, but we hear of people being killed in the east every other week,” Musavuli said.

“The people in the DRC are hungry for change and they sometimes look to the political class for answers. We are getting very close to a point of frustration of the population and unfortunately those who are capitalising on this frustration are the rebels of yesterday and the corrupt politicians.”

Sixty percent of the DRC’s estimated population of 100 million people are impoverished. The economy is marked by high levels of informalisation, with more than 90 percent of households earning their livelihoods in the informal sector. Young people make up the majority of the population, and as such have been heavily impacted by high rates of unemployment, reported to stand at 80 percent. Food price inflation has surged to 173 percent.

Meanwhile, just days before the election, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved the disbursement of US$ 202.1 million to the DRC, citing an assurance that: “Notwithstanding the challenging socio-political and security situation, the authorities remain committed to preserving program objectives, including by limiting macroeconomic slippages and continuing implementing the economic reform agenda.”

“What are these policies that the IMF is referring to? These are the policies that are allowing for electricity in the DRC to be privatised and pushing costs higher, these are policies that have led to civil servants losing their jobs. People are unable to buy fuel [the government had implemented a fuel price hike, a decision “welcomed” by the IMF].” Musavuli said.

How does one reconcile the conditions of life in the DRC with the fact that the country has an estimated US$ 24 trillion in mineral wealth? Congo produces more than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, a mineral critical for the development of electric vehicles, and is the third largest producer of copper. It also holds between 60 percent and 80 percent of the world’s coltan reserves, a mineral used to manufacture phones, laptops, and other electronics.

Instead of the DRC’s resources being used for the benefit of its people — as was envisioned by its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in a coup backed by the US and Belgium — these minerals would be pillaged in the midst of brutal wars, leading to the death of approximately six million Congolese people.

By the second invasion of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda in 1998, the control over natural resources had become “a driving force behind the war”. In 2002, findings by a UN panel of experts showed that, “all coltan mines in the east of the DRC were benefiting either a rebel group or foreign armies”.

Despite having no known diamond production, Rwanda and Uganda became exporters of diamonds in the years coinciding with the occupation of the DRC.

The wars of aggression on the DRC by its two neighbours were also made possible by the backing of countries like the US and its allies, both materially in terms of military aid, training and equipment, as well as politically and diplomatically, shielding these countries from accountability for crimes committed against the Congolese people.

Meanwhile, western corporations including American Mineral Fields, Barrick Gold, and others secured lucrative mining concessions in the DRC. Attempts to hold companies like Tesla for their complicity in the exploitation and severe human rights violations being committed in the mining sector in the DRC have been blocked by the US legal system.

A ceasefire announcement after decades of silence

On December 11, the US government announced that a 72-hour ceasefire had been agreed to “by the parties to the conflict in eastern DRC”. The statement added that armed forces and non-state armed groups would cease fighting to “facilitate the withdrawal of forces occupying the locality of Mushaki and the RP1030 road in North Kivu. The M23 had seized the town, which leads directly to Goma, just days before.

On December 14, a spokesperson from the US National Security Council stated that the ceasefire had been extended by another two weeks.

While neither the Congolese nor the Rwandan government commented on the ceasefire, the White House stated that the move was a follow-up to the “confidence-building measures” secured during Director of National Intelligence Avril Hanes’ travel to the DRC and Rwanda in November.

“The fact that Avril Hanes [the Director of National Intelligence] met with Rwanda, and not the M23, to seek out a ceasefire deal shows that the US has all the information that it needs. Not only that, the US is aware that a genocide has taken place in Congo and it has done nothing … Two years ago, Secretary Anthony Blinken flew into Kinshasa [and] expressed ‘concern’ over the ‘credible reports that Rwanda has provided support to the M23’,” Musavuli said.

“And yet there is no accountability. Which other country in the world right now is able to do this, to kill people with no accountability? I can think of one — Israel. Even the discussions around the ceasefire agreements are similar to the ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Gaza. Until we have justice, all of this is a distraction,” Musavuli declared.

A reading of the coverage of the truce deal in US-based publications makes clear the extent to which the US’ diplomatic intervention in the war is informed by its competition with China — be it the use of Chinese drones, or importantly, China’s presence in Congo’s minerals sector.

“Tshisekedi has been talking to everyone, he has made deals with Turkey, with Russia, with Israel, and with China. The engagement with China is particularly concerning for the US because Congo has cobalt and copper — the majority of which is exported to China,” Musavuli said.

However, concerns over China’s purported dominance do not take into account the context in which Chinese firms gained access to some of the mines in the DRC, Musavuli said. A key example is the Tenke Fungurume mine, which has one of the world’s largest deposits of copper. While it was initially owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (one of the world’s biggest copper mining companies), the corporation sold its stake to China Molybdenum in 2016 amid efforts to address its debt burden. Reports have traced ties of the deal to US President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.

In 2022, the US also forged an agreement with Zambia and the DRC to “support” them in their development of a value chain for electric vehicle (EV) batteries, soon after Lusaka and Kinshasa had already signed a bilateral cooperation agreement to develop a value chain in the electric battery and clean energy sectors in an effort to shift away from the neocolonial status of African countries as exporters of raw materials.

Meanwhile, Musavuli added, lawmakers in the US are making a concerted move to gain access to Congo’s minerals, including a bill introduced by Congressman John James earlier this year which recognises that China’s “influence over the DRC’s mining sector output and processing is of concern to the economic and national security of the United States”.

Not only that, the Biden administration has also boosted funds towards the Lobito Corridor to build the Lobito Atlantic Railway to provide a “quicker western route to market for metal and minerals produced in the DRC”. The rail will connect the copper-rich regions of Zambia and the DRC to the port of Lobito in Angola, diverting the movement of resources that pass through the Mombasa port in Kenya or Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania in the east.

“The US is positioning itself in a way that we forget its role in the conflict in the DRC. In order to gain favor with Congo, they have decided to deal with one issue that they had refused to deal with, which is Paul Kagame, but only for a short period so they can achieve their immediate objectives,” Musavuli said.

Beyond the ballot

However, “Our rallying cry in the Congo is justice. These ceasefire announcements do not bring justice to the millions of Congolese dead, they do not bring the 7 million displaced people back to their homes. So, the fight is always on”.

This fight extends beyond the ballot, “The Congolese are not fighting for the lesser evil to lead them, they are fighting for liberation and their liberation requires solidarity and that solidarity will be, in everything we do, in us always talking of the voice of the Congolese people, their struggle, and what they are trying to do to change their country”.

Importantly, the decades-long war in the DRC has gained renewed attention on social media in the midst of the unfolding genocide in Gaza, led by another US client-state, Israel. While this has prompted familiar questions of “why is no one talking about this” or of a “silent genocide”, activists including Musavuli have stressed on the need to express collective solidarity, to not treat it as transactional, and to draw on existing efforts to build connections across struggles.

Musavuli said: “The Palestinians have helped the Congolese. We even had young Congolese a decade or so ago who were supposed to travel to Gaza, but Israel denied them visas. Students at Birzeit University organised a screening of the Crisis in Congo documentary. They have participated in Congo Week [a global action organised every year by Friends of the Congo] … In New York, Palestinians have organised protests in solidarity with the Congolese … We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch