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Half-century of struggle

June 29, 2010

The Democratic Republic of Congo is marking the 50th year of its independence, but the central African state has yet to enjoy the fruits of political stability and is still striving for peace and basic human rights.

Displaced Congolese women
Displacement remains one of the biggest problemsImage: dpa

Poverty, corruption and sexual violence mark the daily life of the population of Congo, 50 years after the country gained its independence from Belgium.

Even as anniversary celebrations get underway this week, illegal militias are committing serial rape and causing mass displacements in the east and north-west of the country, while smaller neighbors plunder its natural resources.

Since the withdrawal of Belgium in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed dictatorship, coups, and a series of conflicts with its neighbors that have come to be known as the "First African World War." But there have also been some advances. Thousands of United Nations troops oversaw the 2006 election, which brought President Joseph Kabila to power, and was later described by the UN as largely fair. The turnout was estimated at an impressive 70 percent.

But Jean Claude Katende, president of the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights, told Deutsche Welle that there was still a lot of room for improvement.

"In the fifty years of independence, we have got better laws, which promote and protect human rights. But the problem is these laws do not get enforced. That is not satisfactory, because the majority of the Congolese live in very difficult conditions, and their rights are being violated," Katende said.

Death of an activist

Earlier this month, Floribert Chebeya, the leader of Congolese human rights organization Voice of the Voiceless, was found dead in his car in the capital city Kinshasa. The killers are suspected to be among the Congolese police and secret service. Various governments, international organizations and Congolese activists are demanding an investigation.

Floribert Chebeya, former chairman of 'Voice for the Voiceless'
Floribert Chebeya was found dead earlier this monthImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Even President Kabila was reported to be "determined to shed all light" on the case. But Raphael Wakenge, founder and coordinator of the Congolese Initiative for Justice and Peace, wants the government to go much further.

"As a consequence of the investigations we want answers to the situation of people defending human rights, especially in view of the forthcoming elections in 2012," said Wakenge, who received the Peace Award of the Ecumenical Network Central Africa in Berlin in early June.

"Human rights activists are witnesses of many atrocities. Therefore it is important to ensure their security. We demand the exclusion of all those involved in crimes from the political, police and military sectors."

Rights campaigner, a dangerous job

Chebeya's death was seen as a demonstration of the danger that threatens human-rights campaigners. This is particularly clear for Guillaume Ngefa-Antondoko, founder of the African Association of Human Rights Defenders, who once monitored human-rights abuses by the governments of Kabila and the earlier dictator Mobutu - a job that eventually forced him into exile.

President Joseph Kabila
Human rights abuses continue under KabilaImage: AP Photo

"Unfortunately this is evidence of political intolerance vis-a-vis the civil society, vis-a-vis the central opinion in Congo," said Ngefa-Antondoko, who is currently serving as deputy chief in the human rights division of the UN mission to Ivory Coast.

"Unfortunately, this is happening when the entire nation is going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence. It shows that 50 years later, things continue to worsen."

Paul-Simon Handy, head of the African security analysis program at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, confirms Ngefa-Antondoko's appraisal.

"Congo might have an elected government, but it's far from being a democracy," he told Deutsche Welle. "Basic human rights are not being respected. The army is one of the biggest violators of human rights. The government doesn't have the capacity - the parliament in particular doesn't have the necessary capacity - to oversee the security agencies. Being an activist is basically operating at high risk."

Lack of 'credible interlocutors'

One of the key questions in Congo is how to protect the population from armed conflicts, violence and displacement. According to Ngefa-Antondoko, a potential candidate for the next presidential elections, it is extremely difficult to implement reforms in the security and justice systems.

"First of all there is a lack of credible interlocutors," he said. "Those who decide on security reforms are the same people who have been involved in human-rights violations. You cannot push for credible reforms with the same people that have been responsible for what is going on."

But as Handy adds, the problem is not just a lack of political will, it is a lack of resources as well.

"To manage an administration you need good people, well-educated people, but you also need material," he said. "You need all the tools that enable your civil servant to do the job. You need computers, a physical infrastructure - a house, electricity, energy. These are things that are not always available. And when you add this to the fact that salaries are not paid on time, you'll understand that some of the political leaders actually look for proxy ways to make their money."

Noisy neighbors

Congo's external relations have also contributed to its problems. Georges Nzongola, a Congolese professor of African Studies at the University of North Carolina, believes that the exploitation of his native country's rich natural resources of gold, silver, diamonds, oil and the mineral coltan, has continued long after colonial times.

"The main problem is that Congo is so weak, and that neighboring countries exploit that weakness," he said. "That is the only reason why a tiny country like Rwanda could possibly occupy and plunder a country of the continental size of Congo."

Congolese children mourning
The country has been wracked with conflict for decadesImage: AP

Congo has equally bad relations with Uganda in the east and Angola in the west, with whom there are frequent rows over oil reserves, while the hundreds of thousands of refugees that cross the borders from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda in both directions are a perpetual source of tension.

To help implement reforms in Congo, peace activists are appealing to the international community to better coordinate their activities. The lack of coordination is evident: the European and African Unions, along with several non-governmental organizations, all have their own programs. Meanwhile the Congolese government is demanding the UN peacekeeping mission withdraw so that it can reassert its autonomy.

Handy believes all this makes the international community ineffective. "It makes it easier for Congolese politicians to play these international stakeholders against each other ... And of course one of the biggest problems is that international companies are involved in illegal business," he said.

Human-rights campaigners have chosen Congo's 50th independence day to hold Chebeya's funeral, and opposition parties are calling for a boycott to anniversary celebrations.

Meanwhile, President Kabila is trying to change the constitution so that his term of office will last for seven years rather than five, and he will be allowed to stand for re-election more than once.

For Ngefa-Antondoko and other peace activists, there only remains the desire that Chebeya's struggle was not in vain:

"We hope that the death of Chebeya will give hope, will open new windows for pro-democracy forces to push for real change for the country."

Author: Steffen Marquardt/Adrian Kriesch/Brigitta Moll (bk)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn