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State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Democratic Republic of the Congo

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 4 March 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Democratic Republic of the Congo, 4 March 2007, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In 2006 the first democratic elections in nearly 40 years offered some hope that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) might finally overcome ethnic divisions long exploited by domestic and foreign powers for political and material gain. Against the backdrop of deep ethnolinguistic divides, a devastated economy and the militarization of much of the country, the democratic election of incumbent President Joseph Kabila and his party's strong showing in elections to the weak national Parliament may have signalled a new chance for the DRC, but by no means assured its peaceful future.

The DRC is a geographically diverse country the size of Western Europe, with a population of almost 60 million made up of hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups. Throughout its history of brutal exploitation as a personal fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II from 1881 until 1908, Belgian colonial rule until independence in 1960, and its plundering by US-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko during the Cold War years, the territory's ethnic diversity has been manipulated to serve the interests of those seeking to control its tremendous wealth of natural resources, including rubber, timber, gold, copper, cobalt, coltan and diamonds.

Following the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, many Hutu extremist perpetrators joined hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees who feared retribution in eastern DRC (then still known as Zaire). From there, the militants, with the support of Mobutu, launched attacks on the new Rwandan government as well as on Congolese Tutsi, the Banyamulenge. In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda sent their own forces into Zaire, and backed the rebel Laurent Kabila in a westward sweep through the vast country. In the process, Rwandan government forces and Kabila's forces killed thousands of Hutus, combatants and non-combatants alike. Mobutu fled as Kabila took the capital Kinshasa in May 1997 and renamed the country DRC. However, Kabila quickly fell out with Rwanda and Uganda, and in 1998 these countries sponsored rebel movements to invade the DRC anew. The rebels also had the support of Burundi, while the Kabila government had that of Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Seven nations were now involved and, because their various roles were often rewarded with natural resource concessions, they had little incentive to withdraw. Fighting continued despite a July 1999 ceasefire agreement and deployment of an understaffed UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC) in 2000. A study by the International Rescue Committee found that between 1998 and 2004 nearly 4 million people in the DRC – the equivalent of the entire population of Ireland – died as a result of the war.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, assumed the presidency. Under international pressure, he entered into a power-sharing government with rebel factions and civil society in July 2003. Violence in the north-eastern Ituri province flared, despite the improved situation in Kinshasa, and French-led European Union (EU) peacekeepers intervened in 2003 to quell the violence in and around Ituri's capital Bunia. In July 2003 and October 2004 the UN Security Council bolstered MONUC to a nearly 17,000-strong force, and gave it a new mandate to protect civilians 'under imminent threat of violence'. In April 2006, the EU approved deployment of additional peacekeepers to provide security for UN-administered national and local elections foreseen by the 2002 peace agreement that led to the power-sharing government.

Over 30 presidential candidates emerged during 2006 in a campaign marred by incitement to ethnic hatred. According to Human Rights Watch, in May 2006 one of DRC's four vice-presidents engaged in anti-Tutsi rhetoric at a campaign rally for Joseph Kabila in the North Kivu town of Goma. Another vice-president, and Kabila's main rival for the presidency, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was a leading Ugandan-backed warlord in north-eastern Congo prior to entering the government in 2003. He stands indicted in the Central African Republic in connection with a rebellion there, and is widely believed to be under investigation by the International Criminal Court. He based much of his campaign on xenophobic rhetoric aimed at casting doubt on Kabila's Congolese identity. When results were announced on 20 August 2006, Kabila had 45 per cent to Bemba's 20 per cent, requiring a run-off. The announcement sparked three days of violence between their supporters in Kinshasa that killed at least 23 people and required intervention by UN and EU peacekeepers.

The run-off election was held on 29 October and, despite violence in part of Ituri province, international observers deemed the voting to be largely free and fair. Kabila won with 58 per cent of the vote, mostly from the Swahili-speaking east, creating concern about his ability to overcome the divide with the Lingala-speaking west. Bemba lost his challenge of the results in court and, despite earlier violent outbursts by his supporters in Kinshasa, Bemba announced in late November that he would respect the election results.

The years of war since the 1996 and 1998 invasions have resulted in a proliferation of militias and a spread of lawlessness, particularly in the eastern DRC provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu, and Katanga. The Kinshasa government and invading forces alike have established ethnically based militias, including local Mai-Mai defence forces, usually organized along tribal lines. Armed factions were encouraged by their sponsors to prey on local populations for subsistence and looted goods. The larger context of DRC's chaos and natural resource wealth combined with marauding, predatory militias has sharpened various ethnic conflicts, put the country's minority groups at risk and resulted in staggering levels of sexual violence against women.

Inter-communal violence has gone well beyond that associated with the divide between Hutu and Tutsi/Banyamulenge, most prevalent in North and South Kivu. Tensions between Hema and Lendu peoples, incited during colonial times and the Mobutu era, have destabilized Ituri province. As the power-sharing government was taking shape in 2002–3, clashes between heavily armed Hema and Lendu militias and massacres of civilians resulted in at least 50,000 deaths and sparked EU intervention. Despite a demobilization programme, extended in July 2006, there were reports in September 2006 that splintered Hema and Lendu militias were rearming and engaging in new clashes. In Katanga province, allies of Kabila engaged in violent intimidation of the opposition, consisting largely of the Luba people who have roots in Kasai province.

As MRG found in 2002, even Twa or Bambuti (pygmy) peoples living deep in the forests of eastern DRC had become targets of various militias, including that of Jean-Pierre Bemba. Militias target the Twa in order to deprive rivals of Twa hunting skills and knowledge of forest paths. Twa women have been singled out for rape due to the belief that sleeping with them confers special powers on the rapist.

All of DRC's many minority groups, and especially women, remain under threat from an unprofessional government army and the many militias. Their greatest hope rests with efforts to overcome the country's corruption, mal-governance, impunity and lack of state control in the east.

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