Freedom in the World 1998 - Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa)

1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.5
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 7

Trend Arrow ↓

Congo (Kinshasa) receives a downward trend arrow due to increased repression in the country.


Domestic and intra-African strife centered around Kinshasa continued to threaten the survival of the Democratic Republic Of Congo. In August, rebels seeking to overthrow the regime of President Laurent Kabila were stopped at the outskirts of Kinshasa only through the intervention of Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops. The rebels, who were supported by Rwanda, Uganda, and perhaps other African states, mounted the uprising in response to sporadic clashes in eastern Congo and Kabila's moves to transfer power to inhabitants of his native Katanga region. While failing to conquer Kinshasa, the rebels seized broad areas in eastern Congo. In September, approximately 1000 Chadian troops and an unknown number of Sudanese forces entered the fray in support of Kabila. Rwandan and Ugandan army units are reportedly fighting in northeastern Congo, where an array of insurgent groups opposed to various governments in the region also operate.

Longtime guerrilla fighter Laurent Kabila came to power in May 1997 after a seven-month campaign that had been sparked by a small rebellion in the northeastern corner of what was then still Zaire. His quick advance was backed by Rwanda, but also revealed a clear lack of support for President Mobutu Sesse Seko, who fled to Morocco and died of cancer shortly after Kabila's takeover. It is estimated that Mobutu systematically looted as much as $10 billion from his country during his 32 years in power.

Kabila today holds all executive and legislative power through the coalition Alliance of Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. He has grown increasingly reliant, however, on a narrow base of backers who share his Katangan ethnicity. The Rwandan and Zairian Tutsi who helped him to seize power were largely dismissed from their posts by mid-year. Their purge helped spark the new rebellion. Parliament has been dissolved. Opposition supporters and journalists are routinely arrested and harassed, and public demonstrations are forbidden. Kabila's declining international image suffered further in June when a U.N. report blamed his regime for the "systematic" killings of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees. Kabila has promised presidential and legislative elections in April 1999, but is unlikely to honor his commitment.

As the Belgian Congo, the vast area of central Africa that is today the Democratic Republic of Congo was exploited with a brutality that was notable even by colonial standards. The country was a center for Cold War rivalries from Belgium's withdrawal in 1960 until then-Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu's seizure of power in 1964. The pro-Western Mobutu was forgiven for severe repression and kleptocratic excesses that made him one of the world's richest men and his countrymen among the world's poorest people.

Domestic agitation for democratization forced Mobutu to open the political process in 1990. In 1992, Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement, the sole legal party after 1965, and the Sacred Union of the Radical Opposition and Allied Civil Society, a coalition of 200 groups, joined scores of others in a national conference to establish a High Council of the Republic to oversee a democratic transition. Mobutu manipulated and delayed the transition, but civil society grew stronger. Kabila has begun to reverse these advances.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have never been permitted to choose or change their government through democratic and peaceful means. The transitional parliament has been dissolved, and President Kabila rules by decree. There are no elected representatives in the entire country. Mobutu's successive unopposed presidential victories and legislative polls were little more than political theater. Infrastructure and institutions to support a free and fair election are almost entirely absent. More than 300 political parties registered since their 1990 legalization are now banned, although many still operate and are likely, if allowed, to join the political process.

Serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, torture, beatings, and arbitrary detention reportedly continue. Ethnic killings by both government and rebel forces have been reported. Scores of thousands of Rwandan Hutu civilians, militia, and soldiers who fled in 1994 are still missing. Opposition supporters have been detained and some jailed after brief and reportedly unfair trials. In July, more than 50 members of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, led by veteran opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi Wa Mulumba, were arrested. Some remain in detention.

Congo's judiciary is only nominally independent. The president may dismiss magistrates at will. Courts are grossly ineffective in protecting constitutional rights, and security forces and government officials generally act with impunity. Long periods of pretrial detention are common in prisons in which poor diet and medical care can be life-threatening.

Freedom of expression and assembly are sharply limited by decree. Newspapers are not widely circulated beyond the country's large cities. Church radio networks are growing, but the state-controlled broadcasting network reaches the largest numbers of citizens. After the rebellion began in August, some state stations broadcast virulent incitements of listeners to "massacre" Rwandan Tutsis "without mercy" by using "spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like." Independent journalists are frequently threatened, thereby prompting self-censorship. Albert Bonsange Yema, the director of the newspaper L'Alarme, was detained in February for publishing an opposition statement and was convicted in June of "threatening state security" and sentenced to one year's imprisonment.

Numerous nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate despite sporadic harassment. Freedom of religion is respected in practice, although religious groups must register with the government to be recognized.

Despite constitutional protections, women face de facto discrimination, especially in rural areas. They also enjoy fewer employment and educational opportunities and often do not receive equal pay for equal work. Married women must receive their husband's permission to enter into many financial transactions.

More than 100 new independent unions have registered since one-party rule ended in 1990. Previously, all unions had to affiliate with a confederation that was part of the ruling party.

Under Mobutu, the country's formal economy nearly ground to a halt. It has been further damaged by the ongoing war. Most of the country's approximately 48 million people live marginal lives as subsistence farmers.

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