Freedom in the World 2004 - Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa)

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Free
Population: 56,600,000
GNI/Capita: $80
Life Expectancy: 48
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (50 percent), Protestant (20 percent), Kimbanguist (10 percent), Muslim (10 percent), other (10 percent)
Ethnic Groups: More than 200 tribes, mostly Bantu
Capital: Kinshasa


The inauguration of a national power-sharing government in June 2003, following the signing of a peace agreement the previous year that ostensibly ended the country's five-year war, led to further stabilization of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A unified national military, headed by 30 officers from former belligerent forces, was formed to administer the DRC's 10 military zones. The Ituri region remained the scene of the most pervasive fighting and human rights abuses in the DRC, although the numerous militia groups operating there have repeatedly agreed to work with the government to reinforce state authority in the region.

As the Belgium Congo, the vast area of Central Africa that is today the DRC was exploited with a brutality that was notable even by colonial standards. The country became a center for Cold War rivalries on Belgium's withdrawal in 1960 and remained so until well after Colonel Joseph Mobutu came to power with CIA backing in 1964. The pro-Western Mobutu was forgiven by Western governments for severe repression and financial 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 up the political process in 1990. In 1992, his 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 the High Council of the Republic to oversee a democratic transition. Mobutu manipulated and delayed the transition.

Despite widespread opposition to his rule, it was the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda that triggered Mobutu's demise; he had allowed Hutu Interahamwe fighters to base themselves in his country, which was then known as Zaire. In 1996, Rwanda and Uganda easily tapped into popular hatred for Mobutu in their seven-month advance on Kinshasa. They installed Laurent Kabila, who at the time was a semi-retired guerrilla fighter, as the head of their rebellion and toppled the Mobutu regime in May 1997. Mobutu fled to Morocco and died of cancer a few months later. A subsequent armed conflict erupted in late 1998 after Kabila fell out with Uganda and Rwanda, whose leaders had helped him seize power. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001. His son, Joseph, revived the 1999 Lusaka peace accord and furthered the consolidation of a ceasefire.

The war at some point has drawn forces from at least eight countries into the fighting: Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe on the side of Kabila; and Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda on the side of the rebels. In 2003, the UN Security Council authorized the expansion of the UN force in the DRC from 8,700 to 10,800. A voluntary disarmament program has met with mixed success.

The conflict in the DRC has directly and indirectly claimed the lives of an estimated 3.3 million people, according to the International Rescue Committee, which makes it the most deadly conflict since World War II. By UN estimates, another 2.7 million were displaced. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the DRC confirmed that genocide may have occurred in the Uturi region, and reported extrajudicial executions in South Kivu province and throughout the eastern parts of the country in 2003. Amnesty International said that all armed groups continue to recruit and use child soldiers.

A UN panel investigating the plunder of natural resources in the DRC submitted its final report to the Security Council in October 2003. While the conflict was launched by Rwanda, which was concerned about its security, the report confirmed that the war was largely fueled by competition to control the DRC's vast mineral and diamond wealth, and this illicit economic exploitation persists through proxy militias controlled by neighboring countries and government officials. Over its three-year tenure, the UN panel has named more than 150 individuals and companies suspected of complicity in this exploitation. They include many senior political and military officials in several countries party to the war. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has also announced its intention to investigate the role of Western and Asian business interests in fueling crimes against humanity in the DRC.

Under an accord reached in December 2002 in Pretoria, South Africa, the country is now run by a two-year transitional government headed by President Joseph Kabila. Multiparty elections are mandated by July 2005. Most former rebel groups are now authorized to act as political parties. Kabila's government of national unity consists of 4 vice presidents, 36 ministers, and 24 vice ministers. Extensive executive, legislative, and military powers are vested in the president and vice presidents. Key ministries are shared among the government and the two main former rebel groups – the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and the Ugandan-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Human rights groups and the United Nations strongly criticized the military appointments of two officers from the RCD, Laurent Nkunda and Gabriel Amisi, who are accused of leading massacres in Kisangani in May 2002 in which more than 100 civilians were executed.

The peace agreement obliged Rwanda to withdraw its troops, which entered the DRC in 1996 to pursue the Interahamwe, a Rwandan Hutu militia responsible for the massacre of about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Although the Rwandan government says all of its 20,000 troops have left the country, it is accused by human rights groups of maintaining some forces in the eastern DRC. By the end of 2002, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe had withdrawn from the DRC, while Uganda officially withdrew its forces in May 2003. Diplomatic relations continued to thaw in 2003 with the Great Lakes countries, notably Uganda, which is seeking the DRC government's aid in rooting out Ugandan rebel groups based in the country's northeast.

None of the militias operating in the Ituri region are signatories to the national power-sharing agreement, and they have complained of being excluded from the transition process. Despite assurances of cooperation by these armed groups, the killing, torture, rape, and abduction of civilians to forced labor camps continue to be reported. The International Criminal Court said it had evidence that 5,000 civilians had been killed in Ituri between July 2002 and early 2003; these events possibly constitute genocide, which falls within the court's jurisdiction. In a report issued in July 2003, Human Rights Watch said the fighting in the region has been inaccurately described as a local ethnic rivalry when apparently the combatants were armed and often directed by the governments of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. There are currently some 4,500 UN soldiers deployed in the region, where a UN arms embargo remains in effect.

In October 2003, the Mayi-Mayi militia and the RCD former rebel movement signed a ceasefire agreement. Until then the two groups had maintained hostile relations, and fighting had kept on unabated between their troops, even though both are signatories to the national power-sharing accord.

Most people live marginal lives as subsistence farmers despite the country's vast natural resources. In 2003, the government continued to normalize relations with creditors, implementing an economic reform program and securing an 80 percent external debt reduction from the IMF.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have never been able to choose or change their government through democratic and peaceful means. There are no elected representatives in the entire country. Mobutu Sese Seko'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, although the United Nations is working with the government and the newly created Independent Electoral Commission to provide support for the presidential and legislative polls slated for 2005.

In accordance with a transitional constitution adopted in April, the National Assembly and the Senate convened in the capital, Kinshasa, in 2003. The National Assembly consists of 500 appointed members from the parties to the intra-Congolese dialogue, namely the former Kinshasa government, the unarmed political opposition, civil society, and former rebel movements. The Senate is made up of 120 appointees from the various parties to the national power-sharing accord. Its first task will be to draft legislation in line with the transitional constitution, such as laws on nationality, the functioning and organization of political parties, electoral law, and institutional management, as well as a general amnesty for all former combatants. Civil society representatives head five other constitutionally mandated bodies on human rights, the media, truth and reconciliation, elections, and the fight against corruption.

At least 400 political parties registered after their 1990 legalization, but they were later banned under Laurent Kabila. Restrictions on political parties were eased in May 2001, and there are currently 234 parties legally recognized by the government.

Freedom of expression is limited, although the new constitution contains several articles intended to guarantee free expression, and the government has created a national law reform commission tasked with amending legislation that curtails the media. The UN broadcaster, Radio Okapi, has expanded its coverage of the country to include several local languages. Radio Maendeleo, one of the few independent radio stations in the eastern DRC, came back on the air in July after seven months of silence following its closure by the RCD. Officials said the station had violated the terms of its license by broadcasting political content. However, the station's new permission to operate remains subject to compliance with laws governing "public order and national security." At least 30 independent newspapers are published regularly in Kinshasa, but they are not widely circulated beyond the city. Although the government does not restrict access to the Internet, few people can afford the connection costs.

Despite statutory protection, independent journalists are frequently threatened, arrested, or attacked. The most serious cases include that of Akite Kisembo, an interpreter for Agence France-Presse, who was abducted in July and remains missing. That same month, Donatien Nyembo Kimuni, a reporter for La Tribune newspaper, was sentenced to five years in prison for an article critical of the management and working conditions of the Congo Mineral private mining company. In March, Raymond Kabala, a Kinshasa-based journalist, was released from prison after serving more than seven months. Kabala had been convicted of making "harmful accusations" against the former security and public order minister, Mwenze Kongolo, in an article alleging that Kongolo had been poisoned.

Freedom of religion is respected in practice, although religious groups must register with the government to be recognized. Academic freedom is restricted in practice. Fears of government harassment often lead university professors to engage in self-censorship.

Freedom of assembly and association is limited. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate despite intimidation and arrest. Despite the signing of the peace accord, Human Rights Watch recently reported that human rights workers in the DRC were under increasing attack, citing 20 cases of arrest, beating, and intimidation of human rights defenders, civil society activists, and independent journalists during a single three-month period in 2003.

More than 100 new independent unions were registered after the end of one party rule in 1990. Previously, all unions had to affiliate themselves with a confederation that was part of the ruling party. Some unions are affiliated with political parties, and labor leaders and activists have faced harassment. There is little union activity, owing to the breakdown of the country's formal (business) economy and its replacement by the black market.

Despite guarantees of independence, in practice the judiciary is subject to corruption and manipulation. In October, magistrates in the DRC began an indefinite nationwide strike to protest low pay and lack of autonomy. In January, the Military Order Court sentenced 30 people to death for their role in the assassination of Laurent Kabila; 45 others were acquitted. The government had lifted a moratorium on the death penalty dating to 1997 about one month prior to the verdict. The defendants cannot appeal to a higher judicial authority. In a move hailed by human rights groups, the government abolished the Military Order Court in April. Seventy prisoners unconnected with the assassination were released under a presidential amnesty. Under pressure from human rights groups, the government said it had convened a commission to ensure that the verdicts reached in the assassination trials were fair and impartial.

Ethnic societal discrimination is practiced widely among the country's 200 ethnic groups.

Despite constitutional guarantees, women face de facto discrimination, especially in rural areas. They also enjoy fewer employment and educational opportunities than men and often do not receive equal pay for equal work. Violence against women, including rape and forced sexual slavery, has soared since the onset of armed conflict in 1996. Children continue to face forced conscription by all sides in the conflict, although the government appeared to be scaling back this practice. The Save the Children organization has ranked the DRC among the world's five worst conflict zones in which to be a woman or child.

Trend Arrow

Congo (Kinshasa) received an upward trend arrow due to the inauguration of a two-year transitional government and the establishment of a unified national military.

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