Congo-Kinshasa: Four Humanitarian Challenges for Congo's Next Leader

Kinshasa.
20 December 2018
analysis

As elections to replace President Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo were reportedly postponed on Thursday, after a delay already of more than two years, a host of humanitarian crises - from Ebola to protracted conflicts - continued to await his successor.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, or CENI, said the polls would be delayed by about a week as it was "technically unable" to hold them on time. Local media reported that CENI had cited a number of reasons including: violence in northwestern Man-Ndombe province; the Ebola outbreak in the east; and the ballots left undelivered.

The three main presidential contenders are: Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, whom Kabila chose as his preferred successor; Martin Fayulu, whom opposition parties initially agreed to unite behind; and Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the largest opposition party who withdrew his support for Fayulu and has consistently led the opinion polls.

In previous elections in 2006 and 2011, disputed results sparked violent protests. The delay will fuel discontentment and fears that a repeat this time around might see a fresh eruption of political violence, which could worsen one of the world's largest humanitarian emergencies.

Officially, Congo is not a country at war. But two decades of protracted conflict across large parts of the mineral-rich Central African nation have displaced some five million people and left almost 13 million in need of assistance.

Uncertainty hovers again over hopes for Congo's first peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960, but one thing is certain: whoever replaces Kabila faces a host of problems.

In a country the size of Western Europe, dozens of protracted conflicts involving hundreds of armed groups are ongoing, including in the provinces of Tanganyika, Haut-Katanga, and Mai-Ndombe. Here are just four of the most pressing humanitarian challenges for the next president.

Crisis and conflict hotspots in Congo

Ebola

Ebola is endemic in the DRC. But the country's current 10th outbreak is its worst, and it's far from over yet. Not only is this the second largest Ebola outbreak in history - beaten only by the 2014-2016 epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives across West Africa - it's the first to take place in an active conflict zone.

It began in August, near the towns of Beni and Mangina in North Kivu province, soon after an earlier outbreak ended in Equateur province, and has also affected Ituri. So far the outbreak has killed more than 300 people, and has spread to more densely populated urban areas including the trading hub of Butembo - home to about one million people.

While previous outbreaks were confined to rural areas, and therefore easier to isolate, this one is near a busy border region, which has raised fears that the disease could spread into neighbouring countries, including Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The fact that the epicentre of the outbreak is in a restive part of the country awash with armed groups has hampered the emergency response, the UN said in a report this month. Violence has triggered displacements from and to Ebola-affected villages, most likely contributing to the spread of the disease.

North Kivu and South Kivu

Eastern Congo, which was the site of two devastating civil wars, 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, is still caught up in near-constant fighting, fuelled by the presence of more than 130 armed groups, often vying for control over lucrative mining operations and other natural resources.

The provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu have witnessed regular killings, rapes, mutilations and other atrocities against civilians. The number of human rights violations in North Kivu alone amounts to one third of all the abuses recorded in the DRC, the UN said in a report this month that documented "hundreds" of extrajudicial killings and cases of torture and sexual violence against civilians over the last two years.

Widespread violence, largely attributed to armed groups, provoked mass displacements of people, the UN said, while allegations of complicity between some army members and armed groups in the worst-affected territories of Lubero and Masisi increasingly threatened the already vulnerable civilian population.

The security situation has also deteriorated this year in nearby Beni Territory, which is plagued by armed groups and is the epicentre of the current Ebola outbreak.

Meanwhile, in South Kivu, armed conflict, sexual violence, serious human rights violations and risks of forced recruitment into armed groups all contribute to displacement, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. The province has also experienced inter-communal violence, including an uptick in skirmishes ahead of this month's elections, and it hosts more than 40,000 refugees from neighbouring Burundi.

Kasai

Two years ago in Kasai, conflict erupted between the Kamuina Nsapu anti-government movement and Congolese security forces and soon engulfed the entire region. An estimated 5,000 people were killed and more than 1.4 million displaced.

Although the authorities have now regained control of much of the region, ethnic tensions and political disputes continue. And for those who have come back home, the destruction caused by years of fighting means that returns are accompanied by significant humanitarian needs.

The Kasai region already had some of the poorest and least developed provinces in the DRC, even before the 2016 conflict. After the violence began, people were unable to grow crops, driving a 750 percent rise in food insecurity and a massive increase in malnutrition rates. In May, UNICEF reported that 400,000 children were "at risk of death" in the Kasais because of food shortages.

A report last month by MSF documented alarming levels of rape in region. The health NGO said it treated 2,600 victims of sexual violence between May 2017 and September 2018.

Read more | Briefing: Problems multiply in Congo's Kasai

Compounding an already stressful humanitarian situation, more than 300,000 Congolese nationals who were expelled from neighbouring Angola in October, crossed over into Kasai, piling a new emergency on top of existing ones in an already fragile region.

Most returnees appear to want to move away from the Kasai border areas, toward other destinations inland, which could help ease the humanitarian strain. However, expulsions from Angola are not an isolated event and more returnees could arrive in the next year.

Ituri

Intercommunal tensions led to conflict and displacement across Congo in 2018, but perhaps most noticeably in Ituri province. In the Djugu territory last December, violence between Lendu (farmers) and Hema (herders) escalated and spread. By March this year, 300,000 people were internally displaced.

Secondary displacement was also reported as people moved in search of food, healthcare, and shelter due to a lack of assistance, while tens of thousands of people crossed the border to Uganda to become refugees.

Although displaced people began returning to Ituri in March, Djugu has seen renewed conflict between armed groups and the military since September. Of the 7,985 households that returned, about one third have been displaced again.

Displaced households do not have access to their fields, while returnees have lost two successive agricultural seasons, according to a report from the Famine Early Warning System Network, or FEWS NET.

This month, UNHCR said it had received reports of close to 100,000 newly displaced people in Iruri. It added that an estimated 88,000 houses in Ituri and North Kivu have been destroyed or damaged due to violence.

si/ag

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