Congo’s Hunger for Leadership

Posted in Africa | 16-Dec-04 | Author: Mvemba Dizolele

African women - under a heavy burden
African women - under a heavy burden
As the UN Security Council strives to improve the mandate and performance of the UN mission in Congo known as MONUC, the transitional leaders in Kinshasa need to reassess their stewardship of the country.

The Congolese entrusted President Joseph Kabila with the power to negotiate peace with his former enemies. These negotiations culminated in a 2002 global and all-inclusive agreement signed in Pretoria, South Africa. It established a 1+4 power-sharing government in Kinshasa. Four vice-presidents representing different political and warring factions were to assist President Kabila in steering the country to peace and democracy, with free and fair elections scheduled for June 2005.

The transitional government consists of 60 ministers and vice-ministers – some of them former warlords who consider the government a political asylum. The 600-member national parliament, where seats are split among the four factions, has been ineffective for a year and unable to pass a single resolution of positive consequence for the country. As a result, with only six months to the first multiparty elections in 45 years, the government has yet to publish an electoral calendar.

Civil servants have not received steady pay for several years. Nurses, teachers, soldiers, policemen, judges, diplomats and others are left to fend for their own survival, weakening the spine of the country. Criminal networks comprised of Congolese and foreign elements continue to loot and plunder the country’s natural resources, leaving national coffers empty. The armed forces remain divided among the former belligerents while war rages in the east, making it impossible to defend Congo’s territorial integrity.

Kabila promised his fellow citizens free and fair elections. It is this promise that helps the Congolese tolerate the transitional government with all its faults. They wait impatiently for the transitional leaders to keep their word. Yet, the government is behind schedule on the electoral calendar. The lack of preparation for the elections on the part of the government suggests that the Congolese may not be going to the polls next June as they anticipate.

Kabila should gather the necessary political courage and address his fellow citizens about the state of the electoral process. Whether the government needs time extension or more funding, the people deserve to know.

Congo calls for a strong leadership, one that would lead the country to peace and stability. Of all the leaders in the transitional government, only Kabila has a national constituency. He is accountable to the people for the success or the failure of the transition.

After five years of fighting that has killed more than 3.8 million people, Congo needs the elections to start the healing process. Though parts of its territory are under a de facto occupation, the country is ready for a democratic transition. Kabila simultaneously ought to fight the invasion in the east and plan for elections. Frustrating the electoral process could engulf all of Congo in a bloodbath. Only a new legitimate government could avert the pending crisis.

Last May, when rioters took to the streets in various cities to protest against MONUC’s ineffectiveness, they also repudiated the transitional government. Two coup attempts in recent months exposed the fault lines in Kinshasa’s power structure. The official silence over the elections is worrisome. The Congolese people will not stand for such treatment.

As a new MONUC emerges, President Kabila’s leadership should match its robust mandate. At this critical juncture, strong Congolese political will is more important than the number of blue helmet troops. Without a political commitment from Kinshasa, the UN mission will fail, drowning the transition along the way. The moment of truth is fast approaching for Congo.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is the Africa Editor for the World Security Network.

Exclusive World Security Network interview with Judithe Registre, Country Director for Women for Women International in Congo. The views expressed here are Judithe Registre’s and do not represent the position of Women for Women International.

WSN: The people of eastern Congo witnessed another round of unspeakable atrocities with the siege of Bukavu this past summer. What new developments do you see in the area?

Cairo - a metropolis in the North, Egypt
Cairo - a metropolis in the North, Egypt
Registre: Insecurity. Pervasive insecurity remains the greatest problem in the region. Food and other material are extremely expensive. There are areas in Congo where the war is still ongoing. As the peace process moves ahead, there is hope. But it is hard. The future appears grim and, at best, uncertain to most people. They wonder when the war will end and when they can resume a life of normality. They wonder when and how peace will return to their country. They wonder whether they will ever see another sunrise or sunset. They want to be able to plan for their future and their children’s.

WSN: Much has been said about the sexual violence against women in the war-torn zones, yet there is a sense that little has been done to stop it.

Registre: I would not say that little has been done about sexual violence in eastern Congo. While resources are limited, a number of organizations are providing medical assistance to survivors. Our program in the DRC is also responding holistically to the social and economic needs of many sexual violence survivors. But there are selected areas in Congo where it is difficult to reach the victims of sexual violence because those areas are inaccessible by road, and consequently, the needs of the victims in those areas are the greatest. Nevertheless, we expend a lot of effort to get services to these victims. The reality is that there aren’t enough resources to address the devastating consequences of sexual violence. Moreover, organizations can only do so much. The political, social and physical structures of Congo must be rebuilt in order to respond to the long-term needs of the population.

Beyond that, what we need is accountability. When it comes to sexual violence, no one is really being held accountable for these atrocities. All warring parties have taken part in acts of sexual violence committed throughout the conflict. Commanders know who the perpetrators are among their troops as well as the troops who continue to perpetrate these crimes. Congo needs to deal with this crisis effectively. In addition to their loss, the communities do not acknowledge their pain. This is the challenge. The functioning public service institutions lack the resources to help these survivors. There are children born out of these rapes. In some instances, neither the women nor their communities want these children, as they remind them of their ordeal. If not dealt with immediately, the orphans of these rapes will become a serious social problem to Congo. How do you let this happen to your mother, your sister, your wife? Sexual violence destroys the entire community and the family - not just the individual woman.

WSN: You refer to these women as survivors, not victims. Why?

Registre: I do not like the term “victim,” although these women do fit the legal definition of this term. These women do not pity themselves. They “survived” the ordeal and do not drape themselves in the mantle of “victimhood.” They are strong and they are rebuilding their lives and are doing so against great odds. This is why I prefer the term “survivor” instead of “victim”. For example, the husbands of these women feel emasculated because they stood by helplessly as they witnessed their wives being raped, unable to protect them. Nevertheless, these women do not blame their husbands for failing to protect them from this sort of violence. When you talk to the rape survivors who participate in our program, you find that they have a clear understanding of the violence that has been committed against them in its broader sociopolitical context. While they have lost everything, they have a tireless desire to continue living and to create opportunities for their children and their families and more importantly, to build a peaceful and prosperous Congo. I think it is an amazing ability to be able to see beyond your pain and suffering and these women are able to do that. And they have been through a lot.

WSN: What will happen to these communities in ten years?

Registre: That’s a tough question. In Congo, entire communities are disintegrating as a result of sexual violence. There is a lack of trust among members of the communities and between the genders. Oftentimes women hide the fact that they were raped from their communities, families or would-be husbands. They might be infected with HIV because of the rape, get married and pass it on to their husbands and children. It paralyzes the local economy. Whether we like it or not, women are the backbone of the economy in eastern Congo. Because of security concerns, you now have women who are afraid to go to the fields. You now have women who cannot go to the field to work because of health issues. Malnutrition is rampant. All these layers -- you see. Consider the Shabunda area, one of the territories of East Kivu Province, where it is estimated that 90 percent of the women have been raped. Everyone knows what happened. If no one had talked about the problem, the silence would have destroyed the entire community.

WSN: How would these communities address these issues?

Darfur - a dark side of Africa
Darfur - a dark side of Africa
Registre: There is a transitional government in place. Some of the leaders would rather avoid the problem altogether. However, the people have power. It is all about accountability. Who is responsible? All the armed groups share in the culpability. The government should acknowledge what happened and take action. This can be an issue for the elections next year. Communities can use this to push the government to address the problem in an effort to find a solution. People know who passed through their towns and what atrocities they committed.

WSN: Next June, Congo is to hold its first multi-party elections since independence in 1960. What measures have been taken to prepare the people?

Registre: Not much. Government initiatives are non-existent at the provincial level. However, some local and international organizations are planning ahead with civic training, voter education, etc. Make no mistake about it: The Congolese people are waiting for the elections. Those in power are aware of this. The people are confused about the 1+4 power-sharing government in Kinshasa. Four vice-presidents representing different political and warring factions share power with President Kabila until the elections take place. People want clarity and accountability in the leadership. For this reason, they want elections at all costs. You hear it everywhere. They want to choose their next leader. However flawed the elections may be, I think the Congolese want this process to take place.

WSN: What are the political factions doing to build popular support in anticipation for the elections?

Registre: There is more interest in the east on President Kabila’s part. The number of official delegations visiting the area has increased. For the longest time, the government did not seem to have much interest in the eastern provinces. This is changing. The most telling example is the recent presidential visit to Kisangani. People are watching and looking to see who is serious. The fact that Kabila sent a large number of troops to the Kivus gives a sense of hope. One feels a new momentum that cannot be dismissed. There is a determination among the people that peace is possible. They are ready to fight for it. This momentum justifies the sudden interest. Excitement is in the air – you can cut it with a knife.

WSN: What about the other parties?

Registre: They too have visited the east.

WSN: What is the greatest challenge Women for Women International faces in Congo?

Registre: Unpredictability. When we did our initial assessment in Congo last December, the peace process was in place. In May, we did not think war would return. As an organization working in a post-conflict environment, we require a sense of stability in order to function. It is not an easy process because of uncertainty.

WSN: You were evacuated last summer when dissident troops attacked Bukavu. Is the area safer now?

Registre: I would not say the area is safer, as peace in the region is very fluid. Anything could happen. What I sense now is different. People are truly determined. Talking with people, I get a clear impression that if another war broke out it would either be the war to end all conflicts in the region or it would be the worst fighting yet seen – with no end. The Congolese have made it clear, “enough is enough.” For example, when refugees returned to Uvira from Burundi at the end of September the population protested, asking that the proper conditions be created for all refugees; not only for the so-called Banyamulenges or Congolese Tutsis, but for all Congolese refugees in the Great Lakes region. The people insisted that all citizens be treated equally, as everyone in these provinces has suffered great lost due to the war - regardless of ethnic affiliation.

WSN: Is the return of Banyamulenge refugees threatening the transition?

Capetown - a metropolis in the South, republic of South Africa
Capetown - a metropolis in the South, republic of South Africa
Registre: Congolese Tutsis live in a different ethnic setting than their counterparts in Rwanda. In Congo, more than 250 ethnic groups are called to live together with no clear majorities or minorities. The issue is not whether other Congolese are intolerant towards the Banyamulenges or Congolese Tutsis. The challenge is that some people see them as allies of Rwanda, accusing them of siding with that country in recent conflicts. Whether these allegations are well founded is open for questions. But the fact that people are active in demanding answers is very good. This is always a good sign in a post-conflict environment moving towards a more dynamic society with active citizenry.

WSN: The United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) has been at the center of an acrimonious debate, with violent riots targeting its personnel last summer.

Registre: Clearly, there is a lack of trust on the part of the Congolese. This is either because they do not understand MONUC’s role or because the UN was slow to react in Bukavu even with a chapter VII mandate, authorizing them to protect the population. MONUC is not an independent entity. It is there to support the transitional government. It does not act on its own. Arguably, the dissidents who seized Bukavu were technically part of the transitional government’s forces, making the situation unclear. The UN presence in Congo was and remains very important. They were the only ones capable of helping the population during the Bukavu crisis. Was MONUC slow to react to the crisis due to incompetence or because of a breakdown in the government in Kinshasa? I am not a UN expert.

WSN: MONUC is an important part of the transitional process. Why don’t UN troops command the people’s trust?

Registre: The population has lost its trust in the UN for various reasons; much of it has been a lack of understanding. Primarily, many Congolese believe the UN was responsible for the war in May, or if not responsible, the UN did not do what was necessary to prevent it. When trust is lost, it takes a long time to restore it. Therefore, it will take a long time for MONUC to command trust. The population sees all the money UN troops spend. They drive nice vehicles, wield substantial power and abuse it at times. These troops do not always behave properly. Some of them have been involved in rape cases and other improprieties. Sometimes the tension is about race, power or cultural relations. It is not clear what type of cultural sensitivity training these troops receive. The armed personnel often do not behave according to humanitarian norms. That creates a challenge for the UN, a behavioral difference between its civilian staff and the blue helmets. It is costly for all parties. When one blue helmet misbehaves, it reflects badly on the entire UN mission, and that’s unfair. But the population is not tuned to these nuances. Anyone in a UN vehicle or with a UN uniform is associated with the UN. The good thing is that the UN is believed to be taking new measures to restore the trust that it once enjoyed. This is important because it is making it difficult for the UN to do its job effectively. Regardless of the lack of trust that exists, I do not believe that the Congolese population would want the UN to leave. Despite the masses’ frustration with their perception of the UN, the UN’s presence in this critical time of Congo’s history is most needed. With the return of refugees and possible elections next year, among other things, MONUC plays an important role in support of these processes.

WSN: In any country-in-transition, the civil society is the primary agent for sustainable change. What role is the Congolese civil society playing at this critical juncture?

Registre: Civil society organizations are taking their role seriously, at least in the east. They understand that in order to bring about change, they have to push for change. For instance, they are setting up civic education programs, planning for the next phase of the transition – the elections next June. They are very clear about this, even planning for post-elections programs. They expect answers to their questions. People are hopeful. They see the transition as the train that will take them to the elections. Without a doubt, the Congolese are starving for leadership.

WSN: Will the sad developments in Darfur overshadow the crisis in Congo?

Registre: I do not think Darfur will overshadow Congo. Congo has been on the back burner for a long time. Even the siege of Bukavu in May did not get much coverage. The world loves drama. Perhaps because the Congo crisis has been going on for so long, it requires new energy to cover it. And even then, what do you cover? For the Congolese, what happened to MONUC in the summer was a very good thing. For better or for worse, the riots forced the international community and the media to take another look at the crisis.

WSN: Will there be justice for the rape survivors and the other victims of this seemingly never-ending conflict?

Registre: I hope so. People want to know that their losses were not in vain. Communities need to take a stand and push for accountability. The transitional government should set the necessary mechanisms to bring justice in order to gain legitimacy. The government should allow compensation, not a monetary package given to individual victims. Rather, the state could disburse compensation directly to communities to restore their development structures. Give communities back their sense of security. Congolese do not want handouts. The most frustrating thing for them is to work and not be paid, to be schooled and not use that education. They want to create the right environment so they can work, educate their children, and have a meaningful life. If these things happened, people would start to forget their pain. It is hard to forget in poverty. Community compensation will induce the healing process.

Founded in 1993, Women for Women International ( helps women overcome the horrors of war and civil strife in ways that can help them rebuild their lives, families and communities. Judithe Registre has worked in Rwanda, Chad, Nigeria and South Africa.

Email Mvemba Phezo Dizolele at [email protected]