Last week the UN announced that 890 lives were claimed over three days in mid-December in ongoing ethnic violence acts in north-western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as Al Jazeera reports. This death toll is more than double the estimate reported by a local priest and civil society activist, and the reality is likely even worse, as there may be bodies that have been dumped into the Congo River or burned, which were not included in the UN’s count. This was revealed just days before the announcement of the highly anticipated new president, Felix Tshisekedi, who was voted to replace long time president Joseph Kabila, reports The Guardian.
According to a UN Human Rights Office statement, the violence occurred in four villages in Yumbi territory in western DRC. Allegedly, according to Al Jazeera, conflict ensued between the Banunu and Batende communities over a tribal chief’s burial.
The recent election may have also played a part. A local activist spoke to Reuters about increasing tensions between the two ethnic groups, as Banunu leaders supported opposition candidates, while Batende leaders backed President Kabila. This is yet another tragedy in a string of violent conflicts, including communal fighting and extensive looting in Yumbi, which have forced approximately 16,000 people to flee across the Congo River into the Republic of Congo as reported by Al Jazeera.
The UN Human Rights office has launched an investigation. Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, “It is crucial that this shocking violence be promptly, thoroughly investigated and perpetrators be brought to justice.” Similarly, President Tshisekedi told his supporters, “I am engaged in a campaign to reconcile all Congolese,” and he hopes this revitalized Congo “… will not be a Congo of division, hatred or tribalism,” according to The Guardian.
DRC has been plagued by violence since Africa’s ‘first world war’, which claimed five million lives between 1994 and 2003, as reported by BBC. Perhaps a new presidency will offer DRC’s 81 million civilians the new beginning they deserve. President Tshisekedi’s promise to pursue “a strong Congo that will be focused on development, peace and security” sounds promising, but no plan-of-action has been announced as of yet. His office will need support from the UN’s peacekeeping mission, which has been in DRC since 1999.
From Bachelet’s statement, the UN also seems committed to fostering a brighter future for the DRC by preventing further atrocities. Their investigation aims “to address the anger and feelings of gross injustice that may otherwise lead to repeated cycles of violence between communities”.
Yet just two months ago, the UN was accused of covering up information incriminating senior members of the Congolese military and security for the murders of UN investigators Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp, back in March 2017, according to Amnesty International. The UN has vehemently denied claims of a cover-up, stating to have been motivated by “political expediency”, but the allegations cast a shadow of doubt over the UN’s ability to effectively investigate the latest Congolese murders. The UN has a big task ahead, but if well-executed, their efforts will bring justice to the victim’s families, while also sending the message that perpetrators will be appropriately punished. This would thereby deter others from committing violent crimes.
DRC’s complex, war-torn history means there is no easy fix to preventing further killings. At this stage, there is only the hope that President Tshisekedi is well-intentioned, and will stay true to his promise of creating a more prosperous DRC. The feasibility of this will become clearer once his strategy is revealed and implemented. Meanwhile, the UN’s 20,608 peacekeepers must continue their mission of protecting civilians and supporting Tshisekedi’s government in their stabilization and peace consolidation efforts.