Ethnic violence between the Banunu and Batende communities continues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the wake of a historic presidential election that took place last month. The United Nations Human Rights Commission reports that at least 890 people have been killed and 465 buildings burned in the northwestern province of Mai-Ndombe between 16 and 18 December, more than doubling previous local estimates. As the nation is poised to have its first lawful transition of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960, the international community is concerned that continued ethnic violence will cost the lives of many innocent people, further erode an already weak sense of national unity, and undermine already tenuous political institutions.
The United Nations and other international organizations remain uncertain about the full scale of the violence. In a statement released by UN Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, she emphasizes the fact that the reported 890-person death toll is only for confirmed burials and that there are several reports suggesting that an indeterminant number of corpses were also “dumped in the Congo river … or burned to death.” As a result of these atrocities, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged Kinshasa to allow a full investigation. In a statement released by her office, she asserted that “it is crucial that this shocking violence be promptly, thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators be brought to justice.” She further stressed those in power’s obligation to “ensure justice for the victims of these horrific attacks” and concurrently “prevent new episodes of intercommunal strife” by halting the pattern of cyclical violence between the communities.
Unfortunately, the narrative of mass ethnic conflict and a government ineptitude to respond has become increasingly common in central Africa. Today, the DRC is one of the lowest ranked countries on the Fragile States Index because its government is unable to unify its incredibly diverse population. In the DRC especially, the leadership of authoritarian President Joseph Kabila has completely undermined trust between the country’s nearly 250 ethnic groups. Although international aid provided by the UN and humanitarian NGOs in DRC has been moderately successful in addressing the aftermath of these outbursts of ethnic violence, more must be done to address the root causes of the conflict. One issue will continuously undermine Kinshasa’s power is that DRC citizens cannot trust officials under the country’s semi-presidential republic system. This type of system encourages limited party formation and therefore allows for a select few ethnic groups to dominate the political landscape of the country. Should the international community work with Kinshasa to create a revised system that includes elements of proportional representation (PR) system for its electorate, this could potentially encourage officials to form coalition governments and tacitly create platforms that are more broadly appealing to constituents of different ethnic backgrounds.
Killings and widespread displacement are not an uncommon phenomenon in the DRC. The BBC reports that approximately 1.7 million individuals living in the eastern provinces of the DRC have been forced to flee their homes since 2007. However, this new threat of violence to communities in the northwestern region of the DRC is even more concerning to international organizations because it has the potential to spark a mass migration of refugees into the neighboring Congo-Brazzaville. Given Congo-Brazzaville’s current struggles with its own ethnically-based civil conflict and the refusal of the government to accept international aid, an additional humanitarian crisis of this scale has the potential to further destabilize the entire region.
As the UN continues to gather more information on the scope of this conflict, the international community should focus their efforts on solutions that simultaneously remedy the effects of ethnic violence and prevent its continuation. Should there be a peaceful transition of power to the newly elected President Tshisekedi, it is essential that the international community work to not only strengthen democratic institutions but also work to establish government structures that rely on creating broadly applicable policy stances that could appeal to citizens of many ethnic backgrounds.
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