I should add that some of the incidents of abuse reported below have not been confirmed and, according to reliable sources, may have been less serious than described below. However, a report released by the UN today documents many more abuses linked to the electoral process that have taken place over the past year.
Like myself, many Congolese and foreign observers were taken aback by Etienne Tshisekedi’s interview, broadcast on local TV last Sunday, in which he called on his supporters to “mobilize everywhere and set free the supporters…and break all the prisons.” He also said “we don’t need to wait for the elections. In a democracy, whoever has the power is the majority of the people. Therefore, from this day on I am the Head of State of the DRC.”
Could this really be the same Tshisekedi who had suffered torture, persecution and internal exile under Mobutu and Laurent-Désiré Kabila? Who had insisted on non-violent resistance when everybody else was forming armed groups? As critical as many have been about Tshisekedi’s tactics in the past (his Cap-Martin reconciliation with Mobutu, his alliance with Rwanda/RCD-G in 2002, his boycott of the 2006 elections), this interview came as a shock.
But should it really have? For the past months, the UDPS has faced obstacle after obstacle in its preparations for elections. Demanding transparency in the voter register and better access to the election commission, UDPS supporters have demonstrated in Kinshasa every Thursday for the past six weeks, with little reaction from either the UN or the government. The demonstrations often deteriorated into street battles with the police and thugs – at least three of their supporters died and several dozen are in prison. None of these arrests have been carried out according to due process, but the minister of justice and public prosecutor have not responded to repeated UDPS letters.
UDPS posters have been torn down in public places, especially in Place Victoire, and on one occasion men in plain clothes open fire on people who had just distributed posters and flyers of Tshisekedi at Rond Point Ngaba.
The government has booked many of the country’s few planes (there is only one commercial airliner still flying), making it difficult for opposition parties to fly their members around the country – this was one of the purposes of Tshisekedi’s visit to South Africa, where has was able to secure the lease of a DC-3, a small jet and a helicopter.
Violent repression has also taken place in the provinces. On October 28, a UDPS demonstration was reportedly broken up by the bodyguards of Governor Kasanji, resulting in the deaths of two minors and the arrests of several supporters. On November 4, the seat of the UDPS in Kisantu (Bas-Congo) was set on fire by unidentified assailants. On November 5/6, UDPS and UNAFEC parties traded insults in Lubumbashi, resulting in the sacking of the UNAFEC office and an attack on UDPS installations – one UDPS supporter died.
Given this backdrop, Tshisekedi’s statement is rendered more understandable, albeit not any more forgivable. His party is under pressure from the authorities, suffering from a lack of funds (the home page of his campaign features a video of Tshisekedi asking for contributions) and behind schedule in its campaign. He may well think that he needs to radicalize his message and step up his confrontation with the government, sending a signal to his supporters that he will stand firm. Two analysts sympathetic to Tshisekedi have written to me, both suggesting that his interview amounted to “psy-ops.”
What, however, is the endgame? Is it merely to motivate his followers and project an image of strength as they go into the last round? (Ali taunting Foreman, “Is that all you got, George? My Grandma punches harder than you…”) Or will the UDPS actively seek out violence to create a political crisis and pressure the government?
We shall see. I hope it’s not the latter.