Today, news broke that the government had asked Ida Sawyer, the senior Human Rights Watch researcher for the DR Congo, to leave the country. This move was both unwarranted and the sign of an increasingly jusqu’au boutiste mood within the upper echelons of power, an indication that the government is ready to employ heavy-handed tactics to deal with perceived challenges to its sovereignty.
But Ida’s work was not a challenge to the government per say––she has no political axe to grind, no agenda to wield––nor was it somehow a foreign attack on a sovereign country. Indeed, at one time, Ida was fêted by government circles for her research on abuses carried out by the M23 and Rwandan support to that group, research that helped shift the tide in the eastern Congo. Ida has also worked tirelessly to support local researchers, including by helping to support the Congo Advocacy Coalition and Sauti ya Congo, networks of local human rights groups, as well as lobbying the courts and security services to release members of political parties and human rights groups when they were wrongfully imprisoned. She has worked with enormous passion deep respect for local communities and their agency. Many of her Congolese friends and colleagues took to social media today, using the hashtag #MerciIda.
It is true that the belief in a American-backed challenge to President Kabila’s government is gaining in currency in Kinshasa––Moise Katumbi’s hiring of senior lobbyists in Washington, DC has not helped dispel this. And that numerous American citizens, including myself and Ida, but also several US-based NGO workers and donors who have preferred not to make a stir, have been refused entry to the Congo. I have seen no evidence of such a conspiracy; to accuse Ida of such a thing beggars credulity.
Of course, we don’t know why Ida was asked to leave. Because she wasn’t: her visa simply was not renewed, and the government spokesperson did not give a reason. We can assume, however, it was her pressure on the government to sanction serious human rights offenders. She was the most important voice in the international community for sanctions against serious human rights offenders, and her advocacy played an important role in US sanctions against General Célestin Kanyama, the police commissioner for Kinshasa, for his role in repression. She has also criticized the government for ex-combatants dying of starvation in demobilization camps, for the rape of hundreds of civilians in Minova in 2012 by government soldiers, as well as for the killing of hundreds of civilians by the army in 2009. These are reports she and Human Rights Watch should be lauded for, not punished.
Why is this important? For Ida and myself, our work led to expulsion. And neither of us were declared “persona non grata,” and we can both apply for new visas. That is not a fate reserved for many Congolese researchers and activists, who are imprisoned or worse. While the Congo can still be proud of a vibrant, iconoclastic press and civil society, the space for expression is tightening, and Ida’s departure is a sign of that.