Community tensions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) suffered a blow in March, with the return of a controversial bill that would see the country’s frontrunner in the presidential elections banned from standing due to his ethnicity.
Under the proposals, the country’s mixed-race opposition leader Moïse Katumbi would be prevented from running in December’s presidential poll, due to his father’s ancestry.
Katumbi is the son of a Congolese woman from a local royal family and a Jewish man, who fled his native Greece for the Congo during the Holocaust.
The so-called Congolité Bill, seeks to bar Congolese citizens with one or two foreign parents from occupying 250 different political positions, including that of president and prime minister.
Those roles would be reserved for those of ‘100 per cent Congolese’ ancestry, according to Noel Tshiani, the politician who wrote the draft legislation.
Abandoned by parliament in September 2011, the controversial bill is set to be debated again in the upcoming parliamentary plenary sessions.
Reliable sources said the bill has been brought back by President Felix Tshisekedi to prevent the popular opposition politician from standing against him for the presidency.
The presidential camp, which sees Katumbi as a serious threat to Tshisekedi’s second term in office, has been accused of concocting numerous plots to ensure that the Katanga-born politician is barred from running, most of which are based on what the president’s allies describe as Katumbi's ‘doubtful’ Congolese nationality.
The United Nations (UN) warned of the potentially dangerous consequences of the move to bar Katumbi from December's poll, and there was fierce criticism levelled at the government and parliament by the head of DRC’s Catholic Church, Fridolin Ambongo.
Many observers believe if adopted, the law will lead to the implosion of the country, which is already grappling with a deadly ethnic conflict between the Yaka and the Teke ethnic groups in the west.
In February, Pope Francis warned young people to say ‘no’ to tribalism and regionalism when he visited the country. The pontiff said the youth have the power to restore mutual trust in a country torn apart by the ‘fear of the other ethnic group’.
Many observers fear the vast central African nation, which boasts over 500 ethnic groups speaking nearly 300 languages, could be heading towards an early balkanisation.
Tribalism, and regionalism are on the rise in Congolese politics.
While the DRC’s disparate tribes are prone to blame each other for the country’s misfortune, mistrust of one group tends to unite all its warring ethnicities: Congolese ‘Rwandans’.
Last year, the AEGIS Trust warned of the high levels of hate speech and ‘incitement to genocide’ being directed at Congolese citizens of Rwandan descent.
It added that there was a ‘high risk of widespread violence’ against Kinyarwanda speakers in the DRC.
While the messages of hatred, tribalism, insults, and violence are mostly being broadcast on social networks, others are spread in pubs and eating places, churches, street corners, offices, and markets.
According to the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC, hateful speech has found a fertile ground in the DRC due to, among other things, the ‘fragile political and socioeconomic’ situation in the country.
It warned that this has been exacerbated by political competition, poor land management and inter-community conflicts, particularly in the provinces affected by armed conflict.
It said disunity was exacerbated by human rights violations, marginalisation, mutual distrust, and discrimination against certain groups.
The UN also warned that there is a huge risk that collective grievances and resentments can subsequently trigger violence, particularly in the context of weak state capacity or violations and abuses of human rights.
Fed up with what they describe as marginalisation, and discrimination, some regional politicians have called for the country to be broken apart so that every ethnic group can create their own state and use their natural resources to develop their poverty-stricken province.
Many in the country’s largest tribe, the Bakongo, want independence for Kongo-Central.
The natural resources-rich western province is home to one of the world’s largest if under-utilised hydropower plants, the Inga Dam, as well as the DRC’s chief seaport at Matadi.
However, the strategic position of Kongo-Central – and Matadi’s role as the main supplier of most basic food and necessities to the national capital, Kinshasa – would make the province’s secession extremely problematic.
Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp groups in the province, however, have been flooded with posts calling for Kongo-Central’s independence, autonomy, or federalism since the first call for independence was made by the diaspora in Brussels in 2017.
Some widely dispersed messages call for Bakongo soldiers to rise and take up arms against the central government to ‘liberate’ their province. The messages tend to focus on the lack of political appointees originating from Kongo-Central, extreme poverty and lack of electricity, despite the Inga Dam being in their province.
Elsewhere, social media groups in Grand Katanga, a south-eastern mineral rich province, have also been calling for the independence for their province.
The Bakata-Katanga militia, which has been wreaking havoc in this province, is thought to have widespread support among Katanga people. Furthermore, some people want the whole east of the country to become independent.
The 2020 independence proclamation of the ‘Republic of Kivu’ still rings alarm bells in Kinshasa.
Though the trouble in the Kivu region has recently died down, many in North and South Kivu are eager to break away from the DRC and rule themselves.
The war in the east and north-east has been infested with online hate speech, manipulated pictures and videos, and calls for violence. According to a security expert, the war of information on the conflict between Kinshasa and M23 rebels in the east, creates a distortion of the real situation.
Observational studies have shown that most people in the ‘Kivus’, Katanga and Kongo-Central feel that their regions are treated as ‘cash cows’ by Kinshasa-based politicians, who get rich at their expense.
Congo-watchers are worried that other provinces are waiting for one of these regions to break away, so that they can follow suit.
The depleted and under-resourced army is struggling to defeat more than 120 armed groups operating in the east and north-east, leading military insiders to question how it would cope if new ones were to start operating in the west, north-west and central parts of the country.