DRC presidential elections: more than continuity, can Tshisekedi’s second term bring an end to the conflict?

DRC President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi meeting with the United Nations Department of Peace Operations in Kinshasa in 2021 (Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

On the 9th of January 2024, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Constitutional Court declared the incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi the winner of December’s presidential elections. Tshisekedi won the elections with 73% of the votes. But there were some legal disputes over the electoral results with the opposition calling the election a “farce”. Despite contentions, Tshisekedi secured his second term. However, the increase in media attention on the country’s multiple conflicts will prove challenging for Tshisekedi’s next five years in office.

2023 saw an uptick in violence from militias in the country’s Eastern regions, especially as the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels continue to kill, rape and displace Congolese civilians. M23 rebels are the majority ethnic Tutsi Congolese Revolutionary Army operating in Congo’s Kivu provinces since 2013. The perpetual conflicts in the region can be traced back to the fallout of the Rwandan genocide, which led to the First Congo War in 1996 and the subsequent three decades of violence. There are currently over 120 armed militias in the DRC and the government’s own armed forces have been accused of enabling human rights atrocities carried out by other armed groups. In addition, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO has been active since 1999, and has begun to withdraw from the country following demands by the government and protests from civilians. These protests are arguably reflective of the “longer-standing perceptions of foreign actors pillaging DRC’s wealth” by many Congolese. In addition, January 17th marks 63 years since the U.S. and Belgium led the assassination of the Congo’s first pan-Africanist prime minister, Patrice Lumumba—an event that still reverberates in the minds of many.

MONUSCO operation in the Congo in 2012 (Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Complicating the conflicts are the struggles to acquire and control the resource-rich country’s metals and minerals. There is currently a global race to mine the country’s cobalt powering most of the world’s electronic devices—from smartphones to e-vehicles. As the world pushes for a clean energy transition, the demand for the necessary minerals, such as cobalt, has resulted in a rapid expansion of the DRC’s mining infrastructure. The DRC holds the world’s largest cobalt reserves, said to produce almost 70% of the world’s share. American mining companies once held control over most cobalt mines in the Congo, although Chinese companies have now monopolized this industry. They own 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines. If the U.S.-China power struggle intensifies, the DRC could increasingly become an arena where these contests play out.

Tshisekedi’s predecessor—Joseph Kabila—reportedly negotiated an unfair deal with Chinese companies. Tshisekedi has promised to renegotiate the six billion dollar deals, as an attempt to distance himself from Kabila, who, through a data leak, was revealed to have been given millions of dollars from a Chinese-run company.  These mining contracts, and how much of a ‘win-win’ they are, were points of contention during Tshisekedi’s re-election. These will likely remain significant pain points until Congo can increase its profit share from the production.

Coltan mine in North Kivu (Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Cobalt mining is inundated by human rights violations with an emphasis on the use of child labour and forced evictions. A reported 15% of miners are children. And despite the significance of cobalt’s renewable energy, its mining process contributes to the Congo’s biodiversity loss as trees are cut down and roads are built to access mines. The industry is also contributing to high CO2 emissions. Cobalt mines—particularly poorly regulated artisanal ones—are impacting the health of workers and surrounding communities. Steve Lerner, an environmental justice author, highlights how low-income and racialized communities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm. This trend persists even in the green energy economy, often designating these communities as “sacrifice zones”. Miners work in “hazardous conditions” for barely two dollars a day, in places with few schools or less exploitative job opportunities. Harvard fellow, Siddhartha Kara, describes what is happening in the Congo as “on par with old-world slavery” in his book Cobalt Red published in 2022.

According to the Kivu Security Tracker, which monitors violent incidents in the DRC’s eastern provinces, the armed groups’ dependence on “extracting resources and fighting for their turf” as a means to survive is a significant driver of violence in the region. It may be overly simplistic to declare the exploitation of Congo’s resources as the initial and primary reason for the ongoing conflicts in the region. However, armed groups are capitalizing off of the corrupt, mostly unregulated and informalized, profit-over-people scramble to control land for mining.

M23 rebels in 2013 running along the road towards the mining-dominant city of Goma, DRC (Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Tshisekedi failed to bring about the promised changes during his first term. His re-election signals stability—an important victory because the 2018 election was the DRC’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power. As such, Tshisekedi’s victory may just be what the Congo needs in order to face the complex, multi-stakeholder violence that still plagues the country.

In December of 2023, the New York Times published an article highlighting the “overlooked crisis” in the DRC. A month prior, a video posted on X of a man setting himself on fire and holding a sign asking to “Stop the genocide in Congo” went viral. Hopefully, a sustained increase in media attention will force Tshisekedi to do more to protect his civilians and offer them more than continuity in his second term.

By Danyka Guay

January 26, 2024

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