Will Congo Go to the Polls—Or Go to War?

The government claims the country is having an election. Fighters in the East are preparing for battle.

A soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo's Army at a hilltop outpost in Chanzu in the eastern North Kivu region, November 5, 2013.
A soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo's Army at a hilltop outpost in Chanzu in the eastern North Kivu region, November 5, 2013. (Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

MASISI, Democratic Republic of the Congo—It’s been four months since Gicha Victoir, a high-ranking officer in a local armed group, was told by Congolese government soldiers to prepare for war. Seated in a small wooden hut in a nondescript village on the outskirts of Masisi, a town in Congo’s North Kivu province near the Rwandan border, he recounted his clandestine meeting with the army.

“They asked us to collaborate with them because they said elections weren’t going to happen and that war was coming,” said Victoir, who belongs to the Nyatura FDDH (Forces for the Defense of Human Rights), a militia comprised of ethnic Hutus, including some from the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda)—the Hutu force formed in 2000 by genocidaires who fled Rwanda after losing the civil war in 1994. The purpose of creating the current armed group was to protect the Hutu community against others taking their land and against other armed groups.

In March, two generals from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, traveled to Masisi to tell Victoir and his fellow fighters that the country’s upcoming elections wouldn’t take place and that they should prepare to fight.

Dressed in civilian clothes, the generals secretly convened at a farm in the town of Luke, approximately 20 miles south of Masisi. “They kept emphasizing that elections weren’t happening and that there would be fighting,” said Victoir. The government wanted to know they could count on his fighters when the time came.

For the past two years, the estimated 83 million citizens of this conflict-ravaged and mineral-rich country have been anxiously waiting for President Joseph Kabila to step down from office, after repeatedly delaying elections when his mandate ended in late 2016. Although it appears that Congo’s government, which is normally known for dragging its feet, has been relatively quick to adhere to the electoral calendar—elections are scheduled for Dec. 23 and Kabila is constitutionally barred from running—officials in Kinshasa seems to be doing one thing while saying another.

Masisi’s lush mountainous backdrop masks a region riddled by decades of war. The provinces of North and South Kivu shelter approximately 140 armed groups, which regularly clash over land, authority, and the expulsion of people considered foreigners. In the past six months, however, the situation has deteriorated, with increased violence erupting throughout the region. Locals claim that the government is purposely instigating attacks in an effort to sow the seeds of insecurity in order to avoid holding elections.

For many in the international community, the meeting in March, which has never been made public, was the first confirmation of deliberate government meddling. “It is certainly true that across the country … government forces have been involved in provoking violence either through disproportionate repression or by actually collaborating with armed groups,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group, an independent, non-profit research project focused on understanding violence in the DRC. “Until now we haven’t been able to prove any intent to use that violence to delay elections or to obtain another mandate for Joseph Kabila,” he added.

One local human rights activist, who was present at Victoir’s meeting with the generals, saw the arrival of members of the top brass from Kinshasa as significant. “The government doesn’t want elections to take place and is using its men to control armed groups around the country. In case people want Kabila to leave power he has control of the forces and he can use them to protect him,” said the activist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation.

Officials from Masisi’s local government couldn’t say whether the specific meeting in March occurred, but confirmed that an “unofficial, confidential collaboration” between the government and armed actors exists. “How do you think the groups get their weapons?” said Kangakolo Nikae Cosmas, minister of the interior for Masisi Territory.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo denies having any relationship with rebel groups, saying that the army’s only goal is to “beat them all,” said Maj. Guillaume Ndjike Kaiko, the Congolese Army spokesman in North Kivu. The only form of collaboration comes from defectors who join the military and share information, he said.

Foreign Policy’s repeated attempts to speak with the two generals who attended the meeting in March, as well as the government spokesperson in Kinshasa, went unanswered. On a trip to Masisi in June, FP spoke with dozens of people, including several fighters from various armed factions—all of whom said that, since January, collaboration between government forces and armed groups had increased.

Isaac Mubuya, who used to fight for the Congo Defense Front, has been sharing intelligence with the Congolese army since February, helping them navigate complicated terrain and hard-to-reach areas. Since working with the government, the number of attacks on villages has grown, however, he said. In exchange for working together, he and his men have been promised positions in the Congolese Armed Forces once their collaboration ends, Mubuya explained. It’s not the first time this offer has been on the table. In 2010, the government asked for their help, offering the same deal, but then never delivered on its side of the bargain.

Meanwhile, the violence is getting worse. In April, Kisuba Mirimo watched her grandmother get shot and killed when armed men stormed her town. The 40-year-old mother of eight said she can’t count how many times she’s been displaced in the last three years. “I feel such sorrow. It’s hard to eat and find food; it’s terrible always moving,” said Mirimo. She said the violence this year has been worse than previous ones with a proliferation of armed groups and a greater frequency of attacks.

Gisselle Bahati, the vice president of the Territory of Coordination, an advocacy group based in Masisi, blames the increased civilian deaths, sexual violence, looting, and displacement of people in Masisi on government cooperation with local militias. “The collaboration doesn’t support the security and protection of the civilians,” she says.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since December, according to the Commission on Population Movements, a coordination body led by the The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, bringing the number of internally displaced people in North Kivu to approximately 1.5 million, the highest in the country. An official from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in the provincial capital, Goma, said recently that North Kivu has been taking a step in the “wrong direction.”

Many Congolese citizens doubt whether President Kabila will go through with the election, but the Independent National Electoral Commission, the body charged with running it, is confident the vote will go ahead as planned. According to commission officials, the country has been following the electoral calendar and hasn’t missed “a single step.”

“The population should not be distracted by all that is evolving around political public declarations and maneuvering,” said Corneille Nangaa Yobeluo, chairman of Congo’s electoral commission.

Residents in Masisi, however, remain skeptical with many fearing an eruption of chaos if, come December, they aren’t able to vote. “People need elections because they want change,” said Pascal Kita, a local journalist. “If elections don’t happen, there will be war.”

Sam Mednick is a freelance journalist and the South Sudan correspondent for The Associated Press. She covers conflict, post-conflict, and development and has written for VICE, the Guardian, Devex, and News Deeply, among others. Twitter: @sammednick