The eternal hotspot in the heart of Africa
by Simone Schlindwein
The sheer size of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) makes its governance challenging. This vast country in the heart of Africa is about the same size as Western Europe and has 10,500 kilometres of external borders. In the middle of the country sits a near impenetrable jungle, through which few roads pass. Furthermore, border control is largely non-existent, giving neighbouring countries the opportunity to exert influence through the porous borders and into remote peripheries. For many Congolese, it is easier to reach the capital of a neighbouring state than to go to the capital city, Kinshasa. For these reasons and more, the central government’s ability to control the country from Kinshasa is limited.
For 25 years now, large parts of the country have been in the throes of not only local, civil war-like conflicts, but also recurrent cross-border conflicts with neighbouring states and rebel groups. The United Nations (UN) investigators estimate that about 120 to 150 militias control most of the resource-rich areas along the border. For the last 20 years, these conflicts have caused widespread displacement and the mass movement of refugees.
Many Congolese fled the authoritarian regime under former President Joseph Kabila. The former government deliberately postponed the presidential election, scheduled for December 2016, for more than two years because the constitution did not allow Kabila to run for a third term. In August 2018, Kabila appointed his loyal party member, Emmanuel Shadary, as his preferred successor and scheduled elections for the end of December 2018 – which had to be postponed for another week due to claimed logistical difficulties. Unexpectedly, the election was won by Felix Tshisekedi, the son of the long-time opposition leader and now deceased Etienne Tshisekedi, and ex-founder of the strongest opposition party “Union for Democratic and Social Progress” (UDPS). This gave many Congolese people in exile hope of stability and the possibility of returning to their home country.
However, the majority of representatives in the Parliament, as well as in the Senate and in the cabinet, continued to support the powerful coalition of ex-president Kabila. Therefore, his influence remained strong. The state institutions such as the army and the intelligence service also remained under the control of Kabila’s patronage system. At present, experts are unable to predict how much independent control over the institutions the incumbent president Tshisekedi and the former members of the opposition can actually establish. Despite initial hope, Congolese refugees remain sceptical that the situation within the country will change.
A refugee hotspot in the middle of Africa
Over the past 20 years, the number of refugees from the DRC has been among the highest of all African countries. As of September 2019, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered around 870,000 Congolese refugees worldwide. According to UNHCR forecasts, this number was expected to increase to more than one million by the end of 2019.
Most Congolese refugees live in neighbouring states. 44% of them (around 384,000) live in Uganda; the rest in Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Angola, South Sudan and even more distant countries such as South Africa or Namibia.
Within the country, a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are forced to move because of local – often ethnically motivated – conflicts, including systematic looting campaigns. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were around 360,000 IDPs throughout the country in September 2019. The largest displacement of people occurs mainly eastern regions, an area of the country heavily affected by conflict. However, since 2017, there has been an increasing number of displacements in the central region, particularly in Kasai province. Around 1.4 million people have been temporarily displaced, and around 35,000 escaped across the border into Angola. In September 2019, the Congolese Immigration Service (DGM) registered around 14,000 refugees at the border posts with Angola who indicated that they wanted to return voluntarily to the DRC.
The DRC is also a host country for refugees from neighbouring countries in conflict, such as the Central African Republic (173,000 refugees in September 2019), South Sudan (103,000 in September 2019), Burundi (45,000 in September 2019) and Rwanda. Recent FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) figures state that around half a million Rwandan Hutu refugees – mostly women and children of combatants – were under their protection. However, official counts of Rwandan refugees should be treated with caution as the Rwanda Hutu militia FDLR (who administer a large part of the Rwandan Hutu population) have refused to implement a biometric registration process.
Compared to the situation in Africa, the number of Congolese people arriving in Europe – though steadily increasing – is relatively low. According to the EU figures, 95 first-time applications from Congolese citizens were submitted between January and August 2019. In total, 1,200 decisions are still pending, with an application recognition rate for asylum of 19%. As of the end of September 2019, the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) had decided 200 asylum applications from Congolese citizens, while 180 were still pending. Some Congolese people living in Germany fear that the 2019 election of the opposition government will cause the recognition rate to drop. It is believed asylum applications could be rejected because there is perceived to be less political persecution within the DRC now that the opposition is in power, and many fear deportation.
A resource-rich country dependent on international donors
Over the last decades, investors and donors in the DRC have become exhausted; the crisis is so deep and has been going on for so long that the country is practically in a permanent state of emergency. Yet, the DRC is a resource-rich country with abundant natural resources. Hydraulic power from the great Congo River alone could supply the entire African continent with energy.
According to UNHCR sources, only 17% of the funding requirements for the situation in the DRC and for providing for refugees were met in 2019. Out of 720 million US dollars needed, only 127 million US dollars are available.
Since 1999, the UN maintains its longest and largest stabilisation mission is in the DRC. Known as MONUSCO (MONUC prior to 2010), with an annual budget of more than 1.1 billion US dollars, it is also the most expensive UN mission worldwide, even despite the reduction of 22,000 Blue Helmets to around 16,000 UN soldiers after severe budget cuts.
Within the framework of the development cooperation with the DRC, the German government focuses primarily on emergency humanitarian aid in the areas of water supply, job creation for women, ending sexual exploitation, education programmes, nature conservation, poverty reduction as well as conflict prevention and resolution. In an effort to reform Congolese security forces – whose troops repeatedly commit human rights violations and other crimes – the EU has funded the majority of the security sector reforms of the police and military in the country.
The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) also carried out part of its African Police Programme in the DRC and trained Congolese police officers. Among other things, Germany funded the construction of weapon storage rooms for the police and military. However, at the end of 2016, after the postponement of elections by Kabila, the Federal Republic of Germany suspended all cooperation with the Congolese government. The decision on whether to resume development cooperation is still pending in Berlin.
One of the most expensive passports in the world
The DRC’s 10,500 kilometres of borders are mostly un-secured. It is only in recent years that some border posts have been equipped with electricity, making it possible to use computers, electronic readers for passports and fingerprint scanners. So far, only the busiest and most strategically important posts have been equipped. The Immigration Service (DGM) has also been progressively equipped and trained in recent years. However, to this day, DGM is considered to be one of the most corrupt institutions of the security apparatus, not least because it is officially under the control of the intelligence service.
The last census in the DRC was over 25 years ago, so all population figures should be treated with caution. Currently, the total population is estimated to be around 86 million. Very few citizens have an identity card, let alone a passport. Therefore, the voting cards distributed to all voters during the first democratic elections in 2006 have been used in place of valid identity documents. According to estimates, around 33 million Congolese are not officially registered, especially those under 18 years of age who make up about 20% of the population. In addition, there were some 5.3 million duplicates of persons registered in the new databases.
In September 2019, president Tshisekedi announced that the Immigration Service (DGM) would start issuing biometric identity cards to all the Congolese citizens in 2020. “My vision is to digitalize the Congo and use this as a lever for integration, good governance, economic growth and social progress”, said Tshisekedi during the event organized to launch the process. Yet, so far he has remained silent on the financing of such a process, though there are talks of public-private partnerships.
As demonstrated by the 2017 scandal surrounding the introduction of biometric passports, issuing identity documents in the DRC can be a lucrative business for foreign investors. In 2017, the Congolese passport was among the most expensive in the world, with an estimated cost of 185 US dollars per passport. Yet, according to research conducted by the news agency Reuters, only 65 US dollars went to the DRC Treasury. The remaining 120 US dollars went to the Belgian company Semlex, which produces the passports, and to a partner company in the United Arab Emirates which is believed to be directed by a Kabila’s relative.