Freedom in the World 2016 - Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa)

Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 

In 2015, violence, weak rule of law, and political maneuvering around a presidential election scheduled for 2016 exacerbated instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Attempts by President Joseph Kabila’s parliamentary coalition, the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP), to amend electoral law were perceived by many as a move to extend Kabila’s tenure despite a two-term constitutional limit. Demonstrations against these efforts erupted in January and were met with violence by security forces, with human rights groups documenting dozens of deaths and several disappearances. Journalists and human rights advocates continued to face harassment, abuse, and unlawful detention at the hands of state security as well as rebel groups during the year.

Numerous rebel groups remain active in the country’s eastern provinces, contributing to mass internal displacement. Officers affiliated with the national army, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), remained implicated in human rights violations, with little effective civilian control over their activities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 9 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 3 / 12

Article 70 of the DRC’s 2006 constitution stipulates that the president is elected for up to two five-year terms, and Article 220 prohibits amendments to key elements of the state’s political framework, including the number and length of presidential terms.

Kabila was declared the winner of the November 2011 presidential election amid widespread criticism of the election by international observers; he defeated longtime opposition figure Étienne Tshisekedi, 49 percent to 32 percent, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Elections to the 500-seat National Assembly, held concurrently, were also criticized as deeply flawed. Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) won 62 seats, down from the 111 seats it held prior to November 2011, while Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) took 41. The AMP took a total of 260 seats. Tshisekedi supporters protested the results, and numerous civil society groups called for new elections.

The president nominates a prime minister from the leading party or coalition in the National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected to serve five-year terms. Provincial assemblies elect the 108-seat Senate, as well as provincial governors, for five-year terms. A long-neglected decentralization program was implemented in 2015, splitting the DRC’s 11 provinces into 26, and the CENI scheduled local and provincial elections to take place in late 2015 through early 2016. In October 2015, the commission postponed the elections indefinitely, and Kabila appointed special commissioners to lead the new provinces.

The country’s electoral framework does not ensure transparent conduct of elections, and opposition parties and civil society groups frequently criticize the CENI for lacking independence. Kabila’s second term as president is set to end in 2016, and presidential and national legislative elections are scheduled for later in the year. However, in January 2015, the AMP’s advancement of a bill mandating a national census to take place before the presidential election was widely viewed as an effort to delay the vote and extend Kabila’s tenure. Although the provision connecting the election to the completion of the census was scrapped following mass protests, concerns remained that Kabila would not respect constitutional term limits. The decentralization reform, scheduled for implementation by 2010 but largely neglected until 2015, was also criticized as a stalling tactic; opponents also claimed it risked increasing unrest and political fragmentation ahead of elections.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 4 / 16

People have the right to organize political parties. In March 2015, the government estimated that 477 political parties were registered in the DRC. Political parties are often divided along ethnic, communal, or regional lines, and usually lack national reach. The AMP requires members to have national representation, ensuring that the PPRD remains in the majority within the coalition. Other key parties in the country include the UDPS, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Nearly 100 different parties and many independents are represented in the parliament.

Despite the existence of numerous parties, political pluralism remains limited in practice, and opposition members face intimidation and restrictions on their movement and mobilization. Members of the AMP who signed an open letter demanding that Kabila respect constitutional term limits and the election schedule were expelled from the coalition in September 2015; two signatories who held public office were dismissed from their posts. Also in September, Moïse Katumbi, once a close Kabila ally, resigned from the PPRD in protest of what he described as the government’s efforts to delay elections and repress opponents. He was widely expected to run for president in 2016.

Discrimination and lack of access to institutions in rural areas hinder political participation overall; certain segments of the population are particularly marginalized.


C. Functioning of Government: 2 / 12

Recruitment for government posts is often determined by nepotism. Accountability mechanisms are weak, and impunity remains a problem. Clandestine trade in minerals and other natural resources by rebels and elements of the FARDC helps finance violence and depletes government revenues. Massive corruption in the government, security forces, and mineral extraction industries continues to paralyze the functioning of the government and development efforts intended to raise living standards.

The government has made some efforts to reduce opportunities for graft within the expansive state apparatus and national army. A system to pay civil servants and members of the military electronically was installed in 2012 with the aim of curbing corruption and ensuring regular, accurate payments. A new system of customs declaration implemented at the Kasumbalesa post on the Zambian border in 2014 streamlined the submission and processing of declarations. However, the system initially faced significant technological challenges, and enforcement remained dependent on the discretion of local officials. In March 2015, former justice minister Luzolo Bambi Lessa was made a special advisor to the president on corruption. The president’s office filed a complaint against several public officials for corruption-related offenses in June, but the consequences of the complaint were not immediately clear at year’s end.

Despite incremental improvements in revenue reporting, there is little transparency in the state’s financial affairs. The law does not provide for public access to government information, and citizens often lack the practical ability to obtain information about state operations. The DRC was ranked 147 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 16 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 8 / 16

Although constitutionally guaranteed, freedoms of speech and the press are limited. Radio is the dominant medium in the country, and newspapers are found mainly in large cities. The content of private television and radio stations is occasionally restricted, but lively political debate occurs in urban areas. Social media usage is expanding among urban youth. The government does not usually restrict internet access or monitor online communications, but internet access and text messaging were temporarily suspended during the January 2015 demonstrations.

While the media often criticize Kabila and his government, political harassment of outlets and reporters is common. Pro-opposition and government-friendly outlets alike reported being pressured to carry progovernment content during the year. Intelligence officials cut off broadcasts by Canal Kin Télévision (CKTV) and Radiotélévision Catholique Elikya (RTCE) after they aired a communiqué from opposition groups calling for protests amid the electoral dispute in January.

Criminal defamation legislation as well as threats, detentions, arbitrary arrests, and attacks against journalists further restrict freedoms of speech and the press. In March, Congolese and foreign journalists were among those detained while attending a press conference in Kinshasa organized by Filimbi, a Congolese pro-democracy youth movement. In July, members of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) arrested news distributor Dido Zamangwana while he was selling opposition newspapers in Kinshasa; he remained in detention at year’s end. Also in July, a radio station manager, Simon Mulowa, was arrested after his station reported on problems related to decentralization. In September, the government banned the distribution of a film about a Congolese doctor treating victims of rape in the eastern DRC, claiming that it misrepresented the army; following pressure from civil society and international actors, authorities lifted the ban in October.

Journalists face difficulties in covering the ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC. State security forces arrested journalist Brinal Nundu in South Kivu in August while he was reporting on Burundian refugees in the region. According to an August 2015 Human Rights Watch report, local authorities in Tanganyika province, which had been part of Katanga province before decentralization, warned human rights and aid workers from speaking about a string of attacks by ethnic Luba fighters on an ethnic Batwa community earlier in the year.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and authorities generally respect it in practice. Although religious groups must register with the government in order to be recognized, unregistered groups operate unhindered. There are no formal restrictions on academic freedom; primary and secondary school curriculums are regulated but not strongly politicized. While private discussion of politically sensitive topics is open among close associates, it is limited by fear of potential reprisal.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 3 / 12

The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, though these are limited in practice. Groups holding public events must register with local authorities in advance, and security forces occasionally act against unregistered gatherings. There are approximately 5,000 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the DRC, though many have narrow scopes devoted to ethnic, partisan, and local concerns. NGOs are generally able to operate, though domestic human rights advocates are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and detention. Professional organizations are permitted to organize and operate freely.

State authorities violated the right to association and peaceful assembly in 2015. In January, numerous civil society organizations participated in demonstrations in Kinshasa and other cities against the proposed changes to electoral law. According to Human Rights Watch, security forced killed 43 demonstrators, wounded dozens, and forcibly disappeared at least five. In a separate incident in March, at the press conference organized by Filimbi in Kinshasa, police arrested a group of attendees and bystanders, including several Congolese and foreign activists. While most of the detainees were released, two activists remained in pretrial detention at year’s end, facing charges including conspiracy against the head of state, attempting to overthrow the government, and belonging to an organization that promotes violence. In March and April, police arrested and beat several activists from the Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, or LUCHA) group who gathered in Goma to peacefully protest the Kinshasa arrests. A Goma court convicted four of them in September on the charge of inciting public disobedience, giving them six-month suspended prison sentences as well as 12 months of probation. In December, after attending a conference of African opposition movements held in Senegal, Filimbi and LUCHA reported that they had acquired an ANR memorandum in which they and other participants were blacklisted as part of a “destabilizing coalition.”

Congolese who fulfill a residency requirement of 20 years can form and join trade unions, though government employees and members of state security forces are not permitted to unionize. It is against the law for employers to retaliate against strikers. Unions organize strikes regularly. Some labor leaders and activists face harassment.


F. Rule of Law: 0 / 16

President Kabila appoints members of the judiciary, which remains corrupt and subject to political manipulation. Courts are concentrated in urban areas, and the majority of the country relies on customary courts. Military courts are used often, even in civilian cases, and are subject to interference from high-ranking military personnel. The judiciary often exhibits bias against opposition and civil society members, while government and government-allied forces often enjoy impunity for even the most heinous crimes. Prison conditions are life-threatening, and long periods of pretrial detention are common.

An October 2015 Human Rights Watch report on the trial of FARDC officers accused of involvement in a 2012 mass rape concluded that the proceedings had failed both the victims and the defendants. Of the 39 soldiers tried in 2014, two were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while over 20 soldiers, most of them low-ranking, were found guilty of minor crimes committed during the attack. Among those acquitted were 13 senior officers. The report charged that inadequate legal expertise, problematic evidence-gathering, and a culture of impunity for high-ranking officers pointed to deficiencies in the overall quality of the judiciary.

Civilian authorities do not maintain effective control of security forces. The FARDC are largely undisciplined, and soldiers and police regularly commit serious human rights abuses, including rape and torture. Low pay and inadequate provisions commonly lead soldiers to seize goods from civilians.

Government and government-allied forces often enjoy impunity for even the most heinous crimes. In March 2015, reports emerged that army personnel had participated in a mass nighttime burial in a village outside of Kinshasa. The government announced in April that 421 bodies had been lawfully buried at the site, among them unidentified individuals, stillborn babies, and people whose families could not pay for burial. However, human rights groups, local medical professionals, and others claimed that the circumstances of the burial were unusual, expressing suspicions that it may contain bodies of people killed or forcibly disappeared by security forces. In June, the relatives of missing activists and protesters filed a request for the grave to be exhumed; the authorities had not agreed to do so at year’s end.

Several former rebel leaders were convicted of human rights violations in foreign and international courts in 2015. In September, a German court found two former leaders of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda guilty of crimes committed in the DRC. Ignace Murwanashyaka was convicted of war crimes and leading a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Straton Musoni was convicted of leading a terrorist organization and sentenced to eight years in prison. Separately, in February, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) upheld the 2012 acquittal of Mathieu Ngudjolo, former senior commander of the Front for National Integration, of the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was deported from the Netherlands to the DRC in May after Dutch authorities dismissed his requests for asylum.

Peace and the rule of law remain obstructed by active rebel groups, primarily concentrated in the country’s eastern and southern provinces. The impact of years of fighting on civilians has been catastrophic, with over five million conflict-related deaths since 1998. The population of those regions is subject to displacement and violence due to continued rebel activity and indiscipline among the armed forces. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that as of March 31, 2015, there were more than 2.8 million internally displaced people in the provinces known as North Kivu, South Kivu, Orientale, Katanga, and Maniema at the time. Continuing fragmentation and changing coalitions among armed groups as well as between armed groups and the FARDC obstruct the de-escalation of conflict.

A wave of alarmingly brutal massacres that began in the Beni territory of North Kivu in October 2014 continued in 2015. The United Nations estimated that close to 600 people had been killed as of November 2015. The DRC government attributed the attacks to the Uganda-based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, perceiving them as a response to a joint operation against the group by the FARDC and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Other observers pointed to a more complex presence of local and international forces and alliances in Beni, and uncertainties remained about the identities and motives of the perpetrators. According to the United Nations, at least 300 people, including 33 FARDC soldiers, were arrested in connection to the violence as of May. ADF leader Jamil Mukulu, accused of orchestrating deadly violence in both Uganda and the DRC, was detained by Tanzanian authorities in April and extradited to Uganda in July.

Ethnic discrimination, including against Kinyarwanda-speaking minority populations, remains a significant problem in some areas of the country. The constitution prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, but they often find it difficult to find employment, attend school, or access government services. Although discrimination based on HIV status is also prohibited, people with HIV face stigma as well as difficulty accessing health care and education. No law specifically prohibits same-sex sexual relations, but legislators have made efforts to criminalize same-sex sexual activity, and individuals can still be prosecuted for such activity under public decency laws.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 5 / 16

Freedom of movement is protected by law. Despite obstacles posed by security forces seeking bribes or travel permits, both domestic and international travel continue.

Individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses, and legal avenues for commercial activity exist. The country’s economy, reliant on the extraction of natural resources, has grown significantly in recent years, though the vast majority of Congolese are not employed in the formal economy. The World Bank estimated an average growth of 8 percent in 2015. Minerals, timber, and gold are components of a broader economy of extraction in which the national army, rebel groups, and political interests are involved. A complicated system of taxation and regulation has made bribery a regular aspect of business dealings, and embezzlement is pervasive.

DRC was recognized as a compliant member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2014 following a one-year suspension. Some progress has been made in the internal management of natural resources, including in implementing tracking and validation mechanisms for “conflict-free” minerals. However, tracking systems remain inefficient. An April 2015 report released by Global Witness and Amnesty International found that 79 percent of companies that filed reports in 2014 in accordance with a U.S. disclosure law on conflict minerals in and around the DRC had failed to comply with minimum reporting requirements.

In conflict zones, various armed groups and FARDC soldiers have seized private property and destroyed homes. The majority of land in the DRC is held through customary tenure, and this lack of legal title to the land leads to regular confiscations of property.

Women face discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, especially in rural areas. Although Article 14 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination against women in any domain, the Family Code prescribes more restrictive roles, requiring that women obey their husbands and obtain their permission to seek employment and engage in legal transactions. Nevertheless, it has been increasingly common in recent years for young women to seek professional work outside the home or engage in commercial activities, particularly in towns and urban centers. Women are greatly underrepresented in government, making up only 9 percent of the National Assembly and 6 percent of the Senate.

Violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence, has soared since fighting began in 1994; sex crimes often affect men and boys as well. Rebels and FARDC soldiers have been implicated in kidnappings, killings, and rape. Convictions for offenses such as mass rape remain rare. Abortion is prohibited, and women’s access to contraception is extremely low; many health care providers require that women obtain permission from their husbands to access family planning services.

The DRC is both a source and destination country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation. Although the law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor, the practice remains common and includes forced child labor in mining, street vending, and agriculture. Various rebel groups have reportedly forced civilians to work for them, at times imposing tolls on vehicles passing through territory held by the groups. The recruitment and use of child soldiers by rebel groups is also widespread.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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