Once again, the cycle of instability and political uncertainty has the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on high alert and agreements between prominent political actors have done little to stem the tide of violence.
The situation has become so dire that Congolese nationals at home and abroad have raised concerns about the safety of civilians. These were echoed by the United Nations during a recent Security Council meeting.
Until the end of 2016, the insecurity was limited to the country’s eastern Ituri region but violence is now being reported in Kasai in the central region of the country.
The renewed instability is partially a consequence of the failure by the Congolese government to organise the general elections in 2016, as per the country’s constitution.
This is considered by some as a deliberate political move orchestrated by the “Majorite Presidentielle” ruling coalition. In response, frustrated local communities have used violent protests to send a strong, clear message of dissent to the government. Of course, these protests are also politically motivated and maintained.
In the face of this persistent insecurity, violence and political instability, scholars and policymakers have not been able to map out a viable peace plan. Peace talks alone are proving to be ineffective because the problems are structural. Institutional crisis, poverty, inequality, individualistic leadership – and lack of political will to resolve these – are all key factors in the ongoing conflict. These need to be addressed if the DRC is ever to break the cycle of insecurity it’s caught up in.
Struggle for legitimacy
Ever since the 2016 elections were postponed, parliament, the senate and other executive institutions have been operating “off mandate”. Officials within the executive and legislative branches of government will continue to perform their functions until fresh elections are held.
This is in line with the constitutional court’s interpretation of the constitution. But this doesn’t address the issue of legitimacy.
Legitimacy must be socially as well as legally recognised. Recent protests suggest that the current government isn’t perceived as legitimate by the people of the DRC. And they are likely to continue until a legitimate government is installed.
Institutional legitimacy is key to the stability and security of the DRC. This legitimacy can only be rebuilt through fair and inclusive elections. Failure to follow this route will result in a cycle of violence and instability.
Addressing social and economic inequality
While institutional illegitimacy is a major hurdle to peace and stability in the DRC, the violence is also anchored in poverty and economic inequality.
The UN’s latest Multidimensional Poverty Index reports that 77.1% of the Congolese population live below the poverty line. Therefore, any peace plan that doesn’t take a proper look at the social and economic factors that feed conflict will be meaningless.
The more people are deprived of basic human needs, the greater the chance of violent protest. Conversely, poverty alleviation and access to economic opportunities would reduce violence in the DRC.
To raise the majority of the country out of poverty the government must invest in initiatives that promote economic and financial inclusion from the ground up. Change in the DRC will only occur if it’s nurtured from the grassroots.
Good governance and leadership
The stability of any country also depends on its ability to transition peacefully from one leader to another. If the DRC had invested in a mechanism for the peaceful transition of power the country wouldn’t be in turmoil today.
With more than half of its population being under the age of 24, the country has extraordinary potential for socioeconomic advancement. But this can only be achieved if the political class includes the youth in decision-making processes with a view to entrenching a culture of transferable leadership.
This would require fundamental changes in the leadership approach and a shift towards ethical, humanistic and inclusive practices. Political actors must put aside their own individualistic interests and ambitions for the benefit of the national interest.
For institutional reform, economic restructuring and the peaceful transfer of power to happen, politicians and policymakers must act in good faith. The history of the DRC suggests that there’s no political will for change. But the new wave of young leaders who are hungry for change may be able to put enough pressure on government to effect it.