Democratic Republic of the Congo

Not Free
PR Political Rights 4 40
CL Civil Liberties 14 60
Last Year's Score & Status
15 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

The political system in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been paralyzed in recent years by the manipulation of electoral laws and process by political elites. Citizens are unable to freely exercise basic civil liberties, and corruption is endemic throughout the government. Physical security is tenuous due to violence and human rights abuses committed by government forces, as well as armed rebel groups and militias that are active in many areas of the country.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • In January, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared that Félix Tshisekedi defeated the opposition bloc’s candidate, Martin Fayulu, 38.6 to 34.8 percent, in the December 2018 presidential election. The poll was marred by widespread international and domestic criticism of voter suppression and electoral fraud.
  • Tshisekedi took over as president in January from Joseph Kabila, whose last term had officially expired in 2016. Tshisekedi, head of an on-again-off-again opposition party, was widely presumed to have come to power via a backroom deal that gave him the win in exchange for his participation in outgoing president Kabila’s ruling-party coalition.
  • President Tshisekedi publicly affirmed civil rights and political liberties in speeches since taking office, and opposition and civil society groups have been able to operate more freely since the election period concluded. However, media closures, arrests of journalists, impunity in courts have also continued.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

According to the constitution, the president is chief of state and is elected for a maximum of two five-year terms. The prime minister is head of government, and is formally appointed by the president.

Former president Joseph Kabila overstayed his constitutional mandate by two years, leaving the DRC without an elected head of government for a period starting in late 2016. A contentious Constitutional Court ruling that year allowed him to remain in office until a successor was in place, and the CENI later canceled the year’s mandated general elections, citing violence along with logistical and other issues. Elections were repeatedly postponed by the CENI, despite mediation effects by the Roman Catholic Church’s National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), and ultimately not held until December 30, 2018.

In January 2019, the CENI declared that Félix Tshisekedi had defeated the opposition bloc’s candidate, Martin Fayulu, 38.6 to 34.8 percent, amid widespread international and domestic criticism of voter suppression and electoral fraud. Tshisekedi, head of an on-again-off-again opposition party, was widely presumed to have come to power via a backroom deal that gave him the win in exchange for participating in outgoing president Kabila’s ruling-party coalition. Throughout much of the electoral process, Kabila’s coalition, the Common Front for Congo (FCC), had backed Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, but Shadary held little popular support. The arrangement to replace Shadary made Tshisekedi a conduit for Kabila to retain significant political power while formally exiting the presidency. Several opposition candidates were barred from competing in the poll.

The CENI announced its satisfaction with the elections, but CENCO stated that the CENI’s results “do not correspond to the data collected by our observation mission,” and CENCO’s tally—reportedly reviewed by multiple independent auditors—supported their contention that Fayulu won the elections, with around 60 percent of the vote. An internet shutdown from December 31 to January 11, suspension of text messaging services, and the expulsion of some foreign journalists during this time obstructed accurate reporting on the aftermath of the vote. Moreover, CENI only released its national tally, further preventing observers from assessing where tampering occurred.

Observers from the Catholic Church and the civil society coalition Synergy of Citizen Election Observation Missions (SYMOCEL) reported massive fraud and irregularities in voting, and the African Union (AU) also expressed serious doubts about the result. Foreign election observers were not permitted to operate. Citizens in three opposition areas—Beni territory and Butembo in North Kivu Province and Yumbi in Mai-Ndombe Province—were prevented from voting, officially for security and public health concerns; residents viewed the decision as politically motivated. This restriction disenfranchised 1.2 million voters. CENI’s official results reported a margin of victory that was a little over half the number of voters disenfranchised in opposition areas.

CENCO reported widespread violations of ballot-validation procedures, large vote-counting discrepancies, and confusion over the locations of vote-counting centers. Many polling stations were closed or opened late, and results were not publicly posted at some sites, in violation of electoral law. Election observers were denied access to polling stations in some cases.

In May 2019, months after Tshisekedi took office, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba, a Kabila ally, was appointed prime minister. In August 2019, Tshisekedi formed a power-sharing government with the FCC.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1.001 4.004

The DRC has a bicameral national legislature with a 500-seat National Assembly directly elected for five-year terms, and a 108-seat Senate elected by provincial assemblies. Senators hold a five-year mandate. The DRC’s 715 provincial legislators elect national senators and provincial governors. Eight Senate seats are reserved for customary chiefs.

National Assembly elections were held concurrently with the presidential vote in December 2018, and were also criticized as deeply flawed. Kabila’s coalition took 341 out of 500 seats, Fayulu’s opposition coalition took 112 seats, and Tshisekedi’s coalition took only 47 seats. Because elections were postponed until March 2019 in opposition areas of Beni, Butembo, and Yumbi, voters in these areas were prevented from influencing the National Assembly race.

Senate elections were held in March 2019. Kabila’s coalition took 91 out of the 101 elected Senate seats. Provincial elections, last held in December 2018, were compromised by vote buying, so national senators are not freely elected. As a former president, Kabila holds a lifetime Senate appointment, and remains the leader of the majority.

The electoral mandate of the previous National Assembly had expired in 2016. Provincial assembly elections were last held in 2006, and Senate elections were last held in 2007.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because elections to both legislative houses held in 2018 and 2019, while severely flawed, ended a period in which the incumbent legislature had operated with no electoral mandate.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The country’s electoral framework does not ensure transparent elections in practice. Opposition parties and civil society frequently criticize CENI and the Constitutional Court for lacking independence, and for bias in favor of Kabila. Throughout 2018 and 2019, the political opposition repeatedly protested that the electoral process was unfair. In January 2019, Fayulu launched an unsuccessful appeal at the Constitutional Court to nullify the result of the presidential election.

The United States in February announced diplomatic sanctions on CENI president Corneille Nangaa, along with the CENI vice president, the National Assembly president, and chief judge of the Constitutional Court, for electoral fraud. It added financial sanctions against Nangaa and two CENI members in March for inflating by up to $100 million the cost of voting machines, and embezzling other CENI funds.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

People have the right to organize political parties. Hundreds of parties exist, with many configured along ethnic, communal, or regional lines. However, most lack national reach, and their ability to function is limited in practice. Opposition leaders and their supporters are often intimidated and face restrictions on their movement and right to campaign or organize public events.

Opposition and government coalitions were restructured in the lead-up to the December 2018 elections. In June 2018, Kabila and his party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), formed the FCC, which included parliamentary leaders, governors, and some civil society members and journalists. Key opposition groupings include the Lamuka (Wake Up) coalition, which chose Martin Fayulu as its presidential candidate. President Félix Tshisekedi leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, which in August 2019 finally formed a power-sharing government with Kabila’s majority coalition. (Tshisekedi is the son of longtime opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, who died in 2017.)

Opposition parties were able to operate more freely in 2019; for example, many were able to secure coverage on the radio by newly reopened stations, which had previously been shuttered by Kabila. Under Tshisekedi’s government, some opposition members were also released from prison, and some politicians living in exile were permitted to return.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

Although opposition groups enjoy significant public support, the repeated postponement of and government interference in elections have prevented the opposition from gaining power through electoral competition.

The government invested heavily in Shadary’s campaign and prevented the opposition Lamuka coalition, led by Fayulu, from rising to power despite evidence that it won the vote. In the run-up to the 2018 elections, the CENI rejected the candidacy of six opposition politicians, including former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba and former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi. Government authorities regularly blocked or delayed the campaign activities of opposition candidates. Authorities also helped facilitate the movement and campaign activities of Kabila’s favored candidate. Nonstate armed groups also obstructed candidate movements and looted opposition offices.

In May 2019, Tshisekedi reversed Kabila’s decision and permitted Katumbi to return to the country.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

The military, security services, and armed rebel or militia groups interfere with citizens’ political choices. Systematic repression in major cities across the country intensified in the lead-up to the December 2018 elections, including excessive force against opposition demonstrators by government personnel who employed tear gas and live ammunition, as well as reports of people being paid to provoke violence during opposition rallies. In some areas, soldiers and armed groups at polling stations reportedly coerced voters to cast ballots for Kabila’s FCC. The activities of nonstate armed groups in parts of the country also hindered citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. Security forces arrested a political activist in Butembo in January for calling for voting rights when the area was prevented from participating in elections.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

Ethnic discrimination and lack of access to public services and state institutions in rural areas hinder political participation; certain segments of the population, such as indigenous groups, are particularly marginalized. Women are severely underrepresented in government, holding only 44 seats in the National Assembly (or 9 percent of total seats) and 5 seats in the Senate (less than 5 percent of total seats). Of the 21 registered candidates for president in December 2018, only one was a woman. Internally displaced people throughout the country faced practical obstacles to participating in recent elections.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Massive electoral fraud and irregularities prevent democratically elected officials from determining government policies. Prior to the December 2018 and March 2019 elections, the incumbent president, national legislature, and provincial assemblies had exceeded their electoral mandates by two years or more, undermining the legitimacy of their decisions on state policy and other matters. Despite Kabila’s departure from presidency, he retains substantial political power in the national legislature, as his FCC coalition holds control over both houses.

The government lacks effective control over some parts of the country, particularly in North and South Kivu provinces.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Corruption in the government, security forces, and mineral extraction industries is extensive and has corroded public services and development efforts. Appointments to high-level positions in government are often determined by nepotism. Accountability mechanisms are weak, and impunity is commonplace.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

Despite previous, 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 records on public expenditures and state operations. Required financial disclosures from top officials have not typically been made public.

Nonetheless, Tshisekedi’s government has enforced some transparency-related regulations, and carries more confidence from international financial institutions. In December 2019, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lifted its ban on providing aid to the DRC.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

Although press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, journalists often face criminal defamation suits, threats, detentions, arbitrary arrests, and physical attacks in the course of their work. Radio is the dominant medium, and newspapers and state-sponsored news channels are found in large cities. While journalists frequently criticize authorities, political harassment of reporters is common, and outlets are often pressured to carry progovernment content. Some foreign reporters were barred from the country during the last national elections. Since Tshisekedi came to power, journalists have been harassed and jailed for covering the political activities of runner-up Martin Fayulu, and others have been harassed by Lamuka supporters for favorable coverage of the FCC or Tshisekedi.

In 2019, there were a number of reported cases of intelligence and security services interfering with the media. Several journalists covering demonstrations or politics were detained, arrested, and beaten by state agents. Radio and television signals were cut in Goma during attempts by security forces to break up civilian protests, and in Kinshasa in June after channels aired views sympathetic with the political opposition.

Lwemba Community Radio journalist Papy Mahamba Mumbere was murdered at his house in November 2019; he had recently presented information on anti-Ebola measures that local armed groups reportedly opposed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), two journalists missing for over 15 years remained so in 2019.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3.003 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and authorities generally respect this right in practice. Although religious groups must register with the government to be recognized, unregistered groups operate unhindered. Some church facilities, personnel, and services have been affected by violence in conflict areas.

The Catholic Church and some Protestant groups pressed for credible elections and aired public dissatisfaction with national election results throughout 2019. Authorities’ aggressive response to their protest activities sometimes entailed violence in and around places of worship.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2.002 4.004

There are no formal restrictions on academic freedom. Primary and secondary school curriculums are regulated but not strongly politicized. However, political events and protests at universities and schools are subject to violent repression. In October 2018, for example, police used force and tear gas to disperse an assembly at a school in Lubumbashi, injuring and arresting protesters. In November 2018, two students were killed when police fired live ammunition to disperse a campus protest against a teachers’ strike at the University of Kinshasa. Armed group attacks have also targeted schools, preventing children from enjoying rights to education.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

Private discussion of politically sensitive topics can be open, but political dissent by average civilians if detected is routinely repressed, and conditions grew worse during the political crisis surrounding Kabila’s tenure.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and demonstrations are held regularly, but those who participate risk arrests, beatings, and lethal violence. The government repeatedly banned opposition demonstrations and used force against protesters during 2019. Among other incidents throughout the year, security forces killed at least 10 civilians while dispersing election-related protests across the country in January. In June, security forces fired live ammunition to suppress an anti-FCC protest in Goma, killing one demonstrator, and fired tear gas at Kinshasa protestors that supported the political opposition. Assembly without political objectives was also repressed during 2019, as was the case in January when university students in Lubumbashi protested water and power cuts.

However, while the environment for free assembly remains restricted, the mass arrests and killings of protesters that took place in 2017 have not been repeated, and some small and medium-sized gatherings have been permitted to go forward. An anticorruption protest in Kinshasa in October 2019, while delayed for several days by the authorities, eventually went forward without major incident, and attracted several hundred people.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because while the environment remains highly restrictive, the mass arrests and killings of protesters in 2017 have not been repeated, and some gatherings have been permitted to go forward.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

Thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active in the DRC, but many face obstacles to their work. Domestic human rights advocates in particular are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and detention, and pressure became acute during the election periods in 2018 and 2019.

However, repression has receded somewhat since Tshisekedi took office. He has publicly expressed commitment to protecting human rights, and in April 2019, took the symbolic step of meeting with the widow of well-known human rights advocate Floribert Chebeya.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because the severe repression of human rights and democracy advocates that accompanied the election period in 2018 and early 2019 eased after the poll’s conclusion.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

A number of national labor unions and professional associations, covering parts of the public and private sectors, operate legally in the DRC, but the overwhelming majority of workers are informally employed. Some civil servants and members of state security forces are not permitted to unionize and bargain collectively. Violations of the procedures for a legal strike can result in prison terms. Although it is against the law for employers to retaliate against workers for union activities, such legal protections are poorly enforced.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

The judiciary is often seen as corrupt and subject to political manipulation. It often shows bias against the opposition and civil society, while government allies typically enjoy impunity for abuses.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

Courts are concentrated in urban areas; the majority of the country relies on customary courts or informal justice mechanisms. Civilians are often tried in military courts, which have weak safeguards for defendants’ rights and are subject to interference from high-ranking military personnel. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, as is prolonged pretrial detention. Much of the prison population consists of pretrial detainees.

A number of important criminal cases have recently been opened or concluded. In June 2019, a trial began for security officials and police implicated in the murders of Burundian asylum seekers. Separately, a former rebel commander and military officer were convicted in 2019 for war crimes including rape and the use of child soldiers; however, the trial revealed difficulties in the judicial system, including intimidation of witnesses.

Courts have failed to provide justice for a 2014 massacre in South Kivu in which at least 30 civilians were killed. There has been and limited redress for the more than 1,000 civilians killed over the past five years in Beni, North Kivu. Congo’s courts have granted reparations to victims of sexual violence and serious crimes, but these are rarely paid in practice.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

Prison conditions are life-threatening, and torture of detainees is common. Civilian authorities do not effectively control security forces. The military is notoriously undisciplined. Incidents of soldiers exchanging intelligence and weapons with rebel or militia groups continued during 2019. Soldiers and police regularly commit serious human rights abuses, including rape and other physical attacks, and high-ranking military officials enjoy impunity for crimes. Government forces have participated in summary killings and forced disappearances, and the judicial system has not held officials accountable. Senior intelligence officials accused of serious human rights abuses have not been tried for their acts.

Armed groups have also contributed to years of conflicts and communal violence that have had a catastrophic impact on civilians, with over five million conflict-related deaths since 1998. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and New York University’s (NYU) Congo Research Group, the number of armed groups in the DRC increased to at least 130 by August 2019, from an estimated 70 in 2015, in a reflection of an increasingly fragmented conflict. From January to May 2019, between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters agreed to or expressed interest in surrender, but no demobilization program was available.

In July, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Bosco Ntaganda—the former armed group commander promoted to the acting commander of military operations of the Congolese national army—guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Security forces killed Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) leader Sylvestre Mudacumura, who was wanted by the ICC for war crimes, in September.

Ebola response teams continued to be subject to violence in 2019, especially in the province of North Kivu, as well as in adjoining Ituri.

Since taking office, President Tshisekedi has removed some officials accused of human rights abuses from high-level security posts, but has appointed at least one other agent also accused of repressing political activists.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

Ethnic discrimination is common and is a factor in local armed conflicts across the country. While the constitution prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, they often encounter obstacles to finding employment, attending school, or accessing government services. Discrimination based on HIV status is also prohibited, but people with HIV similarly face difficulties accessing health care and education. LGBT+ people can be prosecuted for same-sex sexual activity under public decency laws.

Although the constitution prohibits discrimination against women, in practice they face discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, especially in rural areas. The family code assigns women a subordinate role in the household. Young women are increasingly seeking professional work outside the home, particularly in urban centers, though they continue to face disparities in wages and promotions. When families are short on money to pay school fees, boys are often favored over girls to receive education.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of movement is protected by law but seriously curtailed in practice, in large part due to armed conflicts and other security problems. An estimated 4.8 million people are displaced within the country. Various armed groups and government forces impose illegal tolls on travelers passing through territory under their control.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

Individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses. In conflict zones, armed groups and government soldiers have seized private property and destroyed homes. Property ownership and business activity are also hampered by pervasive corruption and a complicated system of taxation and regulation that encourages bribery.

Although the constitution prohibits discrimination against women, some laws and customary practices put women at a disadvantage with respect to inheritance and land ownership.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Sexual and gender-based violence is common, especially in conflict zones; sex crimes affect women, girls, men, and boys. Rebel fighters and government soldiers have regularly been implicated in rape and sexual abuse. Rebel commanders have abducted girls into forced marriages. Convictions for these offenses remain rare. Abortion is prohibited except to save the life of a pregnant woman, and illegal abortions can draw lengthy prison sentences.

The family code obliges wives to obey their husbands, who are designated as the heads of their households. Married women are under the legal guardianship of their husbands. Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, many women are married earlier.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Formal protections against economic exploitation are poorly enforced, and most Congolese are informally employed. Although the law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor, such practices are common and include forced child labor in mining, street vending, domestic service, and agriculture. Some government forces and other armed groups force civilians to work for them, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers remains widespread.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    19 100 not free