Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa) | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa)

Congo, Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa)

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Congo (Kinshasa's) political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to the government's efforts to carry out dialogue with its political opposition to end the war.


A young assassin in the military ended the life of President Laurent Kabila in January 2001. Kabila's son, Joseph, stepped in and soon met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the United States, setting in motion the revival of the 1999 Lusaka peace accord. The government in August 2001 met with rebel factions as well as political parties and civil society groups for the first time since the war erupted, as a precursor to an inter-Congolese dialogue. They decided on a series of confidence-building initiatives including the release of political prisoners, respect for human rights, and the free movement of goods and people. The dialogue, which is supposed to lead to elections, got under way in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in October, but financial constraints allowed for only about one-quarter of the 330 proposed delegates to attend. The government delegation walked out, and plans were under way to resume discussions in early 2002. Kabila and his backers want guarantees of a full withdrawal of Rwandan and Ugandan troops before considering a power-sharing arrangement with anti-government rebels. The rebels and their sponsors, including Rwanda and Uganda, want a transitional government and security guarantees before withdrawing their forces.

As the Belgian Congo, the vast area of central Africa that is today the Democratic Republic of Congo was exploited with a brutality that was notable even by colonial standards. The country was a center for Cold War rivalries from Belgium's withdrawal in 1960 until well after Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu came to power with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency backing in 1964. The pro-Western Mobutu was forgiven for severe repression and financial excesses that made him one of the world's richest men and his countrymen among the world's poorest people. Domestic agitation for democratization forced Mobutu to open up the political process in 1990. In 1992, his Popular Revolutionary Movement, the sole legal party after 1965, and the Sacred Union of the Radical Opposition and Allied Civil Society, a coalition of 200 groups, joined scores of others in a national conference to establish the High Council of the Republic to oversee a democratic transition. Mobutu manipulated and delayed the transition.

Despite widespread domestic opposition to his rule, it was the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda that triggered Mobutu's demise after he allowed Hutu Interahamwe fighters to base themselves in his country, which was then known as Zaire. Rwanda and Uganda easily tapped into popular hatred for Mobutu in their seven-month advance on Kinshasa. They installed Laurent Kabila, who at the time was a semi-retired guerrilla fighter, as the head of their rebellion and toppled the Mobutu regime in May 1997. Mobutu fled to Morocco and died of cancer a few months later. The new war erupted in late 1998 after Kabila fell out with those who had put him in power.

The war at some point has drawn forces from at least eight countries into the fighting, including Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan on the side of Kabila, and Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi on the part of the rebels. Former Rwandan militia, former Rwandan armed forces members, and Mai-Mai guerrillas have also joined in repelling the rebel attack. The three main rebel groups are the Movement for the Liberation of Congo and two factions of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). Splits in the rebel ranks and disagreements between their backers, Uganda and Rwanda, have hindered both peace efforts and their military endeavor.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited the Democratic Republic of Congo in September 2001 and said he was encouraged by recent efforts to end the war. About 2,000 UN troops are in the country to help monitor the ceasefire and troop withdrawals. A voluntary disarmament program is to follow the deployment. Although there have been a number of violations of the ceasefire, there has been some progress.

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has directly and indirectly claimed an estimated 2.5 million lives in the past three years and more than 2 million people have been uprooted. Human rights abuses remained rampant across the country in 2001, although repression by the government eased slightly. Opposition supporters, journalists, and human rights workers are routinely arrested and harassed, and public demonstrations are suppressed. Unfair trials, rapes, and extrajudicial executions are also reported. International human rights officials, however, welcomed the holding of a national conference in Kinshasa in June to develop a human rights agenda.

The black market has largely replaced the formal economy. Most of the country's people live marginal lives as subsistence farmers despite vast resources of timber, diamonds, copper, and other minerals. A UN-appointed panel recommended in April 2001 that sanctions be taken against Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi for becoming involved in the war to profit from the Democratic Republic of Congo's resources. The International Monetary Fund in July 2001 commended the Kabila government's efforts at economic reform. Kabila, like the Ugandan and Rwandan governments he was close to before his father seized power, began courting Western donors immediately upon assuming the presidency. In September 2001, he sacked the senior executives of all public sector firms, including the copper and cobalt mining giant Gecamines, following an audit that uncovered gross mismanagement. Mining and investment codes have been revised, and new telecommunications and electricity acts have been drafted.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have never been permitted to choose or change their government through democratic and peaceful means. There are no elected representatives in the entire country. Mobutu's successive unopposed presidential victories and legislative polls were little more than political theater. Infrastructure and institutions to support a free and fair election are almost entirely absent. Laurent Kabila installed a new parliament in August 2000, but it is no more representative than any of the other assemblies before it.

At least 400 political parties registered after their 1990 legalization, but they were later banned under Laurent Kabila. Although he eased restrictions with a new law in January 1999, political activity remains harshly suppressed and opposition members are routinely harassed and detained. The 1999 law gives broad powers to the ministry of the interior to suspend or disband parties "in the event of violation of the law and emergency or the risk of serious public disorder."

A decree provides for independence of the judiciary, but in practice it is subject to corruption and manipulation. The president may dismiss magistrates at will. Courts are grossly ineffective in protecting constitutional rights, and security forces and government officials generally act with impunity. The civil judiciary is largely dysfunctional. Military courts deliver harsh sentences to civilians on questionable security and political convictions. Defendants have no automatic right of appeal to a higher court; many lack counsel, are held incommunicado, and can be subjected to torture. Long periods of pretrial detention are common in prisons in which poor diet and medical care can be life threatening.

Serious human rights abuses by Kabila's armed forces and rebel soldiers continued in 2001. Violations included extrajudicial executions, torture, rapes, beatings, and arbitrary detention. Ethnic killings by both government and rebel forces have been reported. Several hundred thousand civilians have fled to neighboring countries or have become internally displaced. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate despite intimidation and frequent arrest. The government set free more than 200 inmates in 2001 as part of an agreement it signed with other parties in the conflict.

Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are sharply limited by decree. Statutes provide for freedom of the press, but the government continued to sharply restrict the work of journalists. Church-run radio networks are growing, but the state-controlled broadcasting network reaches the largest numbers of citizens. A number of independent newspapers are published in Kinshasa, but they are not widely circulated beyond the city. Independent journalists are frequently threatened, arrested, or attacked, which prompts self-censorship. Common accusations include "relaying intelligence to the enemy," "discouraging the population of soldiers," and "divulging state secrets or defense secrets." Several journalists were detained across the country in 2001 and held in life threatening conditions. The Kinshasa-based Journalists in Danger said in October 2000 that more than 100 journalists had been detained for long periods since Laurent Kabila came to power in 1997. It said "the press has practically ceased to exist" in rebel-held areas of the country.

Freedom of religion is respected in practice, although religious groups must register with the government to be recognized. Members of the Roman Catholic Church in rebel-held areas face intimidation. Ethnic tension is rife in the east. Clashes between the Hema and Lendu groups in the northeast early in the year displaced at least 10,000 people and left hundreds dead.

Despite constitutional protections, women face de facto discrimination, especially in rural areas. They also enjoy fewer employment and educational opportunities and often do not receive equal pay for equal work. Violence against women, including forced sexual slavery, has soared since the onset of armed conflict in 1996. Children faced forced conscription from all sides in the conflict.

More than 100 new independent unions registered after the end of one-party rule in 1990. Previously, all unions had to affiliate themselves with a confederation that was part of the ruling party. Some unions are affiliated with political parties, and labor leaders and activists have faced harassment. There is little union activity, owing to the breakdown of the country's formal economy. Civil servants who work in public institutions that have largely ceased to function are often owed months of salary arrears.