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 2005

2005 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Recent gains made in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), chiefly the inauguration of a still-tenuous national power-sharing government, were threatened in 2004 by political infighting, halting progress in preparing for national elections in July 2005, and violence in the volatile eastern region bordering Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. The instability and violence aggravated ethnic rivalries within the transitional government, which appeared increasingly fragile and incapable of extending its authority throughout the country. Meanwhile, the United Nations authorized the expansion of its forces in the country, and the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into war crimes in the DRC.

As the Congo Free State, and then the Belgian Congo, the vast area of Central Africa that is today the DRC was exploited with a brutality that was extreme even by colonial standards. The country became a center for Cold War rivalries upon Belgium's withdrawal in 1960 and remained so until well after Colonel Joseph Mobutu seized power with CIA backing in 1964; Mobutu soon renamed Congo as Zaire, and himself Mobutu Sese Seko. Western governments chose to ignore Mobutu's severe repression of his people and the financial excesses that made him one of the world's richest men and contributed to making his countrymen among the world's poorest people.

Domestic agitation for democratization and a post-Cold War loss of Western support 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. However, Mobutu delayed and manipulated the transition.

More than the widespread opposition to his rule, it was the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people in neighboring Rwanda that triggered Mobutu's demise. He had allowed the Hutu Interahamwe - a Rwandan Hutu militia responsible for the massacre of about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus - to base themselves in his country, then still known as Zaire. In 1996, 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; the country was subsequently renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mobutu fled to Morocco and died of cancer there a few months later.

A subsequent armed conflict erupted in late 1998 after Kabila fell out with Uganda and Rwanda. However, a peace agreement in 1999, the Lusaka accord, obliged Rwanda to withdraw its troops, which had entered the DRC in 1996 to pursue the Interahamwe. After Kabila was assassinated in January 2001, his son Joseph revived the 1999 Lusaka peace accord and furthered the consolidation of a ceasefire.

The war at some point had drawn forces from at least eight countries into the fighting: Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe on the side of Kabila; and Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda on the side of the rebels. By the end of 2002, Angola, Burundi, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe had all withdrawn their troops from the DRC, while Uganda and Rwanda officially withdrew their forces in 2003.

Under an accord reached in December 2002 in Pretoria, South Africa, the DRC is now run by a two-year transitional government headed by President Joseph Kabila. Multiparty elections are mandated by July 2005, although the government will be hard-pressed to adhere to this timetable unless security conditions improve. During the last two years, the transitional government has been troubled by serious internal divisions. In October 2003, the Mayi-Mayi militia and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) former rebel movement signed a ceasefire agreement. Until then, fighting had continued unabated between their troops, even though both are signatories to the national power-sharing accord. In 2004, the RCD briefly suspended its participation in the government following the massacre of 160 ethnic Tutsis at a refugee camp in Burundi, in which Rwandan and Congolese rebel groups were accused of collaborating, a claim that was later discredited by Human Rights Watch. In June 2004, the government faced another crisis when Rwandan-backed rebels and renegade army officers seized the strategic town of Bukavu and other locations, occupying the area for a week until UN peacekeepers convinced them to withdraw.

Moreover, none of the militias operating in the northeastern Ituri region are signatories to the national power-sharing agreement, and they have complained of being excluded from the transition process. Despite assurances of cooperation by these armed groups, the killing, torture, rape, and abduction of civilians to forced labor camps continue to be reported. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 5,000 civilians were killed in Ituri between July 2002 and early 2003, with hundreds more having died over the past year. There are some 4,500 U.N. peacekeepers deployed in the Ituri region, and that number will be increased with the imminent expansion of the DRC mission. A UN arms embargo remains in effect, although all armed factions seem to face no shortage of weaponry.

In September 2004, the UN Security Council authorized the expansion of the UN force in the DRC from 10,800 to 16,700, including the rapid deployment of another 3,300 peacekeepers to the troubled eastern provinces. A UN-led disarmament and reintegration program for the estimated 15,000 rebel fighters (including child soldiers) in the Ituri region got off to a slow start in September, with most of the Congolese militias operating in the area failing to honor earlier commitments to lay down their arms. Although the leaders of seven armed groups in Ituri had agreed in May to end hostilities, clashes and the killings of civilians persist.

A UN panel investigating the plunder of natural resources in the DRC confirmed that the war evoked competition to control the DRC's vast diamond and other mineral wealth, and this illicit economic exploitation persists through proxy militias controlled by neighboring countries and government officials. The UN peacekeeping mission warned in an August 2004 report that violence in the Ituri region would persist until the government assumed control of the extraction of natural resources there. At the request of the DRC government, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in the DRC in June.

Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions among the Great Lakes countries culminated in September with the governments of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda signing agreements pledging to resolve their differences peacefully and to disarm all rebel groups operating in their territories and that threaten the security of neighboring states. The DRC and Rwanda also signed a deal to establish a joint verification mechanism to improve security along their common border. However, the DRC government's ability to impose its will in many areas of the country remains tenuous, at best.

Most people live marginal lives as subsistence farmers, even though the country contains vast natural resources. Despite rampant corruption and smuggling, the DRC's economy continued to recover in 2004, posting growth of six percent, albeit from a very low base. The IMF and World Bank, as well as foreign donors and the African Development Bank, stepped up assistance to the country in the form of grants, loans, and debt forgiveness.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of the DRC cannot change their government through democratic means. There are no elected representatives in the entire country. Large portions of the DRC remain essentially ungoverned, subject to local warlords or militia. Former leader Mobutu Sese Seko'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, although the United Nations and South Africa are working with the government and the Independent Electoral Commission to provide support for the presidential and legislative polls slated for 2005.

President Joseph Kabila heads a two-year transitional government of national unity that consists of 4 vice presidents, 36 ministers, and 24 vice ministers shared among various factions. Extensive executive, legislative, and military powers are vested in the president and vice presidents. Key ministries are shared among the government and the two main former rebel groups - the RCD and the Uganda-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).

In accordance with a transitional constitution adopted in April 2003, the National Assembly and the Senate convened later that year in the capital, Kinshasa. The National Assembly consists of 500 appointed members from the parties to the intra-Congolese dialogue: namely, the former Kinshasa government, the unarmed political opposition, civil society, and former rebel movements. The Senate is made up of 120 appointees from the various parties to the national power-sharing accord. Its first task will be to draft legislation in line with the transitional constitution, such as laws on nationality, the functioning and organization of political parties, electoral law, and institutional management, as well as enacting a general amnesty for all former combatants. Civil society representatives head five other constitutionally mandated bodies on human rights, the media, truth and reconciliation, elections, and the fight against corruption.

At least 400 political parties registered after their 1990 legalization, but they were later banned under Laurent Kabila. Following the passage, in April 2004, of new electoral laws, 34 of 239 existing political parties were dissolved for failing to register with the government before a six-month deadline. Most former rebel groups are now authorized to act as political parties.

Corruption is rampant throughout the country. The DRC was ranked 133 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is limited. Defamation carries a prison sentence of up to five years, and journalists are often jailed as soon as they are accused, under a policy of preventive detention. However, the new constitution contains several articles intended to guarantee free expression, and the government has created a national law reform commission tasked with amending legislation that curtails the media. The UN broadcaster, Radio Okapi, has expanded its coverage of the country to include several local languages. The Catholic Church operates the Elikya radio network throughout most of the country. At least 30 independent newspapers are published regularly in Kinshasa but are not widely circulated beyond the city. Although the government does not restrict access to the Internet, very few people can afford the connection costs or have computers and reliable electricity.

Despite some statutory protections, independent journalists are frequently threatened, arrested, or attacked by both rebel groups and government officials. A June mutiny in the town of Bukavu prompted a government crackdown on the press, with authorities issuing several directives restricting coverage and jailing at least four journalists. Attackers allegedly led by an army officer severely beat another journalist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which led an investigation to the area. Rebels also shut down Bukavu's three leading community radio stations and threatened at least four journalists.

The transitional constitution provides for freedom of religion, and this right is generally respected in practice, although religious groups must register with the government to be recognized. Academic freedom is restricted in practice. Fears of government harassment often lead university professors to engage in self-censorship.

Freedom of assembly and association allowed by law is limited in practice. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate despite intimidation and arrest. The June unrest in Bukavu, including looting and attacks on humanitarian agencies, forced almost 200 aid workers, working in more than 30 international organizations, to leave the area and brought critical assistance operations to a virtual halt. Humanitarian workers have also been attacked in many of the country's larger cities.

More than 100 new independent unions were registered after the end of one-party rule in 1990, but they remained largely an urban phenomenon. 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 (business) economy and its replacement by the black market.

Despite guarantees of independence, in practice the judiciary remains subject to corruption and manipulation by both official and non-state actors. However, there are some indications that the nearly defunct legal system is beginning to revive. A court in Ituri resumed hearing cases after suspending work in 2003 because of poor security conditions, although it has generally avoided investigating the most serious human rights abuses. In its highest-profile conviction so far, the court sentenced the former security chief of the Union of Congolese Patriots, blamed for numerous abuses in the region, to 20 years in prison for condoning torture and arbitrary arrests; the UPC is currently recognized as a legal political party. Prison conditions are often harsh and life-threatening.

The conflict in the DRC has directly and indirectly claimed the lives of an estimated 3.3 million people, according to the International Rescue Committee; this makes it the most deadly conflict since World War II. By UN estimates, another 2.7 million people were displaced. The UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in the DRC confirmed that genocide may have occurred in the Ituri region and reported extrajudicial executions in South Kivu province and throughout the eastern parts of the country. Humanitarian agencies say that up to 150,000 people have been displaced by the latest round of fighting. Recruitment of child soldiers remains a serious problem. International human rights groups say that 30,000 children are serving in government and rebel groups, accounting for about 10 percent of the total combatants in the DRC. Ethnic societal discrimination is practiced widely among the country's 200 ethnic groups.

Despite constitutional guarantees, women face de facto discrimination, especially in rural areas, where there is in any case little government presence. They also enjoy fewer employment and educational opportunities than men and often do not receive equal pay for equal work. Violence against women, including rape and forced sexual slavery, has soared since the onset of armed conflict in 1996. Children continue to face forced conscription by all sides in the conflict, although the government appeared to be scaling back this practice. The Save the Children organization has ranked the DRC among the world's five worst conflict zones in which to be a woman or child.