What Went Wrong in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

By: Matthew Thran

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a tumultuous history dating back to its colonization and subsequent genocide by King Leopold II and Belgium.[1] Belgium maintained control of the Congo from 1879 to 1960.[2] In June 1960 the Congo gained its independence from Belgium and appointed Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu as president.[3] Unfortunately, Kasavubu only remained President for 5 years, at which time the a coupe led by Joseph Mobutu overthrew the government and seized power for Mobuto.[4] Mobuto renamed the country Zaire and ruled as a dictator for 32 years.[5]

However, in May 1997 a group of anti-Mobuto rebels, aided by Rwanda, stormed Kinshasa and gained control of the government.[6] The rebels installed Laurent-Desire Kabila as the president of the newly renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.[7] Despite the formation of new government and Laurent-Desire Kabila’s appointment as president a war continued to rage throughout the Congo.[8] In August 1998, rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda advanced on the Capital, Kinshasa, in an attempt to overthrow Laurent-Desire Kabila.[9] In response, Zambia, Namibia, and Angola all sent troops into the Congo as allies of Kabila.[10] However, in July 1999 the six nations, along with the rebel groups, agreed to a cease fire.[11] Despite the cease fire and the dispatch of 5,500 UN peace keeping troops, the fighting between the Congolese government and between Rwanda and Uganda[12] continued.[13]

On January 16, 2001, Laurent-Desire Kabila was assassinated by one of his body guards, a child soldier he assumed was loyal, named Rachidi Muzele.[14] Laurent-Desire Kabila had drawn many children as young as 11 to join his rebellion against Mobuto and named them the Kadogos or boy soldiers.[15] The forty kadogo guarding Laurent-Desire Kabila quickly fell under suspicion.[16] Joseph Kabila was appointed as President in the wake of his father’s assassination, but when a kadogo initially reported the assassination to him, Joseph Kabila rebuked the boy and ordered the child beaten.[17] The kadogo body guards and other suspects were tortured and at least one suspect was forced to execute a fellow prisoner.[18] Twenty-nine of the kadogo bodyguards along with one hundred and six other individuals were arrested and put on trial for the assassination of Laurent-Desire Kabila.[19] Outside of the trial, 380 soldiers in the Eastern Congo were arrested and executed without trial.[20] The trials for the 135 accused were held by a military tribunal with no opportunity for appeal, and any death sentence is mandated by law to take place within 48 hours.[21] Human rights groups criticized the trials for not meeting the international standards for a fair trial and for not allowing independent observers during the first five months of trial.[22] Additionally, the removal of the moratorium on executions immediately preceding the prosecutor’s call for the death sentence for 115 of the 135 accused is highly suspicious.[23] In the end, twenty-six people were sentenced to death, forty were acquitted, and fifty received prison sentences.[24] It is an open secret within the Congo that the fifty prisoners are innocent and that the military had no evidence to support the harsh sentences imposed.[25] Despite the general understanding of these prisoners’ innocence President Kabila has refused to grant them amnesty.[26]

In 2005 the Congolese Parliament adopted a new Constitution limiting Presidents to two terms. Joseph Kabila was elected as president in 2006 and again in 2011.[27] If Joseph Kabila had stepped down in 2016 he would have been the first Congolese president to leave power. However, with the help of Parliament Joseph Kabila successfully defunded the national elections and managed to have the 2016 national election scrapped until a later date.[28] Prior to the elections push back the Parliament had attempted to pass a law requiring a census be taken prior to the election, which would have pushed the election back at least two years.[29] In response to the bill protests broke out across the Congo and the violent crackdown from President Kabila resulted in the death of forty-two protestors and when Kabila did not step down more protests were launched on December 19, 2016 resulting in 40 more civilian deaths.[30] Joseph Kabila has in the past stated that he has not ruled out attempting to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term[31], but President Kabila did agree to hold elections at the end of 2017, appoint a member of the opposition party as prime minister, and leave the constitutional terms as they currently are.[32] Unfortunately, President Kabila has since stated that he promised nothing in the December deal and that it is unlikely a vote will be held by the end of the year due to money constraints and the increased troubles in the east.[33]

The Congolese Constitution states that “the President of the Republic is elected by direct universal suffrage for a term of five years which is renewable only once.”[34] Additionally, the President is required to ensure the respect of the Constitution.”[35] President Kabila has violated both of the above provisions by intentionally delaying the Presidential vote and ensuring his term lasts longer than five years, which disrespects the intentions of the Constitution. The Congolese Constitution also provides that “[a]ll persons have the right to life[;] . . . no one may be subject to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment[; and] . . . [n]o one may be prosecuted, arrested, detained or sentenced except by virtue of a law and in the manner which the latter prescribe.”[36] President Kabila’s first action upon learning he was to become president was to have a child beaten. Additionally, Kabila has used the power of his office to hold unconstitutional trails, execute soldiers without trial, and subject those held in captivity to torcher. President Kabila has violated the Constitution of his country which he signed into law and swore to uphold. Article 165 of the Constitution states that “high treason is established if the President of the Republic has deliberately violated the Constitution.” Accordingly, President Kabila should be charged with treason and removed as president.[37]



[1] See generally Adam Hoschild, King Leopold II, Encyclopedia Britannica,  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leopold-II-king-of-Belgium. (last visited Nov. 3, 2017); See also Liam O'Ceallaigh, When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren’t Called ‘Hitler’, Diary of a Walking Butterfly (Dec. 22, 2010), http://www.walkingbutterfly.com/2010/12/22/when-you-kill-ten-million-africans-you-arent-called-hitler/.

[2] Democratic Republic of Congo profile – Timeline, BBC (July 13, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13286306.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Rewanda and Uganda supported different rebel groups, which had a falling out and split apart.

[13] Id.

[14] Arnaud Zajtman, Murder in Kinshasa, Aljazeera (Oct. 28, 2011), http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/2011/10/20111027131838717148.html.

[15] Arnaud Zajtman, Congo’s Boy Soldiers Now on Trial, The Seattle Times (Sept. 24, 2001), http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20010924&slug=congo24.

[16] Zajtman, supra note 16.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id., 26 to die for assassination of Laurent Kabila, IOL (Jan. 8, 2003), https://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/26-to-die-for-assassination-of-laurent-kabila-99623.

[20] 'Hundreds' executed after Kabila's death, IOL (Jan. 23, 2001), https://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/hundreds-executed-after-kabilas-death-58787.

[21] 26 to die for assassination of Laurent Kabila, supra note 21.

[22] From Assassination to State Murder?, Amnesty International (Dec., 2002), chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/112000/afr620232002en.pdf.

[23] Id.

[24] 26 to die for assassination of Laurent Kabila, supra note 21.

[25] Zajtman, supra note 15.

[26] Id.

[27] Democratic Republic of Congo profile – Timeline, supra note 3.

[28] DRC delays election to 2018 despite opposition anger, Al Jazeera (Oct. 17, 2016), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/drc-delays-election-2018-opposition-anger-161016135155845.html.

[29] David Smith, Grief and anger in Congo follow violent protests against Joseph Kabila, The Guardian (Jan. 26, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jan/26/democratic-republic-congo-protests-joseph-kabila.

[30] Id.; Jason Burke, DRC parties reach deal denying third term for President Kabila, The Guardian (De. 31, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/31/drc-close-to-deal-for-president-joseph-kabila-to-step-down-after-2017-elections.

[31] DRC delays election to 2018 despite opposition anger, supra note 30.

[32]  Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, When Will Kabila Go? Congolese Leader Long Overstays His Welcome, The New York Times (July 23, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/23/world/africa/congo-joseph-kabila-elections.html.

[33] Id.

[34] The Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Feb. 18, 2006, art. 70.

[35] Id. art. 69.

[36] Id. arts. 16-17.

[37] Id. art. 165.