|Rights groups are concerned by the level of hate speech in the lead-up to November’s presidential election [EPA]|
Human rights groups have accused presidential candidates of creating a “climate of fear” in the Democratic Republic of Congo as campaigning got underway for presidential and legislative elections.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Friday calling on candidates to refrain from inciting violence a day after 73 local and international rights groups signed an open letter to presidential candidates calling for calm and an end to “hate speech” ahead of the November 28 vote.
“Candidates who incite violence could provoke a bloody election campaign, and judicial authorities need to step in to stop it,” Anneke van Woudenber, senior Africa researcher at HRW, said.
“Anyone aspiring to government office should also recognise the grave dangers of using hate speech.”
HRW said that since March, local human rights organisations had documented “dozens of instances across the country of apparent ethnic hate speech, ethnic slurs and incitement to violence by political candidates”.
“In some cases, we have documented candidates or their supporters inciting gangs, youth, the unemployed or members of armed groups to use violence and intimidation against their opponents.”
Prone to violence
Ida Sawyer, HRW’s DRC Researcher and Advocate, told Al Jazeera that the capital Kinshasa had already seen some violence and that “there are fears that the violence may get worse as the campaign period continues, as well as after the results are announced”.
“The use of hate speech and incitement to violence by candidates and their supporters only intensifies the tensions that already exist, and makes the possibility of a bloody campaign period and aftermath more likely“
– Idi Sawyer, Human Rights Watch
“The use of hate speech and incitement to violence by candidates and their supporters only intensifies the tensions that already exist, and makes the possibility of a bloody campaign period and aftermath more likely,” Sawyer said.
“I would consider Kinshasa to be the most volatile in the lead-up to elections and after results are announced. Bas Congo, Kasai Orientale, Katanga, and South Kivu are other places to look out for”.
Joseph Kabila, the country’s president, who has ruled the country since the assassination of his father Laurent in 2001, has been forceful about his chances of returning to power in comments to journalists.
His aides say he will tour all 11 of the provinces making up the vast country four times the size of France, where 32 million people are eligible to vote.
But Kabila also promised he would stand aside in the event of defeat.
His main rival, veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, will early next week start his campaign in the troubled east of the country, still prone to violence after wars that devastated the DR Congo between 1996 and 2003.
There are 11 candidates for the presidency and nearly 19,000 candidates are in the running for the 500 parliamentary seats.
The electoral commission, helped by MONUSCO, the UN stabilisation mission in the country, will have the task of distributing 186,000 voting boxes and 64 million voting cards to 62,000 voting stations. In early September, MONUSCO released a statement calling for constructive dialogue to promote peaceful elections” and “deplored the wave of violent incidents” that occurred in August and early September.
In a huge country that has few good roads and relies on river and air transport, while also still seeing regular attacks from armed groups in the east, that will be a massive logistical challenge.
Violent clashes between opposition activists and the police have also been frequent ahead of the official launch of campaigning.
Police have regularly broken up rallies by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and their supporters who have called for a free and fair electoral process. One activist has been shot dead, others injured and many others arrested.
The signatories to the letter addressed to the presidential candidates, including ActionAid and the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), have documented cases of candidates and supporters using ethnic slurs against opponents.
“We are deeply concerned by such tactics,” the letter said.
Last week, Congolese police fired tear gas to disperse opposition supporters. The same day, the US think-tank The Carter Center said Kinshasa had to take action to ensure the credibility of the polls.
The group, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, urged the Congolese government to “take rapid and convincing steps to ensure the transparency and credibility of the voter register.”
The group “also noted that serious incidents of intimidation and violence have occurred during campaigning” and said political players must be aware of the potential consequences of a flawed election.