South Kivu: the world’s next forgotten conflict?

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Over the course of just three days last month, 6,000 Congolese took flight across Lake Tanganyika into Burundi. The refugees are fleeing intense fighting in South Kivu, where violence between government forces and rebel militias has left the Eastern province in a state of crisis – one that has received little attention in international headlines.

Lying between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi, the security situation in South Kivu has deteriorated in tandem with the surging political tensions in both nations. Though it is true that both Burundi and the DRC have been plagued by conflict for decades, the current crisis cannot be disentangled from the creeping dictatorship of two men.

Indeed, Joseph Kabila in the DRC and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi share twin ambitions to hold onto power beyond their constitutional mandates. Both men also appear to be reading from the same playbook when it comes to their appetite for violently crushing the political opposition. The implosion of South Kivu should thus serve as a warning to the international community of the need to restrain these kinds of aspiring dictators before it’s too late.

In 2005, the election of Nkurunziza – the first president to be chosen in democratic polling since the beginning of Burundi’s civil war in 1994 – marked an important step for the peace process in the country. But since 2010, Nkurunziza’s tenure has been blighted by creeping authoritarianism, with members of the opposition and the media regularly subject to targeted attacks. The situation escalated in 2015, when Nkurunziza defied Burundi’s constitutional two-term limit on the presidential office and opted instead to stay in power. The ensuing violence claimed at least 500 lives, though some estimates go as high as 2,000.

Since then, the government has introduced constitutional changes that would allow Nkurunziza to stay in office beyond 2020. Unsurprisingly, these proposals, which are to be voted on in an upcoming referendum, have been met with deep dismay from opposition parties and the international community.

Burundi’s human rights record has also come under renewed fire by the UN. The government stands accused of committing wide-scale abuse, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and repressing freedom of expression. Unfortunately, Bujumbura has suspended all cooperation with the UN Human Rights Office, refusing access to investigators and harassing UN officials. With the UN barred from the country and the appetite for greater interventionism lacking abroad, the situation looks set to deteriorate even further, with clashes between the unpopular government and opposition forces making another civil war look likelier by the day.

In the neighboring DRC, Joseph Kabila shares Nkurunziza’s obsession with power, which may only be matched by his distaste for constitutional law. According to the constitution, Kabila’s second term as president was supposed to end in December 2016, but over a year later, Kabila still clings onto his seat. In a canny move in 2015, Kabila pushed laws through parliament requiring a national census before the next elections. The laws, which essentially allow him to stay in power until he decides to hold a headcount of the DRC population, set off protests and clashes with police that claimed at least 42 lives.

Come 2016, the polling slated for December was delayed and still more civilians were killed in protests across Kinshasa. In late 2016, the UN Secretary General’s representative for the DRC warned that political stability was needed to save tensions from reaching a ‘tipping point’ into ‘large-scale violence’. From the perspective of 2018, it looks like that tipping point has been reached, with South Kivu as well as the central province of Kasai especially affected.

In total, an estimated 1.3 million people, including 800,000 children, have been displaced from the provinces of South Kivu and neighboring Tanganyika following inter-ethnic violence between security forces and armed militias. While not all militants are explicitly fighting for the removal of Kabila, the continued existence of a vastly unpopular and illegitimate government is a major factor in continued violence. As Kabila increasingly blocks off democratic and peaceful channels of opposition, the distinction between militancy and legitimate protest becomes more indistinct.

Meanwhile, the popular opposition candidate and former governor of the Katanga province, Moïse Katumbi remains in exile abroad, and with him, the DCR’s best hope for political renewal. Of course, that is exactly how Kabila likes it. The head of the national intelligence service was recently exposed in the media for planning a fake coup against the president that would have been laid at Katumbi’s feet in a bid to further damage the opposition leader’s reputation.

Kabila’s main fear stems from the fact that Katumbi managed to organize the opposition under a common platform and is constantly applying pressure on the regime to host elections. In a recent interview, the former governor warned Kabila that he would be chased away from the presidential palace if he decides to go ahead with a planned referendum – that would amend the constitution and further extend his stay in power.

Meanwhile, it is at the border between these two imploding states where the results of these political crises have been laid bare, with citizens from each side fleeing violence on the other. Indeed, even as thousands of Congolese flee across Lake Tanganyika to Burundi, some 43,000 Burundian refugees are across the lake in South Kivu. The massive displacement is putting intense pressure on the already over-stretched refugee camps in the region. With hardly any attention paid to this little-known corner of East Africa, however, will there ever be respite for the victims of these increasingly authoritarian presidents?