In the DRC, the government plans to reinstate the death penalty for soldiers

While the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) are in difficulty facing the new offensive of the March 23 Movement (M23) in the east, the government is considering lifting the moratorium on the death penalty for military

In the DRC, the government plans to reinstate the death penalty for soldiers

While the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) are in difficulty facing the new offensive of the March 23 Movement (M23) in the east, the government is considering lifting the moratorium on the death penalty for military. The announcement was made by Jean-Pierre Bemba, the deputy prime minister in charge of national defense, who explained that he had submitted a recommendation "when it comes to cases of treason within the FARDC" during a Higher Defense Council chaired by President Félix Tshisekedi on February 5. The issue was submitted four days later to the council of ministers by the Minister of Justice, Rose Mutombo. It is now up to the head of state to decide.

The sentence has not been applied since 2003, but death sentences continue to be handed down. In 2022, they concerned 800 Congolese prisoners, of whom 163 had been sentenced during the year. “For the Congolese authorities, the maintenance of this sentence has been justified until now by the very high level of insecurity in the east of the country,” explains Bob Kabamba, researcher on Central Africa at the University of Cork.

If this is not yet the effective lifting of the moratorium, the simple fact that it is mentioned by the government worries human rights organizations. “This measure amounts to maintaining that in times of conflict, human rights have little value,” deplores Clément Boursin, sub-Saharan Africa manager at the NGO Action des Chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT -France). According to Pierre Boisselet, director of research on violence at the Congolese Ebuteli Institute, it is above all a message “which is addressed to the Congolese army”. Within the general staff, “there are suspicions concerning officers who deal with the enemy, or even who give him favorable orders,” he continues.

One of the objectives would be to warn soldiers against attitudes considered unpatriotic, such as officers who retreat when the balance of power does not seem favorable to them. However, there is no assurance that reinstating the death penalty will resolve the problem within a poorly equipped and poorly trained army, with soldiers who sometimes struggle to receive their pay as corruption is so widespread. “Above all, there is a risk that this will lead to score-settling and that this will further weaken the unity of this army,” believes Pierre Boisselet.

Impasse

This debate comes as Félix Tshisekedi, who was re-elected in December with 73% of the vote, fails to keep his promise made five years ago: to end the war in the East, prey to armed conflicts since a quarter century. “Between 2018 and 2023, Félix Tshisekedi failed to achieve the promised results. The conflict, which largely predated it, has even worsened and spread,” notes Bob Kabamba.

Since February 7, the resumption of fighting by the M23, supported according to United Nations experts by neighboring Rwanda, highlights the impasse in which the authorities are plunged. The FARDC continues to retreat, despite the deployment of Burundian soldiers and the arrival of the first South African contingents as part of the Southern African mission in the DRC (SAMIRDC), which replace those of the East African force, considered too passive by Kinshasa. Now Goma, the capital of North Kivu, is under threat; the southern, western and northern accesses to the city were taken by the rebellion.

“There is a need on the part of those in power to be proactive and project its determination towards the East. Nearly sixty days after the re-election of Félix Tshisekedi, the Congolese are still awaiting the appointment of a new government. We can imagine that for Jean-Pierre Bemba it is also about positioning himself,” analyzes Pierre Boisselet. Former warlord, convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) before being acquitted in 2018, the president of the Congo Liberation Movement (MLC) allied himself with Félix Tshisekedi in 2020 and entered government in 2023.

In recent days, the minister has been particularly active. After going to Goma on February 9, he returned on Tuesday to reassure residents. “The population should have no worries,” he assured, as the sounds of fighting around the neighboring town of Saké could be heard in the regional capital. Faced with the duration and number of victims of this conflict, the anger of the Congolese is strong. In recent days, it was directed against Westerners, targets of the slogans of two demonstrations, Saturday and Monday, which accused them of being on the side of “the enemy”. The challenge for the government is that this exasperation does not turn against it.