Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese activists. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the International Refugee Rights Initiative or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Last week, Congolese President Joseph Kabila arrived in Ituri as part of a tour of the eastern part of the country, which has also touched the Kivus and Katanga. His visit promised a number of development projects for Ituri, but not everyone was impressed. To some, the visit was dismissed as so much campaigning ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) 2011 elections.
Radio Okapi quoted Donatien Kanyinziya, a parliamentarian with the opposition Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo, as saying, “During his visit last week to Ituri, Joseph Kabila did nothing but renew the same promises to Iturians that he made in the 2006 election campaign.”
Kanyinziya was not the only one dissatisfied with the visit. In Bunia, Kabila’s visit formed a rallying point for the Union des Patriotes Congolaises (UPC), the party associated with Thomas Lubanga. Lubanga’s ongoing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) was at the top of their agenda.
According to Congolese activists, the UPC is calling for the unconditional liberation of Lubanga following the Trial Chamber’s July 15, 2010 ruling to this effect. Although this order was appealed the next day, and the appeals are still being considered in The Hague, the UPC is arguing that the proceedings are unfair and that Lubanga’s rights are being violated. According to Congolese sources, UPC members are calling on the government to take responsibility for addressing these rights violations. They are also calling for the release of members of the movement in jail in Kinshasa for four years without trial.
Kabila must carefully consider how to address these arguments – the UPC remains a powerful political force in Ituri. Their message, calling on the head of state to ensure Lubanga’s release, is also full of political significance. Activists in Ituri have relayed rumors currently circulating that Lubanga will be released before the end of the year – allowing him to participate in the 2011 presidential elections. The contention is providing a boost to Lubanga’s celebratory supporters, a reinforcement of their position that one activist described as “worrying”.
However, if this notion is celebrated in areas that are predominantly Hema (Lubanga’s ethnic group and the source of most of his support base), it is also important to note that there are other consequences in other areas. Some are disappointed and fear that this may exacerbate ongoing conflict. Colleagues report that other communities, in particular those who are considered not indigenous to Ituri, are concerned about the increase in exclusionary ethnic rhetoric. Among the Lendu, of course, Lubanga’s release would be considered an injustice, particularly as two of their leaders, Katanga and Ngudjolo remain in The Hague.
The UPC is also reportedly attempting to mobilize public opinion in Ituri against the court, arguing that the ICC’s engagement has stalled a true reconciliation. On the ground, activists reflect that even if the UPC peacefully submitted its views to Kabila last week, the threat of violence is still present. Many fear that if the UPC’s demands are not met, and Lubanga is not freed, that the UPC may return to war.