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Lubanga in the Hague: A Role to Play in DRC’s Elections?

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.

As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hurtles towards elections this November, the opposition has been searching for a common candidate, aware that unseating President Joseph Kabila will likely require a united opposition. The three front-running opposition candidates, Etienne Tshisekedi, Vital Kamerhe, and Leon Kengo wa Dongo, have all rhetorically supported the idea of a common candidate but have yet to agree on who that might be.  

In the fray, candidates are seeking support from all sides, including from the detainees in The Hague. Although Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the Central African Republic, has to date been the main focus of these efforts (see “Gone but Not Forgotten: Bemba and Congo’s 2011 Elections”), it seems that now even Thomas Lubanga, with  his much smaller electoral base, is garnering political attention. Lubanga, whose trial completed in August, is currently awaiting judgment on three charges of war crimes. This is raising concerns among Congolese activists who see the courting of International Criminal Court (ICC) suspects by prominent politicians as evidence of the erosion of support for the court in Congo. In the words of one activist, “If they did not think that this [engagement with suspects] would have positive repercussions at home, they would not do it.”

Tshisekedi Visits Lubanga in The Hague

On Friday, September 16, Etienne Tshisekedi, President of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and presidential candidate, paid a visit to Lubanga in The Hague. Le Potentiel reported that the two men talked for two hours. In a video chronicling the visit posted on Tshisekedi’s campaign website here, Tshisekedi referred to the visit as “humanitarian” pointing out that Lubanga was a “combatant” (a term used to designate a member of the UDPS). Activists recall that it was with the UDPS that Lubanga got his political start in Bunia the 1990s, when the party was at the forefront of opposition to the Mobutu regime.

Some, however, doubt Tshisekedi’s assertions about his humanitarian motivations. Indeed, it is likely that nothing done at this stage in campaigning is done without a view to advancing Tshisekedi’s electoral position. The fact that a video highlighting the visit was produced is additional evidence of this. What electoral advantage might Tshisekedi be seeking? As the newspaper Le Prospérité pointed out, Lubanga still “enjoys great popularity” in his home region. Indeed, his Hema ethnic group continues to be a source of support.

The UPC and National Politics in Congo

The relationship has already led to speculation about possible deals in the past. One activist recalled that Lubanga had visited Tshisekedi in Kinshasa before being arrested. It is not clear whether this has had a significant impact, some cadres have argued it was unjust, arguing that Lubanga was just a small fish and that the big fish were still enjoying “tranquil liberty,” but the party as a whole has not taken an official position. There is speculation that there might be deeper support for Lubanga in the party but that they are testing the waters before taking a public position.

One activist pointed out that even without any concrete agreement with Lubanga, the visit would boost impressions of Tshisekedi in Ituri. “The mere fact of the visit affirms that Lubanga’s detention is of national concern and will be seen as an act of support by the Hema community.” Other observers speculate that Tshisekedi’s visit was aimed at charming Lubanga and seeking his support for Tshisekedi’s election bid. Some have heralded this effort, Clement Kanku, leader of the Movement for Renewal (MR), saluted efforts to bring together all those promoting change in Congo.  Quoted in le Potentiel, he lauded the “approach taken by Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, Opposition Presidential candidate in 2011, in meeting for fruitful coordination with the President of the MLC Jean-Pierre Bemba and Thomas Lubanga, two compatriots detained in the jails in the ICC whose political weight, at the present moment, remains undeniable.”

The question of where UPC voters will throw their support, absent a strong statement from Lubanga, remains open. According to the analysis of a local journalist at a community radio station based in Mahagi, Tshisekedi would seem to be a more natural choice of Iturians than one of his leading rivals in the opposition, Vital Kamerhe. He pointed out that Iturians would not forget the role that Kamerhe had played in 2003 in the destabilization of Lubanga’s party, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). The Dar es Salaam Accord, which Kamerhe participated in negotiating, facilitated the cooperation between the two governments for the coordination of the rebel movements which opposed the UPC and eventually drove them out of Bunia. Another factor that might lead UPC supporters to throw their weight behind the UDPS is the fact that the UDPS has integrated former UPC members into its ranks in the region.

However, some commentators doubt the efficacy of Tshisekedi’s efforts to court the UPC as the party has also been in contact with Kamerhe’s Union of the Congolese Nation (UNC). According to the website Congo Direct, the UPC and the UNC signed a “particular political agreement” last year, suggesting that the UNC may have UPC support in the bag.

What Implications for UPC Engagement for Accountability in Congo?

There have been grumblings, however, on the ground about this attempted rapprochement between former rivals. For example the local newspaper in Bunia, Le Pacificateur, reported that shortly after that agreement was announced, a spokesman of the Hema community announced that the Hema community did not recognize any obligation in this alliance and emphasized that it was important to establish a distinction between the Hema community and the UPC. The spokesman, however, was reportedly later taken to task by the members of the UPC. According to a Congolese activist from Ituri, the signs of an alliance between the UPC and UNC are extremely visible on the ground. Behind the scenes he reports, partisans are circulating rumors that if the opposition wins that the “rights of Lubanga as a Congolese national will be asserted.”

What might this assertion of rights mean in practice? Activists arrest that many in the general population believe that Lubanga could only be arrested because he had no government support, and there is a conviction that the government at least would have had the capacity to support Lubanga. In the words of one activist, however, “it may be too late for Lubanga,” referring to the fact that the trial has been completed. He speculates that a deal might revolve around potential positions in case of acquittal. However, another activist points to the possibility for the Congolese government to support Lubanga legally on appeal or negotiation of an agreement to serve his sentence in Congo under lenient conditions.

Some have, however, criticized the veteran opposition for focusing on ICC suspects who are seen as less necessary to engage due to their distance than those campaigning in Congo itself. The newspaper La Prospérité noted that “observers don’t understand why Etienne Tshisekedi can travel thousands of miles to meet Jean-Pierre Bemba and Thomas Lubanga even though since the moment the submitted his candidacy, he has not shown any interest in negotiating with his fellow opposition candidates remaining in the country.” The Direct Congo blog also questioned why Tshisekedi didn’t meet Bemba, who has a much broader political base, on this occasion in The Hague (although Tshisekedi has previously met Bemba). 

The fact of the engagement by ICC detainees is viewed by activists with equanimity. And in the words of one, these engagements are unlikely to change views on the ground. What is, however, fuelling speculation and confusion, among both those pro and anti-UPC is a question posed by the Kinshasa newspaper La Tempete du Tropiques: what might Lubanga have requested in exchange for such support?

Might a political agreement undermine the court and its ability to pursue justice and credibility? There is concern that all of this negative positioning could lead to government obstructionism in future cases in the event of an opposition win at the polls. In addition, although it does not seem an immediate prospect, there are many, including victims, who fear Lubanga’s release. As fearful as victims are of Lubanga’s release generally, it seems the more dangerous if coupled with central government support.