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President Félix Tshisekedi

Diplomatic relations between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Israel continue to grow stronger. In a letter to President Félix Tshisekedi sent on the sixtieth anniversary of gaining independence from Belgium, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited his Congolese counterpart on a formal state visit.

“Israel had established diplomatic relations with the DRC soon after its declaration of independence in 1960, and we are greatly pleased by the friendship and warm cooperation shared during this period,” the letter reads. It concludes with a call for Tshisekedi to visit Jerusalem “as soon as conditions permit it,” a controversial action given that Israel maintains Jerusalem as the state capital despite East Jerusalem being in Palestinian territory and its annexation unrecognized by a vast majority of sovereign states.

 

The Congolese president has been pushing for greater diplomatic ties with Israel

 

In March, while attending a conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Tshisekedi announced he would be appointing an ambassador to Israel after a twenty-year gap. The Congolese president has been pushing for greater diplomatic ties with Israel, motivated in part by his evangelical faith and desire to bring in Israeli investment and expertise to help modernize the country. This has created rifts in the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), the party of his predecessor Joseph Kabila and a linchpin of Tshisekedi’s ruling coalition.

 

A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El Alia Cemetery in Algiers.
A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El-Alia Cemetery in Algiers. (AFP)

In a symbolic and widely publicized funeral ceremony, the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters decapitated for resisting French colonial rule in the nineteenth century were laid to rest on Sunday, July 5. The skulls had been held in France as war trophies for decades until a repatriation agreement was reached, part of an effort by France to make amends for its bloody, destructive colonial history.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attended the interment of the fighters’ remains at El-Alia Cemetery in the capital Algiers, in a section dedicated to fallen martyrs, on the same day as the country celebrated its fifty-eighth year of independence from France.

 

One of two caskets draped with a Namibian flag, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)
One of two coffins, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek, Namibia. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)

 

Reckoning with Colonial History

This gesture by France is reflective of a larger trend among former European powers to acknowledge their colonial histories. In 2011 and 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Herero and Nama people to Namibia, more than a century after a genocide carried out by German colonial troops. The skulls had been sent to German universities for “research” by scientists obsessed with measuring racial differences to justify white supremacy.

In a letter sent to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the sixtieth anniversary of independence from Belgian colonial rule, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past.” During Belgian king Leopold II’s rule of the Congo Free State from 1877 to 1908), millions of Congolese were killed and maimed. After an investigation into abuses, the Belgian parliament took over and ruled the Congo until 1960.

These acts of contrition are appreciated, but they fall short of a full apology demanded by the descendants of those brutalized by colonial-era powers.

 

MINUSCA

 

Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000 peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.

Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.

 

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers

 

Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.

Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.

Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.

 

Radio Okapi
Radio Okapi, a radio network established by MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has become a trusted source of information and news for the urban population. It provides programming in French, Lingala, Kituba, Swahili, and Tshiluba. (AFP)

The Right Tools for the Right Audiences

Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.

Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.

As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.

The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.

Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.

Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.

 

Empowering Through Partnerships

Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.

Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.

Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.

 

Patrolling and Informing

Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.

It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.

 

Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations

Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations

 

Vital Kamerhe
Vital Kamerhe, photographed at a press conference in Geneva on November 11, 2018. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

The High Court in Gombe, Kinshasa, has found Vital Kamerhe, former chief of staff to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, guilty of embezzlement and sentenced him to twenty years in prison. His co-accused, Lebanese real estate developer Jammal Samih, got the same sentence. They were accused of diverting money meant for President Tshisekedi’s 100 Days Program to fake companies, including about US$50 million earmarked for public housing.

Kamerhe had been in charge of overseeing 100 Days Program, an ambitious infrastructure project with an allocated budget of just under US$500 million.

The proceedings have been the subject of much political debate in the DRC, as Kamerhe is also the leader of the opposition Union for the Congolese Nation political party, a member of Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition. Kamerhe may have taken the fall for the botched rollout of the 100 Days Program, but in truth this case was also about Tshisekedi and his desire to set himself apart from his predecessor, former president Joseph Kabila. Many accuse Kabila of striking a deal with Tshisekedi ahead of the 2018 presidential election in order to remain an influential force in the next government.

 

There was justifiable concern over the awarding of contracts to cronies

 

Acknowledging the Congolese people’s desire for recognizable and immediate change from past governance, Tshisekedi launched the 100 Days Program on March 2, 2019, even though the DRC did not have an elected parliament yet. The legality and legitimacy of the project were suspect from the outset, which may have passed unremarked had it proven successful. Justifiable concern over the awarding of contracts to cronies and poor judgment in the allocation of funds continued to hamper the initiative.

Officially, “l’affaire Kamerhe” may be over, but as a political omen it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

 

DRC Ebola
Medical staff at Bwera Hospital in Bwera, Uganda, near the border with the DRC, rehearse working in protective gear in an Ebola treatment unit in December 2018. A number of units were set up to prepare for possible cases after the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, in August 2018. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo declared a new Ebola outbreak after five people have died of the deadly virus disease in the city of Mbandaka in Equateur province. No one knows how the virus resurfaced during a time that travel restrictions are in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Less than two months ago, the DRC was on the point of declaring an official end to the Ebola epidemic that had lasted for two years and killed more than 2,000 people. Then new cases surfaced in Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri. Yet the authorities believed the outbreak was in its “final phase”.

 

“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face”

 

The Ebola cases in Mbandaka come at a time that the country is also battling measles and COVID-19. “This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization. “Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies.”

WHO has sent a team to support the response to the new outbreak. Mbandaka is a busy transport hub on the Congo River, near the border with the Republic of Congo, so there is concern that the virus could spread.

 

The Largest Measles Outbreak in the World

In the past year, the DRC has also reported 369,520 measles cases and 6,779 deaths, according to WHOMédecins Sans Frontières, which has teams working in various parts of the country to help with patient care, vaccination, and monitoring the spread, says all twenty-six provinces of the country have been affected by the outbreak.

Young children are dying from a disease that can be prevented through vaccination. Whereas the rising number of measles cases in the rest of the world can mostly be attributed to a reluctance to use vaccines, in the DRC it’s caused by poor access to healthcare. Dr. Xavier Crespin, chief of health for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the DRC, says a lack of investment in healthcare over the past five years, combined with vaccine shortages, high rates of malnutrition, and ongoing conflict, has created a “national crisis”. Logistical difficulties because of bad roads and long distances—the DRC is the second largest country on the continent—contribute to the problem.

 

 

DRC army
Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) confront members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Opira, North Kivu.

On Sunday, May 24, at least seven villagers were killed in their homes and others were reportedly kidnapped in the DRC’s North Kivu province in an attack attributed to the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

Members of the ADF settled in the forests along the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern border following their expulsion by Ugandan forces in the mid-1990s. They were tolerated by the locals until about six years ago, when they began to attack civilians and raze villages. They frequently target military bases in order to steal weapons and ammunition before retreating into the forest, where local farming operations help them stay active despite no known source of formal funding.

 

Secretive Jihadist Group

This latest attack casts further doubt on the efficacy of a Congolese military operation launched in October 2019 to dislodge the ADF from the Beni region in North Kivu province. The DRC’s armed forces, FARDC, did succeed in pushing rebels out of their stronghold while also establishing a permanent presence in the region, yet ADF fighters have continued to attack civilians, killing an estimated 1,000 people in four months after the start of the operation.

Of the numerous armed groups operating in this region of the DRC, the ADF has remained one of the most elusive and least understood players in the region. Though initially formed to remove Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni from power and largely led by Ugandans, the ADF has spent most of its existence in the DRC, embedding itself in local power structures to encourage recruitment. Propaganda from the group suggests it is trying to establish ties with international jihadist groups such as Islamic State with the intent of creating a local caliphate.

 

 

Vital Kamerhe
Vital Kamerhe (center) and Félix Tshisekedi (right) at a news conference in 2018.

 

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Félix Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, appeared briefly in court on Monday on the charge of embezzlement before the trial was adjourned until May 25.

Kamerhe and others are accused of embezzling at least US$50 million worth of funds that were set aside for the president’s 100-days program, a public-works initiative that has funded infrastructure-construction projects as well as access to electricity and clean water. Kamerhe denies the charge.

 

Speculation abounds as to whether the CACH coalition will hold.

 

The trial has gripped the nation since Kamerhe’s arrest in early April, which was the end product of months of inquiries and investigations initiated by NGOs, high-ranking members of the ruling Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, and the Kinshasa/Matete Court of Appeal. Besides his role in Tshisekedi’s cabinet, Kamerhe also served as the political glue holding the Heading for Change (CACH) minority coalition together in his role as leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) party, which is one of the parties in the coalition, along with Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party.

With Kamerhe’s arrest, speculation abounds as to whether the CACH coalition will hold, seeing as tensions between Tshisekedi’s UDPS and ex-president Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition have arisen in the past.

 

 

This picture taken on February 13, 2014 shows lorries blocked in Kasumbalesa, a Congolese town at the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. After border incidents on February 6, the traffic has been heavily disrupted for more than a week in this town which is the main exit gate for minerals extracted in the South-Eastern part of the DRC
Lorries blocked in Kasumbalesa, a Congolese town at the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. 

 

Christian Mwando, a representative from the province of Tanganyika, a territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and bordering Zambia, has called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) to resolve a dispute regarding the occupation of southern Tanganyika by Zambian troops.

Zambian forces have been present in the area since late March, the result of an altercation that began with an attempted arrest of Congolese fishermen who were using prohibited gill netting. Congolese police from Moliro, a town right across the Zambian border, attempted to apprehend the fishermen, who managed to escape into Zambian waters. Zambian forces then moved to chase out the Congolese from their territorial waters and continued across the border, seizing a flag of the DRC, according to Mwando.

 

This region of the DRC also faces one of the world’s largest refugee crises.

 

In response, Congolese forces fired on the Zambian troops, killing one. Mwando was quoted by La Libre Belgique as saying he does not desire any “war with our sister republic of Zambia”, but fears Zambia’s presence is an attempt to seize a portion of the territory, which has the world’s largest deposit of hard rock lithium, used in batteries for electric vehicles.

This region of the DRC also faces one of the world’s largest refugee crises, impacting Twa and Bantu ethnic groups in particular. Persistent violence and insecurity in the region has stretched thin the DRC’s capacity to manage the conflict, let alone address the presence of foreign troops, which is why Mwando insists that President Félix Tshisekedi’s administration appeal to international bodies like the AU and SADC.

 

 

Cobalt
A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi on February 16, 2018, before being exported, mainly to China, to be refined.

Cobalt is in rising demand thanks to its use as a metal in everything from aircraft engines to batteries for electric vehicles, and in its radioactive form as a cancer treatment. It has been mislabeled as a conflict mineral, despite the fact that it is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s southern Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces, more than 1,600 kilometers from the conflict zones in the east.

“Conflict minerals” and their derivative metals, such as gold, wolfram, and coltan, are integral to the electronics and technology industries, so foreign companies’ supply chains could be indirectly funding rebel groups and bandits, contributing to the destabilization of the DRC and its neighbors. Responding to international concern, the United States included Section 1502 in the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to verify if they source metals from the DRC or its neighbors, and that they do so ethically.

 

The DRC holds half of the world’s cobalt reserves.

 

Because of cobalt’s negative yet inaccurate label, some multinational firms have withdrawn from the DRC altogether to avoid potentially violating Section 1502 or similar legislation in Canada, the European Union, or elsewhere. Given that the DRC holds half of the world’s cobalt reserves and its export is expected to balloon in the next decade, international cooperation is more important than ever to ensure that the extraction of this strategic resource benefits not just the global supply chain but also the DRC and its citizens.

Recent collaboration between cobalt producers, commodity traders, and NGOs to formalize artisanal mining proves that this type of cooperation is a net win for every sector of the DRC’s mining industry.

 

 

CAR-DRC BORDER
The DRC–CAR border area has been rife with conflict as many armed groups compete for the riches of the region.

 

Last week, dramatic arrests were made at Gbadolite Airport in the Nord-Ubangi province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR). A plane had touched down carrying explosives and ammunition for AK-47 rifles, cargo that the Congolese authorities seized after arresting several people.

Though the investigation into the arms shipment is still under way, preliminary findings suggest the intercepted delivery is part of an arms smuggling network extending from the capital Kinshasa into CAR, using Gbadolite as a way station, according to Nord-Ubangi governor Izato Nzege Koloke. Congolese intelligence believes the weapons and ammunition were to be delivered to armed groups in CAR and to local bandits.

 

Recent clashes in the Central African Republic point to a breakdown of the peace agreement.

 

The Central African Republic is one of several conflict theaters that the African Union is seeking to address with its Silencing the Guns initiative, part of which is concerned with halting the flow of illegal small arms into warzones. Analysts have lamented the slow progress of the African Union’s continent-wide initiative as recently as the annual summit held in early February 2020.

The situation in CAR may be less volatile than the conflicts in Libya, the Lake Chad region, and Somalia, but recent clashes point to a breakdown of the peace agreement signed between rebel groups and the government in Bangui in February 2019.

 

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