The Democratic Republic of Congo‘s parliament should reject a draft law that authorities could use to discriminate against Congolese citizens on the basis of their parents’ national origin, Human Rights Watch said today.
The law would exclude from presidential office and senior institutional positions any Congolese with one parent of non-Congolese origin. Consideration of this bill during an election year heightens concerns that the authorities would use the law to prevent specific people from running for office, in violation of international legal protections on democratic participation and non-discrimination. The legislation, known as the Tshiani or “Congolity” bill was first introduced in 2021 but was withdrawn after widespread objections. It is now placed on the agenda of the current ordinary session of the National Assembly, the Congolese’s parliament lower chamber, which may debate it during the three-month ordinary session that began in mid-March 2023.
“Congo’s authorities could easily use the proposed Tshiani law to unlawfully prevent Congolese citizens from running for political office,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Besides being discriminatory, passage of this law could herald new repression and violence.”
The bill is widely seen as an attempt to sideline Moïse Katumbi, who heads the opposition party Ensemble pour la République (Together for the Republic) and is considered to be one of President Felix Tshisekedi’s potential opponents in the presidential election scheduled for December 2023. Katumbi, a Congolese politician, businessman, and former governor of Katanga province whose father is Greek, announced his candidacy for president in 2022.
In 2016, the Congolese justice minister opened an apparently politically motivated investigation against Katumbi. In 2018, the government of then-President Joseph Kabila barred Katumbi from reentering the country to register his candidacy, effectively denying him his right to run for president. He returned in 2019 after the courts overturned his conviction as part of Tshisekedi’s decision to set up confidence-building measures to reduce political tensions.
A number of foreign diplomats, United Nations officials, Congolese organizations, and prominent individuals have spoken out against the proposed law. There have also been demonstrations across the country, including in the eastern provinces of North-Kivu, Ituri, and Katanga, and the western provinces of Kongo-Central, as well as in Kinshasa, the capital, to oppose the bill.
Every Congolese citizen should be able to stand for election without discrimination and fear of intimidation on the basis of their ethnicity or their parent’s nationality
In an April 5 statement, the organization Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless) said the proposed law would be used to exclude certain people from the political competition and that the parliament should reject it to “avoid political tensions that could lead to human rights violations.” The Association Congolaise pour l’Accès à la Justice (Congolese Association for Access to Justice) said the law “risks generating frustration and possible violence.”
In his April 8 Easter message, Kinshasa’s archbishop, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, said that “a draft Congolity bill, on the eve of the elections, divides us more than it unites us. We urgently need gestures and laws that bring us together, rather than acts and provisions that set us against each other.”
A delegation of ambassadors, members of the European Union, met with the president of the National Assembly to express their concern about the proposed law.
Bintou Keita, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, in her address to the UN Human Rights Council in March, expressed concern “about the rise in the political discourse of xenophobic and racist messages that constitute a danger to national cohesion, peace, and security.” She called for an inclusive electoral process and said that no Congolese should be excluded on the basis of their origin, that of their parents, or their spouse.
In January, two government ministers made speeches in an apparent political mobilization video that played into the biases reflected in the draft law. In a clip that went viral on social networks, Hydrocarbons Minister Didier Budimbu said that Congolese should not vote for a candidate whose father and mother are unknown, referring to Katumbi as a “bat.”
Foreign Trade Minister Jean-Lucien Bussa said that anyone born of a foreign father should be considered the “enemy of the Congolese.” Tshisekedi condemned Bussa’s statement but has yet to comment publicly on the proposed nationality law after its reintroduction before the national assembly.
Such statements by government officials, given Congo’s painful colonial history and cycle of abuses and internal conflicts, foster an atmosphere that encourages institutional discrimination. Government officials have a duty to refrain from speech advocating violence, discrimination, or hostility toward any individual or social group, particularly if that speech is used to carry out discriminatory official policy, Human Rights Watch said.
Under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, treaties to which Congo is a party, everyone is guaranteed equal and effective protection against discrimination based on descent or national or ethnic origin, or other status. Article 25 of the ICCPR provides that “[e]very citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the [discriminatory] distinctions … and without unreasonable restrictions: … To take part in the conduct of public affairs … and to be elected at genuine periodic elections.”
“Every Congolese citizen should be able to stand for election without discrimination and fear of intimidation on the basis of their ethnicity or their parent’s nationality,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “The Congolese authorities should take their commitment to democracy and human rights seriously and, as they did in 2021, reject any exclusionary notion of Congolese identity.”