Anti-Christian Violence, and Maybe Worse, in Congo

Clashes after a troubled presidential election could re-ignite civil war

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A riot policeman faces opposition protesters through a cloud of tear gas in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa / Reuters

For Africa watchers, this morning's attention is focused on Nigeria. Over the weekend, murder of Christians continued, ostensibly by an Islamic radical group, Boko Haram. Various 'Christian' spokesmen have threatened retaliation against Muslims and mosques have been attacked. But, in some areas, there are grassroots efforts to forestall religious conflict, with Christians protecting Muslims while they pray and Muslims guarding Christian churches. While the nation has gone on strike, President Goodluck Jonathan sought to mollify public anger at his elimination of the fuel subsidy, including by cutting government salaries (including his own). Preliminary reports are that the strike has shut-down Lagos, Abuja, and Kano and protestor deaths are being reported from Lagos and Kano. I have heard nothing from Port Harcourt and the oil patch except that police allegedly prevented a protest from taking place in Bayelsa state. Personalities ranging from the president to literary icon Chinua Achebe are saying that the current situation recalls the run-up to the 1967-70 Biafra war. But, information is too incomplete, and too much is in flux for meaningful comment today.

So, instead of Nigeria, I want to return the focus to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the aftermath of the November presidential elections. To recap: the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, defeated challenger Etienne Tshisekedi in elections characterized as "too flawed to be credible" by international and domestic observers, including the Roman Catholic Church, which had some thirty thousand observers in the field. The DRC supreme court, seen as in the pocket of Kabila, upheld the incumbent's victory. Tshisekedi bitterly contested the announced results, and went so far as to have himself sworn in as president at about the same time as Kabila's ceremony. The stage appeared to be set for a major clash that could re-ignite civil war.

Yet, as of now, little has happened. The international community, with little stomach for further intervention in Congo, restricted itself to calling for "dialogue," far from the robust stand it took in the Ivory Coast standoff between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo that resulted in a civil war. But, in Congo, while there continues to be high levels of violence, especially in the east, it does not seem to be related directly to the election results, and the population appears to have moved on. Only the Congolese Diaspora has been vocal. Of course, the international and domestic reactions probably re-enforce each other: the international community is unlikely to move when there is little domestic reaction, and domestic reaction may be more muted because of the tepid international voice.

Future developments might ignite a stronger popular reaction. But, for now, how to account for the apparent passivity of the Congolese population in the aftermath of flawed elections? Part of the answer may be Kabila's relatively skillful use of repression - enough to paralyze the opposition but not so much that it produced a backlash. More fundamentally, as Adam Nossiter pointed out in the New York Times, the deep and pervasive poverty of the Congolese population means that most people are more concerned about feeding their families than about political activity or flawed election results.

Of necessity, this is speculation. But the question is worth asking. Why are some populations quiescent following flawed or stolen elections (Nigeria in 2007 and Congo now) while in others there is violent protest and the prospect of civil war (Kenya in 2007 or Zimbabwe in 2008). In Nigeria and Congo, the population historically has been largely alienated from government - any government. (In 2011, this may have changed in some parts of Nigeria, but not others.) In Kenya and Zimbabwe, with greater institutional development, however, government historically has mattered more to people. Maybe that has something to do with the different reactions to flawed elections, along with ethnic rivalries and a host of other issues. lt is an endlessly repeated cliché that African countries are all different - and their response to seemingly similar political developments reflects their own specific history and circumstances.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.