Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Roots of Impunity

Pervasive corruption within the judiciary and security forces means many alleged criminal are rarely tried.
By Sara Nsimire
People in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, witness tragic scenes of barbarism, injustice, corruption and impunity every day.

But the policemen, soldiers and judges tasked with bringing those who commit crimes to justice are not doing their jobs.

They are serving and destroying the nation at the same time. Impunity in Congo is like a giant baobab tree with so many roots it is hard to destroy.

Judges and magistrates extort money from the conflicting parties, and will not deliver a final judgement before filling their pockets. Indictees buy their innocence with money. Justice is not rendered for those who deserve it. Instead, we have corruption, tribalism and influence peddling. Wrongdoers are spared and innocent people punished in their place.

And the police are no better.

Cases like that of the Mbemba family from the Masina district in Kinshasa are all too common. The family say they were forced by the police to leave their own home when a man in possession of false documents claimed he was the owner. The man built new houses on the Mbemba’s land and sold them, secure in the knowledge he would not be punished as, the family say, he had paid off the police and the authorities.

Only recently a man accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in North Kivu province escaped from prison with the alleged help of a guard and policeman. The North Kivu prosecutor opted to issue an arrest warrant for the accused rapist but will not prosecute the implicated police officers. The mother of the victim was right when she said just 500 US dollars is enough for this man to vanish and the case not be pursued.

This sort of thing often happens if the person accused of committing a crime is influential in the community. A person such as this who has been sentenced to 20 years can easily regain his freedom after just one year in exchange for a few banknotes.

Some criminals are never sentenced at all. A good number of the bandits, armed robbers, killers and rapists are acting under political and military umbrellas. Even if they are caught red-handed and sent to prison, this is a pure formality and they are released a few months later.

Contributing to this terrible impunity is the low salaries of civil servants and the irregularity with which they are paid. One policeman, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said, “I’ve been working in the service of the Congolese nation since 1980, but curiously I haven’t been paid since March 2007.”

A great number of policemen face the same situation. In North Kivu alone, more than 200 from a force of 4,200 haven’t been paid in more than 18 months.

Their salaries are made available each month by the government and given to police force administrators in Kinshasa. But the money isn’t getting through to the officers on the ground. The national police administration turns a deaf ear to the complaints of the poor policemen in the provinces and also to the allegations of theft and murder committed by its officers.

When they are paid, officers in North Kivu receive a uniform salary of 21, 650 Congolese francs per month, that is 35 dollars, regardless of their rank. The salary of their colleagues from the military is higher. An army sergeant earns 37,000 francs.

As a result, policemen in the east live a miserable life, extorting money from the poor population. When an unpaid policeman is caught red-handed killing, stealing, or causing trouble, the case is often not dealt with robustly enough by his direct superior, to avoid any irregularities being revealed. That means wrongdoings usually go unnoticed.

The question of how long impunity will remain in the east is a hard one to answer? It will take a long time for this giant baobab with green leaves, whose bitter fruits are the despair of a nation, to be uprooted.

Sara Nsimire is an IWPR contributor in Goma.

More IWPR's Global Voices