Eight months to the definitive presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the exact number of candidates or actual contenders is not yet known. With the election set for December 20, President Felix Tshisekedi may well know that his biggest opponent is the insecurity in the east.
Not that the instability there is his making. Here is a region that hasn’t known true peace for the past 30 years. From UN estimates, as many as 120 armed groups roam the three provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri.
For Tshisekedi, the lack of peace there is both an old burden and a new challenge: He came to power in 2019 and promised to wipe out the problem. But now that it still exists, voter turnout or even his popularity may be on the line.
One of the biggest critics of his handling of the problem is Dr Denis Mukwege, the gynaecologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for making life-saving operations on sexually violated women of the Congo war.
Foreign military missions
Opposed to any foreign military missions in eastern DRC, he argues the government has looked on as instability gets deeper here.
“Who can still believe in the stabilisation efforts of the East of DR Congo with the help of EAC (East African Community) Force composed largely of destabilised states?” he asked last week, referring to the regional mission meant to improve security in the area.
“It is time to review regional diplomacy and security governance to break the deadlock.”
Dr Mukwege has been a critic of the EACRF, composed of Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan troops. But that he repeated the criticism just as the force completed deployment reflects the frustrations on the ground.
For Tshisekedi, the problem worsened after the resurgence of the M23 movement, the rebel group his predecessor Joseph Kabila had convinced to lay down the arms back in 2013.
Tshisekedi was elected on the basis of the hope he raised among citizens for a renewal.
Tshisekedi, once inching towards thawing ties with Kigali, has since changed into a public critic of Rwanda, most likely to raise his profile at home.
While citizens wait for the elections, there are several analysts who believe that a “postponement is now inevitable,” according to the Cadre de Concertation de la Société Civile pour l'Observation des élections (CDCE), a local electoral watchdog. There is currently doubt that the DRC will be able to meet the legal deadlines and organise the elections by the end of this year. The civil society believes that "the electoral process does not provide sufficient clarity”.
Dr Mukwege has also criticised the preparations, accusing authorities of demanding bribes to enrol voters.
“[I am] Outraged by the phenomenon of extortion which prevents the poorest citizens from exercising their political rights,” he said on Twitter.
“An enrolment process marred by corruption heralds non-inclusive and non-credible elections.”
President Tshisekedi may have known he expects a bumpy ride nonetheless. So, one of his strategies has been to poach erstwhile rivals or reconcile with friends-turned-foes.
Recently, he appointed Jean-Pierre Bemba and Vital Kamerhe into his Cabinet. Bemba was once a warlord. His indictment at the International Criminal Court in the past prevented him from running (Congolese law forbids anyone convicted of war crimes from contesting for presidency).
But Bemba’s influence in local politics is strong still. In 2016, the ICC had jailed him for 18 years but the appellate chamber of the court acquitted him two years later.
Kamerhe, a former chief of staff, was jailed for 20 years in 2020 for corruption in Kinshasa. His appeal reduced it to 13 years but he was freed last year under conditional release.
President Tshisekedi, who is from central DRC, has kept Vital Kamerhe, who is very popular in eastern DRC, and Bemba, one of the great leaders of Grand Equateur in the north-west of the country, with him.
The battle is being fought for control of the electorate in Grand Bandundu, where his opponent, Martin Fayulu, who has always claimed victory over Tshisekedi in the 2018 presidential election, is very popular.
But Fayulu's rivalry with his now former ally, former prime minister Adolphe Muzito, also from Grand Bandundu, could diminish his influence in his fiefdom to the benefit of Tshisekedi.
The electoral war machine of the incumbent president could easily overcome the opponents, even if nothing is necessarily won, especially in Grand Katanga, in the south of the country where his former ally, former governor Moïse Katumbi, could prove to be a formidable opponent.
As for Joseph Kabila, the former head of state who is also from Greater Katanga, he remains silent, almost mysterious, as usual. His party, PPRD, and his coalition, FCC, have been weakened by defections. Some of Kabila's allies in the party have now moved over to Tshisekedi’s camp.
Kabila’s intentions in the upcoming elections are for now unclear. Some analysts believe that his wife, Olive Lembe Kabila, who is very active and critical of the current management of the country, has ambitions.
Even Dr Mukwege himself is now being rumoured to harbour political ambitions.