In the words of Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi to the UN Human Rights Council session this week in Geneva, Switzerland: “The persistence of the war in the east of our country risks jeopardising the electoral process, which is already underway, due to a massive displacement of people from combat zones, the insecurity and inaccessibility of these areas.”
Reuters quoted Congolese and foreign electoral experts saying Congolese Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) could postpone the polls, whose timelines have been marred by delays.
This development gives credence to the view held by Rwandan President Paul Kagame that the Congolese leader is exploiting the insecurity in the restive east to defer the elections.
President Kagame said late last year that he believes the Congolese leadership is creating a security emergency a year before the country holds presidential elections in order to find a reason to postpone the elections scheduled for December 2023.
‘Use other excuses’
“This problem can be resolved if one country headed for elections next year is not trying to create an emergency so that the elections don’t take place, not that he won the first elections as we know. If he is trying to find another way of having the next elections postponed, then I would rather he uses other excuses, not us,” Kagame said, deflecting accusations by Kinshasa that he has been supporting the M23 rebels, a view also held by the UN and US.
The CENI has already failed to meet the deadline for voter registration twice in more than a dozen western provinces due to technical problems and registration has so far been impossible in the territory under M23 control in North Kivu, one of Congo’s most populous provinces.
But, according to the CENI calendar, the elections will be held on December 20 this year. The electoral body targets to register 49 million voters during the registration window.
CENI chairperson Denis Kadima said 25 million voters have so far been listed.
He is optimistic, amid concerns that areas occupied by M23 rebels cannot be accessed by registration officials.
The fighting in Kivu has forced many residents to flee their villages. According to the United Nations, Congo has 5.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled violence in North Kivu, Ituri, South Kivu Provinces and parts of Kasai Province in the centre of the country. Another 1 million Congolese have found refuge in other countries.
A major impasse is looming, especially as the combatants in the east keep disregarding calls for a ceasefire. The FARDC (Congolese army) and the M23 continue to clash as the rebels who were supposed to start withdrawing from occupied areas on February 28, according to a new timetable for withdrawal decided by East African Heads of State on February 17 in Addis Ababa, keep dithering.
Riding on precedent
Legislators from North Kivu, which has borne the brunt of insecurity, are now asking the government to “suspend the electoral process in order to find corrective measures,” given the delicate security situation.
Officially, the government is not talking about postponing elections. Patrick Muyaya, the government spokesman, did not respond to queries by The EastAfrican about the plan to defer the polls.
While officials feel that the eastern region will be important to the polls, it is instructive to recall that President Tshisekedi himself romped to power in 2019 largely without them.
His predecessor Joseph Kabila, when faced with a deadlock, postponed the elections, initially scheduled for 2016, until December 2018, causing political tensions, with confrontations that caused the deaths of more than 50 people and endless violent demonstrations.
Barred one million voters
In the elections, the CENI barred one million voters in Beni and Butembo, cities in eastern Congo affected by a deadly Ebola outbreak, amid protests by the opposition that the move undermined the credibility of the election.
Tshisekedi, a member of Union for Democracy and Social Progress, a political party that has fought for nearly 40 years for democracy, risks being confronted with the same scenario he fiercely opposed during his years in the opposition.
If the government is to catch up with the electoral timelines, MPs from North Kivu recommend that the government seek a “peaceful resolution” of the conflict in the east.
Verbal and physical violence
The region has been wracked by violence targeting Congolese Tutsi. In a statement on February 27, CENI announced that it had “learned with regret of the incidents of verbal and physical violence against members of the Banyamulenge community that occurred on February 22 at EP Cibimbi in Karhongo-Nyangezi, South Kivu Province”.
“The war must completely end before elections can be held. This is now an emergency,” Corneille Mulumba, a Congolese politician, told The EastAfrican.
Mulumba recalled that for the time being it is impossible to deploy election materials in conflict areas.
“We are talking about a country 80 times bigger than Belgium, with no road infrastructure,” he said.
In the DRC, to transport electoral material to territories without roads, the government has always been helped by United Nations mission in the DRC (Monusco) with helicopters.
But the UN has suspended humanitarian flights in eastern DRC after a helicopter used by the UN World Food Programme came under fire near Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, according to a statement from the UN Humanitarian Coordination Office. In early February, a Monusco soldier was killed after their helicopter was shot at.
In March 2022, eight peacekeepers died in a helicopter crash that was hit by rebels.
In Geneva, Tshisekedi urged the international community to help Congo restore peace and state authority in this part of the country. He again accused Rwandan authorities of supporting the M23. Rwanda denies backing the rebels.
The Congolese government has asked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to hold discussions between Congo, Rwanda and the UN agency about repatriating refugees, Tshisekedi added.
Additional reporting by Moses Havyarimana