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Congo's presidential election spotlights the deadly crisis in the east that has displaced millions

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Congo's presidential election spotlights the deadly crisis in the east that has displaced millions
AP
JUSTIN KABUMBA and KRISTA LARSON
December 12, 2023

GOMA, Congo (AP) — Elisha Manishimwe longs to return to his village in eastern Congo to vote in this month’s presidential election. But for two years he has lived in a displacement camp with thousands of others after fleeing for his life. His fatigue is compounded by despair.

Many of the displaced do not even have voter’s cards. The cards' poor quality is another concern: printed with thermal ink, they are quickly becoming illegible.

Hopes are fading, too.

“The authorities we’ve always voted for are no use to us,” said Manishimwe, a father of five. “They promised us that they would end the war before the elections, but that hasn’t been the case. If they want us to go to the elections, they should end the war so that we can go home and vote.”

As Congo prepares to hold elections on Dec. 20, a record 6.9 million people are displaced across the vast Central African nation, according to the United Nations. In the east, fighting between the military and M23 rebels has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in recent months and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced a 72-hour cease-fire in eastern Congo, but some of the more than 120 active rebel groups quickly distanced themselves from it, and Congo's government had no comment. Still, it was a potential breakthrough after recent fighting came within just 27 kilometers (17 miles) from eastern Congo's key border city of Goma.

Already, the conflict has limited the vote. President Felix Tshisekedi, who seeks another term, has said that people living in the volatile territories of Masisi and Rutshuru will not take part in the election. Local activists and observers said that could affect its credibility.

Whoever is elected president should "make the question of the east the absolute priority of his five-year term and to restore the authority of the state in the localities under rebel occupation,” said Yvon Muya, associate researcher at the University of Ottawa’s International Francophonie Research Chair on Political Aspirations and Movements in Francophone Africa.

The election faces enormous logistical obstacles. Last week, the electoral commission told the presidency that it urgently needed four Antonov aircraft and 10 helicopters to transport electoral materials to all localities.

While some observers doubt the election can be held properly, the commission maintains that the timetable will be respected for Congo's nearly 44 million registered voters to cast ballots.

“Postponing the elections is not an option on our table. It is not even part of our vocabulary,” chair Denis Kadima said.

The candidates are familiar. Tshisekedi faces his nemesis from 2018, Martin Fayulu, who challenged the results in court but lost.

The leading opposition candidate this time, however, appears to be Moise Katumbi, a millionaire businessperson whose campaign in 2018 was thwarted by the previous regime of former President Joseph Kabila. Also running is Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, a physician renowned for treating women brutalized by sexual violence during war in the east.

Katumbi, the former governor of the rich mining province of Katanga, has received endorsements from four other candidates who dropped out of the race. But there are fears that a divided opposition could hand Tshisekedi a second term.

“In view of the statements made by the main opposition candidates, the chances of them coming together around a common candidate seem to be diminishing as the election approaches,” said Muya, the researcher.

“It looks a little complicated because the ambitions of these candidates are enormous and contradictory,” said Tresor Kibangula, a political analyst at Congolese research institute Ebuteli.

Both Fayulu and Mukwege recently accused Tshisekedi’s government of hoarding airplane fuel, effectively limiting their ability to campaign around the country.

Violence also has been reported during the campaigns. Protestors threw stones and police fired live ammunition and tear gas at Katumbi during a rally in Moanda city on Tuesday, Nono N’landu, a member of Katumbi's cabinet, told The Associated Press.

Katumbi's bodyguard was hit with a projectile that “split his head” trying to protect Katumbi, he said. Videos seen by AP show a bloodied bodyguard in a car driving away from the chaotic rally.

For the president, rhetoric against neighboring Rwanda has been at the heart of his campaign speeches. He accuses Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels in eastern Congo, a claim Rwanda denies. Tshisekedi has accused unspecified opposition candidates of supporting Rwanda and even compared Rwandan President Paul Kagame to Adolf Hitler in one speech.

The conflict in the east is the election's main issue, with almost all candidates promising to end the war by building a strong, professional army capable of wiping out armed groups.

The need is more critical than ever. Congo's government this month signed agreements to end the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country after more than two decades. Troops from the East African regional force are also departing.

Katumbi wants to significantly increase Congo's security forces and station them in all villages in high-risk areas, but he does not rule out negotiating cease-fire agreements with pro-peace groups. Fayulu has said he will not hesitate to break off diplomatic relations with Rwanda, a step that could resonate with voters in the east.

One analyst called it disappointing that political parties tend to frame the security situation “in a more simplistic way, often blaming Rwanda, which is understandable.” However, "there is no emphasis on the Congolese state itself, the Congolese security forces,” said Jason Stearns, co-founder of the Congo Research Group and assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University.

Opposition candidates also pledge to fight other massive challenges including corruption and high unemployment among youth . Katumbi has vowed to transform the capital of Kinshasa “into a modern, urbanized city, bringing water and electricity everywhere.”

Voters will be casting ballots for national and provincial legislative and municipal councilors as well as for the presidency.

___

Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Jean-Yves Kamale in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.

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