Rich in the minerals that power the world’s mobile phones and laptops, yet desperately underdeveloped, Congo votes on Sunday for its first new president in nearly two decades.
This could be the sprawling country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
But a last-minute decision to bar some 1 million voters because of an Ebola virus outbreak, after two years of various election delays, has angered many.
The opposition worries manipulation of controversial voting machines could ensure that President Joseph Kabila’s preferred successor wins.
Kabila has put forward loyalist Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as the ruling party candidate.
The former interior minister is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on Congolese who protested the delayed election.
Congo’s annoyance over the sanctions has worsened relations with the West, whose observers have not been invited to watch Sunday’s vote.
Kabila, blocked from serving three consecutive terms, has hinted he’ll run again in 2023, leading the opposition to suspect he’ll wield power behind the scenes until then to protect his vast wealth.
The opposition is split after briefly uniting behind leading candidate Martin Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker in Kinshasa, the capital.
Felix Tshisekedi, son of late opposition icon Etienne and head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party, broke away to join forces with the party of Vital Kamerhe, who finished third in the 2011 election.
WHY THE LATEST UNREST?
Congo’s electoral commission made a surprise decision on Wednesday to bar some 1 million people in two eastern cities from voting on Sunday, blaming an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
They will vote instead in March, months after the new president is inaugurated in January. The decision has been criticized as undermining the credibility of the election.
Protests erupted in Beni and Butembo as residents demand to vote with the rest of the country.
Violent Election Day
Christoph Vogel, armed groups expert in UN Group of Experts on Congo, says NDC-R rebels led by Guidon Shimiray Mwissa Sunday morning attacked another rebel group CNRD headquarters in Faringa, Rutshuru territory led by Colonel Wilson Irategeka.
“While NDC-R/APCLS-R pushed people to vote for Shadary, in part of Bwito (western Rutshuru), the anti-Kinshasa wing of Nyatura groups (i.e. those allied to the FDLR) has controlled access to polling on their sides by preventing voters to vote for Shadary,” Vogel said.
He said voting has been significantly impacted on nearby villages. He cited a lot of attention to urban centres, owing to journalists presence and lively chatter.
“Yet, much less is known as to situation across the country, and let’s not forget approx. 3/4 living in smaller towns and villages.”
The first polling stations closed towards 7pm, while others keep accepting voters queuing or have just opened recently.
According to Vogel, two major national electoral observation missions, Conférence Nationale Épiscopale du Congo and Moe Symocel voiced a number of concerns, partly of technical and partly of political nature.
There were 544 dysfunctional voting machines, 846 polling stations in prohibited places, yet, compared to earlier doomsday scenarios polling has been relatively peaceful so far, with millions of Congolese exhibiting a contagious enthusiasm for elections.
Waiting has discouraged some but not a majority of those queuing for long hours.
Reports criss-cross from well-functioning voting machines and those out-of-order or -electricity, many voters struggled to find their names on the lists, many struggled to vote as bulletins were lacking.
Most strikingly, in areas excluded from the polls – notably in Beni, Butembo, Kasindi and Oicha – people went to organise their own elections, using self-made and rehashed 2011 electoral materials.
No major security incident is reported from these improvised poll to date. Many circumstantial and initial reports exist on localised disturbance of the vote, not all of which are confirmed yet.
Examples include several deaths in a polling station in South Kivu near Walungu, where a raw erupted over alleged fraud.
Another case occurred in near Ngungu in North Kivu, where testimonies were barred from observing the polls by a local authority.
In Inongo, Mai-Ndombe province and home to Fayulu, protests over alleged malfunctioning voting machines was violently dispersed.
In Kinshasa, several polling stations in Limeté area – Tshisekedi’s stronghold – did not receive materials almost the entire day, while in Kingabwa (near Limeté) one polling station was fully dismantled and burnt down by protesters.
“In all of this, as I have tried to say earlier, little is known beyond the major urban centres of Congo. Thus far, it looks like if these elections were more peaceful (which affect later debate on credibility) than those in 2011 – but that’s an early snapshot.”
However, in eastern Congo, there have been significant instances of armed group implication in the voting.
“Bottom line, there is more that we don’t know about the polls and it will be important to continue gathering and verifying information – but on today’s (still on-going) voting as well as all further steps of counting, compiling etc. The key question in the very immediate next hours will be how many people still in queues will be denied voting.”