Congo votes for president as conflict and smudged ballots lead to fears election won’t be credible

At stake is the future of one of Africa’s largest nations and one whose mineral resources are increasingly crucial to the global economy

Democratic Republic Of Congo
Internally displaced people gather to vote at the Kanyaruchinya polling centre, in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo December 20, 2023.ARLETTE BASHIZI (REUTERS)

Congo saw opening delays of up to seven hours in a presidential election Wednesday facing steep logistical and security challenges that raised questions about the credibility of the vote.

Some 44 million people — almost half the population — were expected to vote, but many, including several million displaced by conflict in the vast country’s east, could struggle to cast ballots. The fighting has prevented 1.5 million people from registering to vote.

At stake is the future of one of Africa’s largest nations and one whose mineral resources are increasingly crucial to the global economy. Congo has a history of disputed elections that can turn violent, and there’s little confidence among many Congolese in the country’s institutions.

“In time of coup d’état and autocracy in Africa, this election is an opportunity to reinforce a unique democracy in central Africa,” said Fred Bauma, executive director of Congolese research institute Ebuteli.

President Felix Tshisekedi seeks his second and final five-year term, running against 26 others on the ballot. His main rival appeared to be Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga province and a millionaire business person.

“When you wake up in the morning you’re hoping for good things, good work, and I want security,” Raymond Yuma said in the capital, Kinshasa. He sat beside three others waiting for the doors to open.

None of their voting cards was legible. A major concern is that ink on cards has smudged. That means voters could be turned away. In addition, the voter registration list hasn’t been properly audited.

Three hours after polls opened, over 31% of polling stations in main cities and towns were yet to open, with voting machines faulty in 45% of stations, according to Bishop Donatien Nshole, spokesman of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo and the Church of Christ in Congo observer mission, basing the figures on reports of around a fifth of its large network.

Analysts said the election was likely to be extended beyond Wednesday to complete the process.

The delays were a result of technical issues such as faulty machines or election officials not knowing how to use them, officials said. “Some machines are problematic and they don’t have cables,” according to Patrick Mbo, an official with the election commission in Kinshasha’s Saint Benoît center.

In eastern Congo, people said they weren’t finding their names on voting lists. “The voters displayed on lists at the polling station are fewer than those who are lining up,” said Jules Kambale at a polling station in Goma.

Junior Tshimanga, who lined up at 4 a.m., said he saw voting materials brought in one hour before the polls were scheduled to open. Thousands of stations, particularly in remote areas, might still not have what they need on Wednesday.

At one station, an angry crowd tried to push past police officers in riot gear. And in the eastern city of Bunia, a voting center was vandalized in a dispute between the electoral commission and voters, said Jean-Marcus Loika, a local journalist. Gunshots in the area prevented people from voting, he said.

“The organization of the elections raises lots of doubt regarding the credibility, the transparency and the reliability of the results,” said Bienvenu Matumo, a member of LUCHA, a local rights group.

While voting in Lubumbashi, opposition candidate Katumbi asked the population to stay at polling stations and monitor results until the end. “The only result that we will accept will be the one displayed on each polling station,” he said. A fractured opposition makes Tshisekedi the likely favorite to win.

The son of a late, popular opposition figure, he has spent much of his presidency trying to consolidate power over state institutions and working to overcome a crisis of legitimacy after a contested election five years ago.

“He’s someone who’s done a lot of things for the country … he’s fought for democracy,” said business owner Joseph Tshibadi. Even though Tshisekedi hasn’t succeeded in quelling violence in the east, Tshibadi was willing to give him more time.

In the east, more than 120 armed groups are fighting for power and resources or to protect their communities. Among them are M23 rebels, allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda, which denies it. Tshisekedi came to power promising to stem the violence, but attempts to quell the fighting with an East African force have failed. The force is pulling out, along with the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The election commission says it has made changes in this vote to make it more credible, spending more than $1 billion. A key change is that results from the 75,000 voting stations will be released one at a time, rather than being announced in bulk. Already, some observers have alleged the process is far from transparent.

The East African Community said its election observer mission was not granted access to Congo. And the European Union canceled its mission after authorities did not authorize the use of satellite equipment for its deployment.

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