All eyes on DR Congo elections amid tension
That the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is due to hold elections on December 20 is not in doubt. What is in doubt, a week to those polls, is whether the country is ready to hold elections in every corner of the republic on that day.
And that forms part of the reasons the presidential elections, especially, are important to the Congolese and foreigners alike.
DRC’s Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) says that the deadline will be met to hold elections that have cost $1.2 billion to prepare. But the same Ceni recently sent a letter to President Felix Tshisekedi “urgently” requesting four fixed-wing aircraft and 10 helicopters to transport electoral material throughout the country.
Read: Problems loom a week from DRC vote
For starters, DRC is a vast country and travelling from one corner to another usually takes up to two hours by air as there are no proper roads to link regions. Yet, there are more than 75,478 polling stations in the DRC for this election.
While the Congolese government has not yet responded favourably to the request from the electoral commission, the DRC through its Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zenon Mukongo, on Tuesday sent a request to the UN Security Council asking “urgently” for logistical support from Monusco (the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo) for the distribution of electoral material.
For the Congolese, this election could be historic: An incumbent could retain his seat through the ballot, or a new president could take power peacefully after the ballot making it only the second such occasion in the country’s six-decade independence.
But all that doesn’t just depend on the candidates. It will depend on Ceni’s conduct, just as much as the local security situation.
In Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, provinces in the east of the DRC, Monusco had already helped to transport tons of electoral material. This is the region that hasn’t known peace in the last three decades and recent violence has threatened the very polls everyone hopes could help make it peaceful. Congolese authorities admit the biggest start will be for everyone to cast their ballot.
Read: Ahead of DRC vote, people in restive east feel abandoned
“The government would be grateful if the Security Council would authorise Monusco to extend this support to other provinces,” wrote Zenon Mokongo, the DRC’s envoy wrote on December 12.
That is also paradoxical: For months, Congolese authorities lampooned Monusco, and the East African Community Regional Forces (EACRF) for sitting on their hands and failing to tame violence in the east. EACRF mandate ended on December 8, and troops are to completely depart by January 7.
Their role in this election is not yet defined. Monusco’s departure season is also due, as they are to leave starting December this year until December 2024.
On December 9, the national Congolese press agency announced that Angola had agreed to come to the aid of Ceni with its air fleet.
Some 22 candidates are squaring it out, including President Tshisekedi, Martin Fayulu, Moise Katumbi and Denis Mukwege.
Read: DRC’s leading presidential candidates
The presidential election has been extended even to Congolese living outside the country, notably in France, US, Belgium, France, Canada and South Africa.
According to President Tshisekedi, the December 20, election is an opportunity “to consolidate what has been achieved or to start again from scratch.” The outgoing president believes that this electoral competition is an opportunity seized “by the enemies to place their candidates to cut the DRC in half.”
That also reflects why external parties may want a role in this election. Two weeks ago, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines toured Kinshasa and Kigali to push for a ceasefire. This week, both sides agreed to a 72-hour pause in Eastern DRC. Rwanda and the DRC are not directly involved in combat, but the US says they have fanned rebel movements targeting each other’s governments.
On Thursday, Lawrence Kanyuka, the political spokesman of M23 rebel group, which Rwanda is accused of supporting, said his group will honour the ceasefire preconditionally.
“Although the M23 did not take part in the decision for the 72-hour ceasefire, it welcomes the decision since it is in line with the M23’s existing ceasefire of March 7, 2023,” he said.
Read: US official: East DRC truce extended for 2 weeks
“However, if the DRC government coalition forces, mainly FARDC, FDLR, Mercenaries, militias and Burundi National Defence Forces attack the civilian population or our positions, we will not hesitate to protect the civilian population and defend ourselves professionally,” he warned.
Burundi had previously rejected M23 accusations. The M23 movement, made up of Congolese Tutsi fighters, has been fighting the Congolese army and allied militia since last year when it rearmed from years of a lull. One such group is FDLR, remnants of the genocidaires in Rwanda who fled into the DRC after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
Kigali has in the pasta accused Kinshasa of supporting the group. Last month, FARDC, the Congolese army, announced it would be criminal for any of their forces to associate with the FDLR. It could signal lower tensions with Kigali, but it was out of pressure from the US.
Spokesman for the Congolese army Maj-Gen Sylvain Ekenge forbade all Congolese soldiers to make contact with the FDLR.
After US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines visited the two countries in late November, the US National Security Council announced the two sides had taken up responsibility to reduce tension.
Read: US pressure on DRC, Rwanda paying off
“Acknowledging the long history of conflict in this region, Presidents Kagame and Tshisekedi plan to take specific steps to reduce current tensions by addressing the respective security concerns of both countries,” said a readout from the meetings on November 21.
“The steps are drawn from previous arrangements reached with the support of neighbours under the Luanda and Nairobi processes.” The US will monitor those pledges, the dispatch indicated.
The US wants DRC to be stable because it is also a part of the Lobito Port Corridor, a new infrastructure project announced in September, worth about $1.5 billion that will see railway line refurbished between the Angolan port of Lobito to the DRC and Zambian mines, offering a lucrative connectivity to enable firms to extract crucial minerals in the Congo without looking over their shoulders.
That project is also being touted by the US as an example of how its infrastructure projects in Africa bring better change, compared to the Chinese. It is part of the larger $55 billion US-Africa Summit commitments over the next three years which relies on stable polities that are better governed across the continent.
Read: Kenya, Angola top US Africa infrastructure craze
Luanda Process, mediated by President Joao Lorenco of Angola, brings together Rwanda and the DRC to de-escalate tensions.
Previously, the two sides agreed on reopening diplomatic channels which never happened. Instead, the two sides escalated their war of words. Luanda directly affects Nairobi process, mediated by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta who has tried to lead dialogue between Kinshasa and armed groups.
That explains why the main issue at stake in this election is the insecurity in the east of the DRC. President Tshisekedi has tried several approaches, including support from the East African regional force, which failed. The EACRF are leaving behind armed groups at war with DRC’s armed forces. Almost all the candidates have pointed to Rwanda as the instigator of the M23 war which Kigali denies and blames Kinshasa for not addressing the problem of inclusive leadership and covering up for the FDLR.
Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, Martin Fayulu, Felix Tshisekedi, Constant Mutamba and Adolphe Muzito are rivals, but they agree on one point. They mention Kigali by name and promise to strengthen the Congolese army to deal with the various attacks. Moïse Katumbi presented a plan to strengthen the Congolese army in six months. Katumbi’s opponents, starting with Felix Tshisekedi and his entire camp, criticised him for “not being strong against Rwanda.”
On the other hand, other candidates have criticised Tshisekedi for joining the EAC regional bloc that now includes eight countries, arguing it exposed the DRC to unnecessary openings to be exploited.
Nearly all the candidates say they won’t negotiate with rebels, suggesting there won’t be any dialogue. But the situation could well change. Tshisekedi, for instance, labels M23 as terrorists but then says negotiations can only be pegged on surrender and disarmament.
Read: DR Congo presidential candidates in final push ahead of vote
Washington said this week it had obtained a commitment to a ceasefire, despite the almost daily fighting between the rebels and the Congolese army, supported by the Wazalendo self-defence groups, since October this year.
“The cessation of hostilities is a step in the right direction. The DRC will respect its commitments as usual and hopes that this time Rwanda will respect its commitments, in particular by effectively withdrawing its troops from our territory, said Patrick Muyaya, spokesman for the Congolese government.
“The DRC calls for the rapid implementation of the roadmap resulting from the Luanda and Nairobi processes as a definitive solution to the crisis, which includes the disarmament and cantonment of M23.”
The DRC appreciates the United States’ commitment to restoring peace to the east of the country but remains closed to the idea of negotiating with the rebels unless they first agree to be confined.
The presidential election in the DRC is a pivotal moment for determining whether the Congo will return to this position in 2024 or whether a new policy will be put in place.