Congolese will go to the polls on Monday, Nov. 28, in the country’s second democratic elections since independence. For the first time the presidential and parliamentary vote will be combined in the same election. Elections themselves are logistically difficult – Congo is home to over 71 million people, from about 450 tribes, spread over a vast country the size of Western Europe.
Congo is also known for its impressive natural resource wealth, yet it is as rich in resources as it is in atrocities given the fact that it has been ravaged by successive wars for more than 15 years. The province of South Kivu and its capital city, Bukavu, is one of the worst conflict-affected areas in eastern Congo. In light of the conflict and hardship in the East, I asked myself: Do the upcoming elections matter here?
Across the country and here in South Kivu the campaign is the subject of countless conversations among the locals. I spent some time walking around in town to capture the sentiments of people.
When asked about local perspectives of the upcoming elections, a community leader, a note of desperation in his voice, said:
I am very, very afraid and somehow disappointed with these elections before they even happen. I am not even sure that they will happen on this date. One of the opposition leaders, Mr. Etienne Tshisekedi Wa Mulumba, has declared himself president less than three weeks before the elections are due to take place, but let’s pray they happen. And who knows, isn’t he going to fight? It seems to me like so many people in this country have unmeasured lust of power. But I really think – and so do many of my countrymen – that the polls on the 28th should be a big moment to make an unforgettable change in the history of the Congo. It should be a moment when people are given a heavenly fallen opportunity to really free themselves from the bondage of the wicked and make a choice of their committed and called leaders of the example of Moses in the Old Testament for those who read the Bible! This should be time to transit from unrest to peace and from violence to stability. Unfortunately the playing ground is not leveled.
I asked other people around the local leader to expand on his suggestion that the campaign is not fully fair or transparent and they shouted in agreement. A young man, around 25 years old, said in a disappointed tone:
Why should the president and the Civil Aviation Authority keep the other candidates from using aircraft inside the country for sake of their campaigns? Will one candidate fly in several aircraft at the same time?
A bit later I spoke to a group of youth near a tire repair shop in the middle of Bukavu. I asked about their feelings regarding the ongoing campaign. Most people were willing to speak with me but showed little excitement. They expressed their apprehension about the tactics of so many of the candidates, either running for presidency or seeking a seat in the parliament. One young man said:
Many of them [candidates] are handing out t-shirts and caps. You will see their photos and banners almost everywhere with key messages or just slogans. For me these candidates are poking fun at the local populations. We need to hear more about their past backgrounds, plans, motivations, and leitmotifs. And mostly we have to come to know if the candidate has ever contributed, in one way or another, to the chaos the country is in. We must get convinced and decide if it is worth voting for him.
Some other candidates have been preaching hatred in their addresses instead of telling and proving how, based on their leadership skills and integrity, the country will get reconstructed. There should not be violence during the campaign but still there are reported cases here and there. And while the campaign has already launched, there is unrest in Nyambembe mining area in the Shabunda territory and there have been clashes between the FARDC and the Raiya Mutomboki armed group. A similar case in the Fizi territory with YAKUTUMBA armed group. Clashes are reported in the surroundings of Misisi gold mining area. Are people in this part of the country going to listen to the candidates or go to the polls or just hide under their beds because of gunfire?
Another local reveals that he is very angry with some of the candidates, especially those from the “Presidential Majority” backing Joseph Kabila. These politicians come to the poor communities and start distributing money and other gifts among the population. He said:
Isn’t this simply state fund abuse? Where are they getting this money from? Why can’t this money be used to pay the teachers, soldiers, and so many Congolese working with almost no salary? And where are the roads as promised in 2006? Many people are left homeless only because their houses have been put down under the pretext that it is high time the Bukavu road driving south to Uvira city was fixed! Why only during the campaign while we have been waiting for so long? Isn’t this a shame? We will believe only when we see [improvements].
But in Bukavu there is hope, too. There are still good seeds that the country can sow and harvest into stability. Walking across the main road in the city, there is a single flyer by one candidate with the message, “NO CORRUPTION AND NEVER BETRAY THE NATION,” written to the voters. Voters say corruption is one of the biggest issues that must be addressed in Congo and that the country is desperate for leaders with integrity.
But compared to the 2006 elections, a notable percentage of the inhabitants of South Kivu are saying that the upcoming election is at risk since the number of political parties has almost doubled, increasing the potential for tension and violence. Additionally, the strength of international observers, especially from the European Union is low, and there are no observers on behalf of the United Nations. Why are these key monitors failing to address and speak out about the corruption, impunity, insecurity, human rights violation, and horrific mass atrocities, which continue to happen even during the campaign?
The Congolese I spoke to in Bukavu wish that the presidential elections next week will be fair, peaceful, transparent, and democratic. They said they hope the new upcoming Congolese government will work for the welfare of the whole nation—and not for their selfish interests—fight impunity and corruption, put into place a system of good governance, and make good on their development promises. They also hope that international and regional policymakers will prevent post-election violence by holding all candidates accountable and responsible and make those responsible for any post-election turmoil accountable for his misdeeds.