Congo elections mostly peaceful, but fraught with problems
Guest blogger Jason Stearns received reports of delays opening polling stations, road blocks, protests, voting fraud, and violence at polling stations – just a few of the challenges in Congo's elections.
Voting has begun peacefully in much of the country, with high turnout in many areas (including Bukavu, where I am).
However, several serious incidents have been reported. While my sources are reliable (mostly foreign observation missions, journalists and the United Nations), things are developing rapidly and I have not been able to cross-check all of the information below.
- In Lubumbashi, serious violence has erupted in various areas of town. Opposition supporters denounced the delays in opening polling stations in the Bel-Air neighborhoods where many UDPS supporters live. Road blocks were set up and protests broke out. Some time afterwards, UN reports came in regarding the blowing up of two trucks full of ballot papers that had allegedly already been filled out before voting began. Around the same time, two trucks full of sensitive election materials were set on fire in the Kenya neighborhood of town. All the while, numerous abuses have been reported by election observers in polling stations (no further information available). Armed civilians wearing red bandanas have opened fire on civilians at polling stations at Sapin Cemetary in the Ruashi neighborhood, while armed gunmen stormed another polling station in Bel Air and set it on fire. The MONUSCO staff has been forced to retreat into their compound; there are even reports of mortar fire in town;
- Election materials arrived late in much of Kinshasa. According to one international source, in Kinshasa IV (where around a quarter of the population lives) the presidential ballot papers had not arrived by noon. Heavy rain has disrupted or slowed down some of the electoral operations in town. Still the situation seems to be relatively calm, with no reports of violence in the capital;
- In several places around the country there have been reports of ballot papers being found already filled out before the elections began. This was the case in Goma (Himbi or Ndosho neighborhood), where the head of a voting center was attacked (one report has him being arrested) by voters after they found him with a stack of filled out ballots; a similar case occured in Kananga, where a woman is in critical condition - some reports suggest that she was trying to expose the fraudsters when she was attacked, others say she herself was the culprit. In Lubumbashi, Kananga and Mbuji-Mayi there have been similar reports;
- In Kananga (Kasai Occidental), there have also been numerous violent incidents. Very few voting stations reportedly opened on time, due to the lack of polling materials. Some stations told voters to come back at noon, while in others observers alleged that ballot boxes already had ballots in them before voting began. Several voting stations - including those in religious institutions - have been attacked by "mobs," in some cases these seem to be angry voters throwing stones. Several injuries have been reported and some polling stations are now closed;
- Irregularities are been reported in too many areas to list here - they include ballot boxes found filled before voting began in Penga Yengo (Kasai-Occidental); voting officials refusing to show witnesses that boxes are empty before voting began (as required by law) in Mbandaka (Equateur); opposition witnesses refused entry in Kananga and Bakwa Kenge (Kasai-Occidental); in Ndesha and Bena Leka (Kasai-Occidental) polling stations burned down;
- In Luiza (Kasai-Occidental), opposition supporters loyal to Delly Sesanga's Envol party have attacked (not clear how serious) the guest house where election officials were staying, accusing them of fraud;
- In Masisi (North Kivu), there have been accusations of CNDP soldiers stealing voters card and then voting for them, of soldiers telling people to vote for CNDP candidates, and of blocking the entrance fo non-CNDP witnesses into voting centers;
- Fears of violence have prompted the European Union to withdraw observers from Mbuji Mayi and MONUSCO from pulling people from Mwene Ditu (Kasai Oriental)
Again, I emphasize that this is a huge country and in other areas voting has been happening peacefully. Nonetheless, this violence and persistent accusations of fraud are very troubling.