/ 9 December 2023

Ahead of DR Congo vote, people in volatile east feel abandoned

Files Drcongo Unrest Politics Elections
No vote: The election posters may be up but many people in eastern DRC haven’t received their voters’ cards. Photo: Alexis Huguet/AFP

The squalid displacement camps near the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stand as a testament to the government’s struggle to solve insecurity, a key issue ahead of elections later this month.

In the conflict-torn east of the impoverished but mineral-rich country, many feel abandoned.

“We live like animals,” said Anna Mastaki, who lives in one of the camps on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Chantal Uwimana, who also fled the Masisi region, west of Goma, said she hadn’t been able to register to vote in the 20 December polls.

“Are we, the displaced people, not Congolese like everyone else after all?” the mother of eight asked.

“We’re going to see this election take place while we’re living outside in the rain.”

Much of eastern DRC is prey to armed groups, a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s. 

One of them, the M23, has seized swathes of territory since late 2021, driving more than a million people from their homes. 

Doctors Without Borders says that tens of thousands of families are still fleeing violence in North Kivu. But the ongoing conflict and escalating violence mean the scale of the humanitarian disaster in the region is huge.

According to the United Nations, nearly seven million people have been displaced in the DRC — the highest number yet recorded in the country. 

President Félix Tshisekedi, who is running for re-election, has promised to tackle rampant insecurity.

“As long as I haven’t solved the problem of security, I won’t have succeeded in my mandate,” he said on a 2021 visit to the east.

But, after five years in power, the situation in eastern DRC has only grown worse. 

Thousands of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands of women have been raped, according to figures from research groups and humanitarian organisations. 

Hundreds of thousands of people inhabit displacement camps near Goma, most having fled clashes in the province.

The Tutsi-led M23 group took up arms again in 2021 after years of dormancy, launching a campaign that has seen it seize strategic towns across North Kivu and come within several dozen kilometres of Goma. 

The DRC, several Western countries including the United States, and independent United Nations experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23, a claim denied by Kigali.

After several months of calm on the front lines, clashes erupted again in October, pitting the M23 against Congolese soldiers and pro-government militias.

Living in dire poverty in one of the camps, Bahati Nvano complained of feeling cast aside as the rest of the country gears up to cast their ballots.

He fled his native Kiwanja, about 70km north of Goma, with his children, only to end up crammed into a makeshift tarpaulin tent.

“We haven’t received our voters’ cards,” he said, expressing worry because the document is one of the few ID cards accepted in the DRC. 

Nvano said he was “stunned” he wouldn’t be able to vote on election day.

“Every Congolese has the right to vote,” he said. 

After a military counteroffensive against the M23 fizzled out in mid-November, Tshisekedi declared that parts of North Kivu province would “unfortunately” not be able to take part in the elections. 

Voting will not take place in Masisi and Rutshuru territories, where M23 fighters are active.

Fred Bauma, director of Kinshasa-based think-tank Ebuteli, said that Tshisekedi’s recent policies to tackle the conflict appeared to have been ineffective. There is a perception he’s doing things by “trial and error,” Bauma added.

Regional tensions have exploded since last year, to the point where UN secretary general António Guterres in October expressed concerns about the risk of a direct confrontation between the DRC and Rwanda. 

Many see the president as having failed to calm tensions in eastern DRC. 

Rampant inflation is also hurting his popularity in the region. 

Still, most of the displaced people around Goma who were interviewed said that if they could vote, they would choose Tshisekedi to give him a chance to resolve a chaotic situation that he inherited. Several presidential candidates have hit the campaign trail in eastern DRC, pledging to bring peace to the region. — AFP