“Are we still Congolese? »: in the east of the DRC, elections at a minimum for the displaced

At 18, Joyeuse thought she was fulfilling her duty as a citizen for the very first time

“Are we still Congolese? »: in the east of the DRC, elections at a minimum for the displaced

At 18, Joyeuse thought she was fulfilling her duty as a citizen for the very first time. But when she arrived at around 6 a.m. at the Mboga voting center on the outskirts of Goma, one of the main cities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the young woman with short hair and the long dress, like many others, did not find its name on the electoral lists displayed on the front of the offices. “Will I still be able to participate? I don't understand, I looked everywhere and this is where I was recorded. I asked the question to representatives of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), but they were unable to answer me,” she laments, cutting through the crowd.

On Wednesday, December 20, the province of North Kivu was no exception to the delays which complicated the deployment of electoral materials and the malfunctions of voting machines observed nationwide while nearly 44 million Congolese were called to the polls. ballot boxes for general elections – the presidential, legislative, provincial and part of the municipal elections.

In this province, the second in number of voters after the capital Kinshasa, the vote promised to be chaotic. At the gates of Goma, more than half a million displaced people from Rutshuru, Masisi and Nyiragongo, three territories prey to war between the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Congolese army and its auxiliaries, pile up in camps.

Endless queues

Like these thousands of families, Joyeuse also fled the fighting that broke out in 2022 in Kibumba, her locality of origin, to take refuge on the outskirts of Goma. In February, she managed to obtain a voter's card. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) then set up “registration” centers in the displaced camps to register future voters. “But today, only a few polling stations for displaced people have been relocated. And their names are mixed with those of the natives. Add to that the delays due to logistical difficulties, it’s confusing,” explains Mohamed Radjab Biteko, an observer from the Civil Society Organization for Peace in Congo (OSCP).

Around him, several hundred voters are trying to find a place in the endless queues. “The ballot boxes, voting booths and other materials only arrived a few hours ago,” explained a CENI agent on Wednesday around 10:30 a.m. In theory, the poll was supposed to open at 6 a.m., but in his office, the electronic machine that records the votes is broken and the only technician in the center is already busy elsewhere.

“I’ve just been rejected,” declares, furiously, an old man, his voter card in hand. “I was nevertheless enlisted here, but as I am displaced from Rutshuru, I was refused the vote,” he explains. This territory, like that of Masisi, is today partly controlled by the M23 rebels, supported by neighboring Rwanda, according to various reports including those of United Nations experts. Unable to bring peace there and restore state authority, Kinshasa ultimately excluded all nationals of these localities from voting without indicating the number of people concerned.

“I just have to go home,” adds, empty-handed, the man who was sharply denied his right to vote. Its shelter, a plastic tarpaulin mounted on a few wooden stakes, is however located a few meters from the voting center, installed in the heart of the displaced persons camp. “Are we still Congolese? We feel rejected,” reacts Prospère, a displaced person from Tongo, in Rutshuru, while the inhabitants of this territory as well as those of Masisi were unable to vote either for their future president, nor for their provincial and national elected officials.

Logistical challenges

In Kinshasa, fifteen seats in Parliament will therefore remain vacant until the election of these deputies, postponed to a later date which has not yet been communicated. Denis Kadima, the president of the CENI, had however promised “that no Congolese will be left aside”. The day before the elections, he anticipated possible delays by allowing operations to be extended so that all offices could open for a total of eleven hours. According to the Synergy of Citizen Election Observation Missions (Symocel), nationally, 59% of the offices it visited opened late.

In Goma, in the city center, logistical challenges on Wednesday morning led to a late closing of polling stations. At the Mavuno institute, counting operations only began late in the evening, using flashlights or illuminated by the telephone of CENI operators or observers. As in the rest of the country, voting was extended by twenty-four hours and on Thursday morning offices had reopened in Goma due to “technical problems, in particular battery on the voting machines”, explains a local CENI official. .

“Despite all these problems, I am still happy to have voted,” concludes Hériter, a resident of the volcanoes district of Goma, satisfied that the announced date of December 20 was respected. In the capital of North Kivu, 400,000 voters went to the polls without any major incident or incident. Unlike the neighboring province, Ituri, hit, since its resumption in 2017, by a community conflict, where displaced people ransacked several offices, furious at having been excluded from the vote.