Voting in east DR Congo: gunfire and militia ‘protection’Wed, 20 Dec 2023 18:16:44 GMT

As voting got underway across DR Congo on Wednesday, in the conflict-torn east of the country, militia fighters sporting rubber boots and kalashnikov assault rifles provided security at polling booths.Voters in the impoverished but mineral-rich central African nation went to the polls to pick a new president, lawmakers for the national and provincial assemblies, and municipal councillors. Major delays were registered across the vast country, confirming fears that the electoral commission was unprepared to stage the election. And in areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo — plagued by militia violence for decades — armed groups turned up at polling booths.Representatives of the UPLC militia told AFP that its fighters had provided “security” at 20 polling stations in Beni and Lubero territories of North Kivu, for example. “They’ve been securing us since yesterday evening”, one election agent who requested anonymity told an AFP reporter in the village of Kalunguta, in Beni territory.There were no members of the conventional security forces present there or in a neighbouring village, the AFP reporter saw. Armed groups have plagued eastern DRC for over three decades, a legacy of regional warns that flared in the 1990s and 2000s. In Kalunguta, accountant Aristote Makelele, who was at the local polling station, said rising violence earlier this year had deterred many from registering to vote. More than 40 people were massacred on the outskirts of the village in early March, in an attack blamed on ADF rebels affiliated to the Islamic State group.Simon Uwezo, 30, queueing to vote in Kalunguta under the watchful eye of UPLC militiamen, was not happy with the arrangement. “It’s not right that irregular forces should be securing the vote,” he said, in contrast to many of his fellow villagers.- Ransacked polling booth -The lack of security in the region also derailed the voting process in other parts of eastern DR Congo.In the town of Bunia, in Ituri province, protesters ransacked a polling station in protest at being disenfranchised.”The majority were displaced persons,” said an official from the school serving as a polling station, where demonstrators had destroyed ballot boxes and voting machines. Several videos of the incident appeared to show protesters vandalising voting material and furniture before fleeing police gunfire. They said that they were protesting at having been denied the right to vote.The conflict has driven forced nearly two million people to flee their homes in Ituri over the past five years.They have had to contend increasingly frequent militia attacks fuelled by ethnic tensions and competition for resources. That violence made registering to vote a nightmare for the displaced, as most people register in their hometown. Asked by AFP what measures it had taken to help displaced people vote, an electoral commission official said it was “difficult to respond”.- Squalid camps -Hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in squalid tent camps on the outskirts of Goma, North Kivu’s capital, faced similar difficulties.Most of these people have fled M23 rebels —  allegedly backed by Rwanda — who have captured swathes of territory since launching an offensive in late 2021. The Congolese army has been unable to repulse the rebels, who control much of the area surrounding Goma. As a result, the electoral commission was forced to call off voting in the North Kivu territories of Rutshuru and Masisi, where the M23 operates. And several people interviewed by AFP, many of them displaced voters in the camps, said they had been unable to vote Wednesday after they discovered their names were not on the electoral roll.