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GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Stores and schools were closed for the day as people flocked to polling stations to vote in the second presidential and legislative elections since Congo’s independence in 1960 on Monday. Voters chose from among 11 candidates to elect Congo’s fifth president and among 18,385 for the 500-seat National Assembly. In North and South Kivu, 1,463 and 881 parliamentary candidates ran for 47 and 32 seats respectively. While voting proceeded relatively peacefully in both eastern provinces, the day was marked by irregularities, logistical problems, and violence.
Here are the details Fidel Bafilemba, Amani Mutabaro, and I collected while visiting polling stations on Election Day and through speaking with observers and members of civil society. While not all of the information can be confirmed, we’ve given preference to accounts and reports relayed by more than one credible source, in addition, of course to our first-hand observations.
Fraud and vote rigging:
Days before Monday’s elections, allegations had already spread that ballot papers were circulating and being filled out. In Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, Enough was alerted on Friday about ballot papers that had been stockpiled in private homes of local leaders and dignitaries. According to several opposition and civil society groups, the alleged fraud started Thursday night both in Goma and in neighboring city of Gisenyi, Rwanda, and continued throughout the weekend. Members of pro-Kabila groups were reportedly invited into private homes safeguarded by heavily armed soldiers, primarily ex-CNDP, to fill out presidential ballot papers.
On the day of elections a number of irregularities took place. In one instance, voters who arrived early at polling stations in the Ndosho neighborhood of Goma were outraged when they found CENI officials had locked themselves into a room at the polling place housed at a local school called the Complexe Scolaire la Joie, and started filling out legislative ballot papers, before official observers had arrived. Angered by the apparent fraud, voters attacked the CENI representatives, triggering gunfire from police to disperse the crowd. The head CENI polling agent was ultimately taken to the hospital with injuries, and the police secured the site.
Additionally, in Uvira territory of South Kivu, a 20-year-old male supporter of President Kabila was caught and arrested for having filled out 400 ballot papers in favor of the incumbent president and attempting to insert them at a voting site. The police officer in charge of securing the voting station and various community members discovered the fraud. Similar incidents of pre-filled out ballot boxes have been reported nation-wide.
The distrust of the CENI runs so deep in Goma that many citizens believed that CENI agents were providing faulty pens for voters to fill out their ballots. Many brought their own. A 43-year-old electrician Shamamba Lushombo who stood in queue at 6.30 a.m. at Mutanda elementary school told Enough: “That trick doesn’t work at all! [The government] has stolen our dignity for decades and we know [they] will not stop. We know what has been brewing with CENI and the ruling power. We cannot afford using [CENI]’s evaporating pens. We have brought our own ones.”
Besides these disturbing incidents of attempted vote rigging, political party witnesses and national and international observers were present at most polling stations in Goma and South Kivu’s provincial town Bukavu, and in many instances the conduct of the elections broadly met people’s expectations.
However, in some remote locations, the situation looked very different. Enough, together with the local NGO CREDDHO, visited Kasura and Mupfumu polling sites in the area of Kamuronza in Masisi. In many villages, including Kingi and Kirolirwe, there were only a few political party witnesses and no international or national observers present. In voting centers in Kamuronza, parliamentary candidates did not shy away from whispering the voting number of their respective candidates into voters’ ears.
The polling stations Enough visited in Mumosho and Mudusa, in Kabare territory in South Kivu had no national or international observers either. People were reportedly intimidated by CENI officials into casting their votes for President Kabila. In the same territory, a member of Kabila’s government and a parliamentary candidate himself used his own campaign car to deliver ballot papers to polling sites in Nyantende, Mudusa, Cimpwinji, and Mumosho until political party witnesses became aware and successfully sent him away. Furthermore, some of the voting centers in Kabare as well as Walungu territory opened after a delay of several hours, allegedly to discourage voters in areas where opposition figures are preferred.
After ongoing complaints in both North and South Kivu about incomplete voter registration lists in the run up to Election Day, CENI had assured voters that their voter identification card would be enough to vote. People in major towns were able to vote even if their names were not on voters’ lists. In remote areas such as Masisi’s Kasura and Mupfumu however, CENI officials were not aware of the policy and sent people away whose names were not found on voter lists. Similarly, in the South Kivu’s territory of Kalehe, voters whose names were missing on the registration lists were denied a vote, despite handing in their voting cards at the right polling stations.
In Masisi, community representatives in difficult to access areas, complained that eight localities, including Nyange, Kivuye, Kirumba, Butumbaronge, Rwama, Busurungi/Butare and Ruvunda, had not received ballot boxes thus depriving its citizens of the right to vote. The same was true in Itombwe and Ubwari in Fizi territory of South Kivu where electoral material had not arrived until the end of the day effectively cancelling all voting. UNOCHA reported similar instances in Isale, in the territory of Lubero in northern North Kivu. Other delays were reported in a voting center in Ishovu on Idjwi Island in Lake Kivu where presidential ballot papers had not arrived. Angered that they could only vote in the parliamentary elections, voters then destroyed all electoral equipment, leaving the polling station in a shattered state.
Further complicating the casting of votes was the registration of voters at the wrong polling stations. In Masisi for example, most of the 2,000 voters’ assigned to two polling stations in Kasura and Mupfumu could not find their names on the voters’ lists. Some of those who were able to navigate through CENI’s barely legible voter lists found their names wrongly listed in a polling station in Sake, 17 kilometers away. A 63-years old woman said she walked about two hours with her 6-year-old granddaughter on her back to get to the Kasura polling center. After searching for her name with no assistance from CENI, she had to accept that her name was missing from the list and was unable to vote. Perplexed, she told Enough: “Our candidates asked us to vote for peace. It won’t be my fault if this young man [Joseph Kabila] loses; at least I came to cast my vote for him. I’m too old to wait here any longer, I will walk back home now.” Similar stories across North and South Kivu have been recounted.
While Goma did not face problems of missing electoral material, voters encountered long lines. Women with babies on their backs and handicapped people with crutches stood patiently outside for up to more than four hours until it was their turn to cast their votes. The multitude of similar names on the voter rosters slowed down the identification process. The sheer number of parliamentary candidates in Goma alone—285—made it difficult for undecided voters to quickly make their mark at the right place in the newspaper-thick booklet. People also complained that the pictures of the candidates were hardly recognizable, a serious problem where roughly a third of the population is illiterate.
The volatile security situation in parts of both Kivus prohibited some people from venturing to polling stations to cast their vote. According to a Walikale civil society member, displaced people from Kimua and Bukobera in Walowa Nyungu, in Walikale territory in North Kivu, who had fled FDLR attacks last week, asked MONUSCO in vain to set up mobile polling stations. Clashes between the FDLR and a local Mayi Mayi group in the same territory displaced people Sunday night, preventing them from voting during the day.
The polling station in Katoyi in Masisi was attacked by FDLR on the morning of Election Day itself. A FDLR commando arrived and started firing into the air as people lined up to vote. People ran for their lives and electoral materials disappeared, according to relatives of affected people who spoke to Enough. In South Kivu’s Minembwe in Fizi’s territory, people were not able to vote because an ex-FRF officer attacked the truck transporting voting material destined for the location. In the same territory in Baraka town, people stoned a CENI official who had to be taken to a health facility for allegedly urging elderly, illiterate people to vote for President Kabila. The same was reported in Bideka in Walungu territory where youth stoned the head of a polling station for similarly acting on the Presidential Majority’s behalf.
Fidel Bafilemba and Amani Matabaro contributed to this post.
Photo: A crowd reviews voter registration lists in Goma (Enough/Sarah Zingg Wimmer)