The DRC vote that counted for absolutely nothing
The cities of Beni and Butembo were barred from taking part in the December 30 vote, but cast their ballots anyway
Thousands of voters, weary from frequent armed attacks and an ongoing Ebola outbreak, proudly cast ballots in a northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo – even though they will count for nothing.
Citing security and health fears, the country’s national electoral commission (Ceni) blocked the cities of Beni and Butembo from taking part in Sunday’s presidential, legislative and provincial elections. But, determined to have a taste of much-delayed democracy in the troubled country, many turned out at makeshift polling stations for a staged vote.
“The city of Beni is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We cannot deprive ourselves of the right to vote,” said one resident, who gave his name as Manix. “That’s why you see these people here voting.”
Old and young wrote their choices on blank pieces of paper, collected in plastic bags by mock poll booth operators dressed in official uniforms. The voters even had their left thumbs marked with ink to avoid fraud, as in the neighbouring provinces where the elections were going ahead for real.
“We have taken all necessary measures of protection,” said Beni resident Kitonga Benshirak, referring to the highly infectious virus Ebola. “We were asked to wash our hands, we were vaccinated, we even provided (anti-bacterial gel).”
The count began at nightfall under the glow of cellphone screens and lamps powered by generators. While there was an air of joy at the symbolic effort, many remained angry that more than one million voters had been cut off from the rest of the country, and joined an opposition protest.
Ceni announced last week that the elections would be postponed until March – two months after the scheduled presidential inauguration – in the northeastern Beni-Butembo region of North Kivu province, as well as in Yumbi in western Mai-Ndombe province. It pointed in particular to parts of North Kivu province, affected by “a terrorist threat” and “a dangerous, ongoing epidemic of Ebola virus” in the areas of Beni and Butembo.
“We would like to tell Ceni to consider these elections. And if not, we will consider it as a Balkanisation – meaning the far north will be considered its own country. The regime is moving us away from the Democratic Republic of Congo”, said another Beni resident, who declined to be named.
Meanwhile, the DRC began counting ballots on Monday from a election marked by delays and fears of violence and vote rigging, straining hopes for its first peaceful transfer of power yet. After a relatively bloodless vote, election officials began the marathon task of counting and collating, their work scrutinised by opposition parties for any sign of fraud.
Sunday’s elections went ahead after two years of delays and sporadic clashes in the notoriously unstable country. But the influential Catholic church, through its national conference of bishops, declared the vote had been “relatively calm”.
The DRC has never had a peaceful transition of leader since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Worries of a new spiral into violence deepened in 2016 after President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, refused to quit when his two-term limit expired. Tension and suspicion were further stoked by repeated delays, a bloody crackdown on anti-Kabila protests and accusations that electronic voting machines would help to rig the result.
But late on Sunday Kabila congratulated the public for voting “in peace and dignity”.
Provisional results are due to be announced on January 6, with final results expected on January 15. The new president is set to be sworn in on January 18.