As negotiations continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo on implementing the political deal paving the way for elections before the end of the year, the national electoral commission (CENI) has forged ahead with its voter registration process.
Instead of just registering the youth who came of age since the last elections in 2011 and members of the diaspora now allowed to vote, CENI decided to start from scratch and redo the entire voter list – ostensibly to “clean up” the voter rolls, and address allegations of fraud. But some see this as a government tactic to delay elections once again.
CENI announced last week that about 13 million voters have already been registered. They are due to complete registration by July. In 2011, there were about 32 million registered voters.
The process has been marred by serious security and logistical challenges that highlight just how difficult organizing elections is in Congo.
One of the biggest challenges to the registration effort is the presence of armed groups in many parts of eastern Congo. In Lubero, North Kivu, the Mai Mai Guidon armed group is reportedly present in several villages where registration is ongoing. The territorial administrator Bokele Joys told Radio Okapi and activists in the area told Human Rights Watch that Guidon fighters have reportedly tried to prevent members and suspected sympathizers of their main enemy, the largely ethnic Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), from enrolling. On January 19, Guidon fighters abducted three CENI officials in Fatua village. They have since been released. According to local activists, the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and Nyatura armed groups have also interfered with the registration process in Masisi territory.
Further north in Ituri province, the Front for Patriotic Resistance of Ituri (FRPI) armed group attacked a registration center in mid-January, kidnapping a CENI agent. Numerous armed groups, including the Raia Mutomboki and Nyatura, also attacked registration centers in South Kivu’s Kalehe territory, including in Chibinda, Lumbishi, Lwana, Mianda, Mukaba, Muuna, Maibana, Makutano, and Matutira villages.
Insecurity has also affected the registration process in Walendu Bindi in Ituri province; Beni, Bwito and Walikale in North Kivu province; Kabare and Shabunda in South Kivu province; and Nyunzu in Tanganyika province.
CENI officials face numerous logistical and resource challenges. In Milimba village in Fizi territory, officials do not have the equipment to laminate voter identification cards. In Kibombo in Maniema province and Sandoa in Lualaba province, there have been problems maintaining generators needed for electricity at the registration sites, while materials were reportedly stolen in Kabara and Kaniola villages in Walungu, South Kivu. In Fizi town, a registration center was shut down due to the lack of registration materials.
Many activists we have spoken to have expressed concerns about the limited number of registration centers to cover vast territories – often in remote, insecure areas with poor roads and transportation options. People living in Vurondo, Beni territory, for example, need to walk nearly 20 kilometers to reach the closest registration center in Butuhe village, exposing themselves to roadblocks and other protection risks along the way. In the Mpati area in Masisi territory, there is only one registration machine for thousands of people.
Further south in Haut Katanga province and in the western Equateur province, people have complained that CENI officials do not have the necessary training or skills to competently carry out the voter registration process. Logistical and administrative problems were also reported in Sub-Ubangi and Mongala provinces in western Congo. In parts of Kalehe territory, South Kivu, there have been reports that CENI only hired members of one ethnic community and discriminated against members of other ethnic groups.
Activists in many parts of the country say limited efforts have been made to inform the population about the registration process. In Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu, observers worry about a lack of participation of women in particular. In Ituri province, many people have reportedly deliberately abstained from participating in what they believe is an illegitimate process.
In Misisi, Fizi, CENI agents have reportedly asked for 2,000 Congolese Francs (about US$2) per person to obtain a registration card; similar reports have come in from parts of Ituri and Haut-Katanga provinces. It is unlawful to charge people to register. In some places in Masisi, there have been reports of people bribing CENI agents to register several times. CENI officials have also complained that they are not being adequately paid in Beni territory, or that they are working in precarious conditions without sufficient protection in parts of Rutshuru, North Kivu.
Having a credible voter list and ensuring all eligible voters are given equal and fair opportunities to register will be critical to ensuring the legitimacy of any future elections. The Congolese government, along with international partners, should act now to improve the registration process, including by working to secure voter registration sites and providing adequate staffing and equipment to effectively register all eligible voters. Real political will to make this process a success is perhaps the most important ingredient.