A festive atmosphere and expectations of security: in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the candidates for the December 20 presidential election are attracting crowds despite armed conflict and fears of violence, which has already claimed one life on the bangs of the campaign, now in its second week.
Bunia, Bukavu, Butembo, Beni, Oicha, and Goma have been plagued by violence for almost 30 years. But with the election campaign underway, crowds are flocking to and from airports and city centers, where candidates are holding popular rallies in a festive atmosphere in the main squares.
On December 20, some 44 million registered voters out of a population of some 100 million will be called upon to elect their president, as well as national and provincial deputies and municipal councilors.
Opponent and wealthy businessman Moïse Katumbi, one of the 23 candidates in the running - three have joined him in recent days - is the first to travel to Goma, capital of North Kivu, the epicenter of repeated violence and humanitarian crises.
- Restoring security
Inhabitants, there expect the pretenders to the supreme magistracy to "restore security", as Zephanie Mayolo, a 33-year-old motorcycle-taxi driver, told AFP when Moïse Katumbi arrived.
"The question of security is one of the major themes" of this campaign, analyzed Valery Madianga of the Centre de recherche en finances publiques et développement local (CREFDL) for AFP. However, "the debate has not yet caught on" due to the absence of clearly established governance programs, he believes.
Patron of the renowned Tout Puissant Mazembe soccer club and former governor (2007-2015) of the mining province of Katanga, the country's economic heartland, Mr. Katumbi, who travels by private jet, criticizes the security record of the outgoing president, Félix Tshisekedi, in the face of the M23 rebellion.
Supported by the Rwandan army, according to UN experts, the M23 (for March 23 Movement) took up arms again at the end of 2021 and seized large swathes of territory in North Kivu, of which Goma is the capital. They recently captured the strategic town of Mweso, some 60 km from Goma.
Tshisekedi, the controversial winner of the 2018 presidential election, is seeking a new five-year term. Accompanied by his wife, Tshisekedi arrived on Tuesday in Bunia, in the neighboring province of Ituri.
"Trust me again, give me the second mandate to pursue our various projects", he said from the town's grandstand. Six days earlier, Mr. Katumbi had also held a meeting there, in a relaxed, festive atmosphere.
Ituri has been plagued by violence since 2017, and 1.7 million inhabitants have fled their villages due to massacres perpetrated by various armed groups.
- Peace candidate" -
For his part, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner and presidential candidate Denis Mukwege launched his campaign on Sunday in his hometown of Bukavu, in South Kivu.
The "man who repairs women", his nickname inherited from a documentary devoted to him for his work with raped women, then traveled to Butembo and Beni, where he was welcomed by his supporters, many of them women in T-shirts emblazoned with the number 15, the position assigned to him by the electoral commission.
During the various stages, the 68-year-old gynecologist promised to fight corruption and put an end to war and famine. "I am a candidate of peace (...) Together, let's put an end to hunger and vices", he insisted in Beni, stronghold of the ADF rebels, affiliated to the Islamic State group.
The campaign is taking place in a particularly tense political and security context. A member of Moïse Katumbi's party was killed on Tuesday in Kindu (east) in clashes with supporters of Tshisekedi's party.
Martin Fayulu, the unsuccessful candidate in the 2018 presidential election whose victory he continues to claim, is also crisscrossing the region. On Tuesday in Beni, accompanied by a musician to liven up his meeting, he called on the population to "block the road" to Tshisekedi, who is accused of playing into the hands of the aggressors.
"If you vote (for me), we will equip Beni with a military camp so that Rwanda and Uganda will respect us", he said in this town where the inhabitants had not voted in 2018 due to an Ebola epidemic.
In the various speeches, "there's no real commitment to putting an end to the violence", especially as "the candidates' social projects are not really on the agenda", laments Oswald Rubasha, electoral expert and coordinator of the Bukavu-based NGO Clinique Electoral Congolaise.