18 September 2018

Congo-Kinshasa: On the Campaign Trail in an African War Zone

The Democratic Republic of Congo will hold elections in December. Campaigning in the country's war-torn eastern region is particularly perilous, but that hasn't stopped one candidate from hitting the trail - on foot.

Chrispin Mvano is on the campaign trail. Gasping for breath, he trudges up a hillside in sandals. The air thins out in the high mountains of his Masisi constituency in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The roads are steep and bumpy - certainly not easy terrain, concedes the 40-year-old candidate.

Mvano works as a journalist and also writes conflict analyses for international nongovernmental organizations. Sometimes he advises the United Nations mission in Congo.

In August, Mvano nominated himself as a candidate for parliament in his home district of Masisi, in the eastern province of North Kivu. Voters in DRC head to the polls on December 23 for an election that will also see the selection of a new president.

Finally peace for the Masisi people?

The district of Masisi, with its green pastures, dense forests and high mountains, has been fought over for a quarter-century. Around two dozen Congolese and foreign rebel groups clash here, and every year the number of factions in the mix increases. Now almost every hill and village has its own militia. Roads, schools and hospitals are scarce. The presence of the federal government is almost nonexistent. Masisi is a microcosm of the vicious circle of conflicts in the Congo.

From a distance you can see some crooked mud huts with thatched roofs on a nearby ridge: the Shonga village, Mvano points out. It's there, in a settlement with only 800 inhabitants perched high up the mountainside, where he wants to start his campaign.

Mvano is familiar with the problems faced by the villagers in Shonga; conflict has ravaged the area for more than three years. "An influential businessman arrived and claimed all the arable land here for himself," he says. But the population protested. On foot, women and children marched all the way to Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province. There they waited almost four days in front of the governor's office, even standing out in the rain, recalls Mvano.

"This had a disastrous impact," he says. "After the police were deployed, they arrested all the Shonga leaders, and then, along with soldiers, burned down the entire village." Mvano says that such conflicts over land are a typical problem in Masisi.

The conflicts are often ethnically charged and ultimately fought with armed force. Much of the unrest in the region has remained unresolved for over 20 years. Four years after war broke out in Rwanda in 1990, the genocide of the Tutsi -- one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century -- devastated the small country, which neighbors DRC. The genocide also triggered violent clashes among the Masisi people.

When the Tutsi fled, they left farmland and cattle behind. The Hutu and the Hunde tribe, to which Mvano belonged, fought over the abandoned lands.

In Shonga, farmers of the Burundi and Hutu ethnic groups live together. The businessman who wanted to seize the farmlands is married to a Tutsi woman who claimed the land for her cow herd. Mvano points to a mountain that stretches into the sky behind Shonga -- a strategically important hill and a gateway of sorts to Masisi territory.

Since their escape in the 1990s, the Tutsi have repeatedly tried to recapture their farms and cows. When Tutsi rebels have torn through the Shonga village, the locals have largely fled.

Campaign speech in the church

Out of breath, Mvano marches on. Through potato fields, across small streams and through cattle fields. Women in colorful clothes, who have been plowing vegetable beds, come running. Mvano shakes soil-covered hands as the women crowd around him.

When he finally arrives in Shonga, dozens of people follow him. The village leader, Francois Maheshi, greets Mvano. The elderly man, with gaps between his teeth and sporting a broken flip-flop on one foot, seems excited. He leads Mvano to the village church on top of the hill, a hut made of wooden slats with rows of wooden benches. Men, women nursing babies, children and the elderly gather: They all want to hear what Mvano has to say.

Village leader Maheshi gives a speech first: "In Shonga we have two problems," he says -- the school and the road. A fire destroyed the school in 2015. Since then, the schoolchildren have had to walk more than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) to the nearest village.

But ahead of Shonga, there is no sealed road. "Since our village and our economy were destroyed, we don't have the money to build one," Maheshi says. "We would be very grateful if someone would help solve our problems. We don't even have mobile phone reception here."

A voice for the little people

In his one-hour speech, Mvano assures the crowd that, should he be elected, he will address their problems in the distant capital city. His promise is met by applause. Never before has a candidate stopped at the Shonga village. Yet it seems as if the people have heard these promises before -- and that even now, they are struggling to believe them.

Mvano says he is aware of this mistrust: "The common perception that people have is because of the corruption of politicians," he says. Most politicians abuse their power for their own benefit, Mvano explains -- as soon as they are elected to parliament in the capital Kinshasa, 2,000 kilometers away, they cease caring about the problems of their constituency.

This is why Mvano sees the parliamentary elections as vital to bringing about peace, even if they are controversial from the outset. Now that voter registration has closed, it is evident that at least 10 million people will not cast a ballot.

The newly introduced electronic voting machines have attracted criticism from opposition parties; they claim that the machines make the elections even more susceptible to manipulation than before.

But Mvano believes that every election contributes to the democratic development of the country; in this sense, he believes that one day there will be "a properly conducted election."

Maheshi finishes Mvano's campaign stop with a prayer. The village leader concludes that, above all, God should bring peace to the Congolese.

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