Tensions and spirits are running high in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as voters and politicians gear up for the second set of post-civil war elections. In the war-torn province of North Kivu, campaigners have taken to the streets, and some activists say only political change will bring peace to this region.
Next to a market on the dirt roads in downtown Goma, this truck is festooned with campaign posters, and dancers in traditional garb stomp on the flat bed.
Every candidate in next week's presidential and parliamentary elections is assigned a number. One man said voters should and will choose number three, the current president, Joseph Kabila.
Revitalizing a devastated region
He said North Kivu has been a war zone for decades. He also said Kabila needs to stay on top and be given time to implement a 2008 power-sharing agreement that was designed to bring calm to the east.
Kabila once enjoyed massive popularity in this province, but a few streets over, supporters of candidate number five, Vital Kamerhe, gather outside his local campaign headquarters waving their hands, fingers spread wide, shouting “number five.”
Kamerhe is among the top three out of 11 contenders for the presidential seat, and is particularly popular in the east. Standing on a street corner asking passersby about the elections, it takes just minutes to draw a crowd declaring their support for Kamerhe.
When asked what will happen if the president wins, this pro-Kamerhe crowd yells out, saying it would be proof that the ruling party rigged the elections. They say only fraud could make their man lose, and if he does, they will take to the streets.
Support for opposition candidate
Christian Badose is candidate number 100 of about 1,800 running for parliament. He supports Etienne Tshisekedi, perhaps the most formidable opposition candidate for President Kabila. Tshisekedi already has declared himself the winner, and called for the release of political prisoners.
Badose said his candidate will sweep the elections if they are done right. But he said the electoral commission has neither the will nor the capacity to hold transparent, free elections.
He said the commission is made up of the same people that ran the 2006 elections, which were marred by violence and rumors of fraud.
But at the president’s regional headquarters, Cyrille Muhongya, who leads the ruling party’s local campaign, said the electoral commission is an independent body preparing to conduct fair and democratic elections on November 28, as scheduled.
Hoping for positive change
Muhongya said the elections are being watched closely by international observers. He said he is confident the president will be re-elected fairly. He added, though, that Kabila and his supporters are prepared to step aside quietly in the unlikely event that they lose at the polls.
Many Congolese aid workers say they also supported the president in his 2006 bid - the first Congolese elections in 40 years. But they say this province was promised a lot of desperately needed resources and development, and nothing has changed.
Justine Masika is the director of the aid organization Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence in Goma. She helps rape victims get medical, legal and psychological aid. She said political change and development is the only way to stop the rape and looting that is still crushing villages in the Congolese countryside.
Like many activists in the east, Masika said the old regime made promises that were never kept. New leadership, she said, may have the political will to develop government institutions, like much-needed additional courts, or provide basic services like water and electricity - and offer some relief to the region.