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DRC: Fears surround special Yumbi vote

Martina Schwikowski
March 17, 2019

After being excluded from DR Congo's elections in December, the city of Yumbi is to vote on March 31. But many locals are in exile after ethnic violence. And it is unclear if the government was involved in the strife.

Abyssine Miniunga, who has fled her home in Yumbi for an islet in the Congo River
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

On December 30, 2018, presidential, parliamentary and regional elections were held in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Yumbi, however, was excluded from the election because of violent clashes between the Banunu and Batende communities that broke out several days before the vote. The official decision to postpone the election in Yumbi because of the violence, and in Beni, Butembo and the area around Beni because of an Ebola epidemic, affected some 1.2 million registered voters.

Now, several months later, authorities want the people of Yumbi and the other districts to head to the polls. But many in Yumbi are scared and fear for their safety. Baudouin, a local resident, says: "They are forcing us to vote." He does not know how an election is supposed to go ahead in Yumbi when "some Banunu peoples have fled to small islands in the Congo River and others to Republic of the Congo." He says he has no idea when they will ever return.     

The UN just published a report on the ethnic clashes of late 2018. It says the attacks were carried out in an "organized and planned manner" and had been made possible by the absence of state actors in the region. The UN thinks the killings between December 16 and 18 may constitute crimes against humanity and stresses that the situation remains volatile.

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Hundreds dead

The report states that at least 535 people were killed and 111 wounded in the attacks. This figure is lower than initial UN estimates. Yet it is likely that many corpses were disposed of in the river and have therefore gone unreported, the report says. It is thought that some 16,000 people were forced to flee into neighboring Republic of the Congo. The attacks in Yumbi and other places followed a similar pattern, the UN says, and were characterized by extreme violence and speed. It says Banunu peoples were executed in their own homes, on the streets and as they tried to flee. The report does not say whether members of the Batende community were killed as well.

Member of the DRC armed forces
The violence in Yumbi destroyed homes and forced thousands to fleeImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

A rigged election?

"Authorities are doing nothing to help the people return to their homes," says Baudouin. He adds that "those responsible for the killings want to manipulate and persecute us." So far, however, it is not clear who really is responsible for the violence. The UN has called for an investigation into whether the state was involved in planning the attacks. It says the government was aware of the looming danger, yet did nothing to protect civilians.

Gesine Ames of the Ecumenical Network for Central Africa (ÖNZ) thinks it is suspicious that the electoral districts of Yumbi and others were excluded from the election, as they are opposition strongholds. Ames says that "there were problems and violence in other parts of DR Congo as well but they were never excluded from the election." She thinks this may have been a deliberate effort to manipulate the vote.

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Improvised election in Beni
In Beni, symbolic elections were held on December 30 in protest at the exclusionImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

Violation of election laws

The fact that all four electoral districts will get to participate in the parliamentary and regional election on March 31, yet have no say in picking the president, does indeed look rather suspicious. "These people will not be granted the right to cast their vote in the presidential election", criticizes  Ames. Authorities say this is because the new president, Felix Tshisekedi, won by such a wide margin that their votes would not make any difference. According to Ames, however, "The national electoral commission has made things easy for itself, because this means the presidential election has received legal sanction and the new president now enjoys legitimacy and international recognition." Tshisekedi, who succeeded President Joseph Kabila, was sworn into office on January 24.  

Ames stresses that excluding Yumbi and other electoral districts from voting in the presidential election is a violation of the country's elections laws. The national electoral commission is urging parliamentary and regional elections to go ahead, she says, so that a new government can be formed. Yet the missing votes will not change much, as most elected parliamentarians so far belong to the Kabila camp, Ames says.

Read more: Who is Felix Tshisekedi, DR Congo's new president?

Fishing village near Yumbi
Many internally displaced people are still sheltering on islets in the Congo RiverImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

Not the time for reconciliation

The national electoral commission claims all conditions are now in place for elections to go ahead on March 31. Spokesman Jean-Pierre Kalemba told DW that "we have met the interior minister, who is responsible for maintaining security," adding that the commission had also requested state officials to ensure elections can be carried out the other excluded electoral districts, too. Kalemba said that "we have urged the government to do everything in its power so that everyone can return home and cast their ballot."

The people of Yumbi, however, are traumatized. They cannot forget the killings and just move on with their lives. Jean Bosco Lomomo, deputy president of the Yumbi Civil Society Network, explains that now is not the time for reconciliation, adding that "first, we must finish investigating what happened and, if possible, bring those to justice who fought in the war." Only then, he says, can there be reconciliation.

Additional reporting by Wendy Bashi

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