Congo Election: Inside the Presidential Race in a Pivotal African Nation

Running the Democratic Republic of Congo is a tough and dangerous job. For decades, this African country the size of Western Europe has lurched between dictatorships, wars and vast humanitarian crises. Despite extraordinary natural resources, it remains desperately poor. Two leaders have been killed.

Even so, about 20 candidates are still in the race to become Congo’s next president in national elections, the fourth in Congo’s history, on Wednesday. Another 100,000 people are running for seats in national, regional and local assemblies.

The vote will be closely watched by Congo’s nine neighbors, but also by foreign powers. International interest in Congo has soared in recent years as a result of efforts to stem climate change: Congo has the world’s second-largest rainforest, as well as deep stores of the rare minerals needed to make electric cars and solar panels.

A frantic cacophony filled the capital, Kinshasa, this week, as rival campaigners coursed through the broken streets in a last-minute drive to gather votes. Music blared. Lines of motorbikes splashed through puddles. Bombast flowed, as did money.

“We are the victory before the victory,” declared Rovernick Kola, 29, a motorbike rider waiting for his $20 payment for driving around in a convoy waving posters of a parliamentary candidate.

The most famous candidate is Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work with sexual assault victims. But the firm favorite is the incumbent, President Felix Tshisekedi.

A voter poll published Tuesday by Ebuteli, a Congolese political research organization, and the Congo Research Group, based at New York University, gave Mr. Tshisekedi 49 percent support. His nearest rival, Moïse Katumbi, a former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, got 28 percent. Mr. Mukwege got less than 1 percent.

Behind the festive scenes, though, there are fears of chaos in the coming days.

Candidates have stoked ethnic tensions with inflammatory language. At least one person has died in violent clashes between rival groups, Human Rights Watch said. Incomplete election preparations have fueled fears of potential rigging. Official results could take as long as 10 days.

Organizing an election in such a vast country would tax any bureaucracy — never mind in the world’s fifth-poorest country, with a population of about 100 million people, and some of Africa’s worst infrastructure.

To reach all of Congo’s 75,000 polling stations, the authorities have sent Korean-made voting machines by boat on the Congo River, by plane across vast distances and by foot into some of the world’s most impenetrable forests — a journey that can take three weeks, election observers say.

Ballots for Congo’s 44 million registered voters have been flown in from China. But the enduring conflict in eastern Congo means at least 1.5 million people will not be able to vote.

The entire effort is costing $1.2 billion, the national election commission says. Even so, some voting stations are still not ready: Western officials expect that Wednesday’s vote is likely to be extended into Thursday or even Friday in places.

Even where voting goes ahead on time, the cards that residents must show to vote are a major problem. In Congo’s hot, humid climate, the ink on many cards issued earlier this year has rubbed off in recent weeks. One survey of Kinshasa residents found that 73 percent of their cards were illegible — a potential recipe for chaos at the polls on Wednesday.

Electoral observers worry any turmoil could facilitate cheating.

“The government has created a system that allows numbers to be manipulated,” said the Rev. Rigobert Minani, the head of a Catholic organization that is deploying 15,000 poll watchers across Congo. “There’s a big potential for fraud.”

Promising to tackle corruption and empower the press, Mr. Tshisekedi was seen as a breath of fresh air when he came to power in 2019, despite a highly contentious election.

Although many Congolese believed that another candidate had won the most votes in the December 2018 vote, Mr. Tshisekedi struck a power-sharing deal with the outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, that brought him to power.

The United States blessed that arrangement, which some saw as the best way to end Mr. Kabila’s 18 years of erratic and often harsh rule.

But within a year, the deal had collapsed, and since then Mr. Tshisekedi, known to supporters by the diminutive “Fatshi,” has consolidated his power and, critics say, grown less tolerant.

At Kinshasa main prison last Saturday, Stanis Bujakera, one of Congo’s best-known journalists, sat in the sweltering courtyard. Nearly 100 days earlier, the police had arrested him on charges of “spreading false information,” then pressed him for his sources.

Mr. Bujakera, who is 33 and a U.S. resident, refused to talk. ”It’s not just me,” he said. “There’s a lot of repression, especially in the past weeks.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Tshisekedi has whipped up anger against Rwanda, which he blames for the conflict in the east, even threatening to declare war on the country at a rally on Monday.

He has sought to denigrate Mr. Katumbi, whose father was Italian, as an agent of foreign powers, and claimed in recent days that his opponents paid Russian hackers to infiltrate the national election system.

Mr. Katumbi, for his part, regularly slams Mr. Tshisekedi for failing to deliver on promises to provide basic services to ordinary Congolese. At rallies, he often asks supporters if they have water, electricity or roads. When they say no, Mr. Katumbi says the fault lies with Fatshi.

A gold tooth is the last remaining trace of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1961 after barely a year in office.

Belgium returned the tooth to Congo last year after it was retrieved from the home of a former colonial officer who had disposed of Mr. Lumumba’s body after other Belgians executed the prime minister. Now it sits in a coffin at a monument on a busy Kinshasa traffic junction.

Invoking Mr. Lumumba is an article of faith for many candidates. To many Congolese, his fate embodies a tragic history shaped by foreign powers that have been enriched by Congo’s minerals, or have used it as a geostrategic battleground.

In the 1960s, the C.I.A. plotted to kill Mr. Lumumba, believing he was a puppet of the Soviet Union. That presumption was false, Stuart A. Reid, author of “The Lumumba Plot,” said in an email. But there are striking similarities between that period and now.

“Now, as then, the central government is dysfunctional and cannot exert control over the country’s entire territory. Now, as then, U.N. peacekeepers have been sent in to provide security, and Congolese leaders wish to kick them out,” Mr. Reid said.

“And now, as then,” he added, “the framework of geopolitical rivalry guides Washington’s thinking” about Congo.

Since leaving office in 2019, Mr. Kabila, the former president, has kept a remarkably low profile — rarely appearing in public, and speaking out even less.

As the election has progressed, speculation has grown that he may be poised for a comeback. His party has called for a boycott of the vote, and he has been in touch with Mr. Katumbi, the main opposition challenger, according to several Western officials.

Several visitors to Mr. Kabila at his large ranch in the far south of Congo said he does little to hide his resentment of Mr. Tshisekedi, whom he accuses of betrayal.

That has given rise to concerns among Western officials and many Congolese that, should this election turn to chaos, Mr. Kabila could use his vast wealth — widely estimated to be in the billions — and his deep connections inside the security services to somehow exact payback.

Whether it will amount to anything more than speculation is unclear. But it adds an extra element of volatility to an already-tense election.