In 63 years of independence, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has only had one peaceful transition of power. That was after the controversial 2019 win of Felix Tshisekedi, who is seeking a second five-year presidential term this month.
Within and outside the country, there are high hopes that these general elections will mark another democratic handover. As candidates intensify campaigns to woo 44 million eligible voters in Africa’s second-largest country by size, here are some of the top issues in focus.
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Ending persistent insecurity
A peaceful DRC is a priority for most Congolese. Widespread violence perpetrated by multiple armed groups with varying motives has racked the country’s east for about three decades now, leading to the displacement of seven million people. The multifaceted crisis has affected everything from the economy to ethnic relations.
Some 120 armed groups operate in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri provinces, attacking civilian communities, raping women, hacking men with machetes. Some seek sovereign territory, while others claim to be fighting for the rights of marginalised groups.
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and M23 are the most active groups. The ADF has roots in Uganda but it later moved across the border to the DRC. The group was linked to ISIL (ISIS) in 2021. In June, ADF fighters attacked a high school on the border with Uganda and killed 37 people.
Allegedly backed by Rwanda, the M23 group claims to be fighting for the rights of Congolese Tutsis. Its fighters went dormant for almost a decade but re-emerged in 2021 to claim swaths of territory in North Kivu. Several peace agreements – the latest in April – have failed to end the group’s hostilities. M23’s resurgence has heightened regional tensions, threatening to put DRC at war with Rwanda.
MONUSCO, the 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in the region since 1999, is preparing to pull out after repeated protests from locals who say the force has failed to tackle insecurity. Regional East African Community (EAC) troops deployed in 2022 to monitor M23 retreats are also withdrawing after Tshisekedi deemed them ineffective in fighting the rebels.
Tshisekedi and leading opposition candidates, including former oil executive Martin Fayulu, ex-Katanga Governor Moise Katumbi and Nobel Prize-winning gynaecologist Dennis Mukwege, have all campaigned in the east, promising a respite from the violence.
Creating jobs and boosting the economy
The DRC is rich in vast natural resources. It is the world’s leading producer of cobalt and the third largest producer of copper – minerals used in manufacturing electronic gadgets and electric vehicles. The country is also rich in arable land and replete with biodiversity – the Congo Rainforest being the world’s second-largest.
But little wealth trickles down to common Congolese due to instability and corruption. Poverty levels are high, and many are without employment. According to the World Bank, 60 percent of the 100 million population lives on less than $2.15 a day.
Providing scarce jobs is a primary topic in the campaigns – although 70 percent of the population are youth, more than 80 percent are unemployed. President Tshisekedi has promised 6.4 million jobs if elected again, banking on the economic upliftment that the DRC experienced in his first term, including the clinching of a crucial International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal in 2019.
Inflation too is a problem, brought on by global hikes in prices and the long-lasting effects of the war in Ukraine. A weakened Congolese franc against the dollar and the country’s dependence on imports are also stressing the economy.
Despite the instability, overall gross domestic product (GDP) growth strengthened in 2022, boosted by higher-than-projected earnings from the mining industry, a major foreign exchange earner. Officials say foreign currency reserves jumped from $1bn in 2019 when Tshisekedi took office to $5bn this year.
Endemic corruption in the DRC – allegedly institutionalised during the tenure of former President Joseph Kabila – is a hot topic in these elections. Although Tshisekedi’s government established an anticorruption watchdog, corruption is still widespread.
Cases range from bribery schemes in the civil service to illicit financial transactions and citizens often have to pay bribes to access public services like identification cards and even police aid. Informal taxing of traders is common, and official tax agents are known to line their pockets with some of their collections.
DRC ranks 166 of 180 countries on a listing of how well they tackle corruption and more than two-thirds of Congolese believe corruption levels are still on the rise.
Gecamines, the state mining company has a reputation for a lack of transparency in its dealings. The group is accused of selling mining concessions without public tenders and of covering up the disappearance of millions in revenue.
This November, Colin Robertson of Global Witness documented one of the more recent scandals at La Cominiere, another state-owned mining agency, in which $28m went to shell companies linked to Kabila’s associates. Robertson has said proper governance of DRC’s mines is of worldwide importance.
“They hold valuable cobalt, copper and lithium assets which are vital for the global energy transition and could transform DRC’s economic fortunes,” he said.
Cleaning up the extractives sector
Minerals from the DRC, used in producing everything from mobile phones to GPS tracking systems, and increasingly, electric vehicles, are in high demand although the country does not manufacture these end products. Tshisekedi, though, has pushed for the Battery Council to start making batteries in the country.
However, the DRC’s mining industry has long been linked with unrest. Rebel groups and, in some cases, the army, are involved in mining and trafficking minerals that end up producing end products like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold – called the 3TG metals. Some experts say the unrest in the east is fuelled by the desire to control these minerals.
A 2022 Global Witness report documented how most of the minerals exported from the country, especially from the troubled North and South Kivu, are “conflict minerals”, meaning their production is linked to armed conflict or human rights abuses.
Rights violations in the sector are rampant. In the southern copper belt, artisanal miners – including children – powering underground traffickers haul ore from deep below the earth under gruelling conditions and for little pay. As companies expand operations, whole communities are also being evicted to make way for new mines.
Countries, such as the United States, have introduced laws, like the 2010 “Dodd-Frank” regulation, to force importers to disclose supply chains and report any trade-in or use of “conflict minerals”. Despite this, a 2023 US government assessment found that the situation of miners in the DRC has barely changed in a decade.
A free and fair vote
There are fears that the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) will side with Tshisekedi and not ensure a free and credible electoral process. Some complain of irregularities in the registration process and the poor quality of voter cards.
It is reminiscent of the last general vote in 2018, wherein tensions were high amid claims of a rigged election. Fayulu, the former oil magnate, claims Tshisekedi stole his mandate, although a legal battle failed to deliver him victor. Fayulu has again voiced dissatisfaction with CENI, saying the DRC might hold “sham elections”.
The probability of violence during the vote, just as in the previous election is high, researchers told Al Jazeera earlier this month. Already, the east is tense; in September, Congolese soldiers killed dozens of protesters, calling for the withdrawal of MONUSCO, in Goma.
A state of emergency imposed since 2021 in troubled North Kivu and Ituri provinces to aid the fight against rebel groups has only empowered the Congolese military to commit rights violations against civilians, Amnesty International has warned.
Some say civic spaces in the DRC are shrinking. In May, opposition-led protests denouncing the high costs of living and the electoral process were forcefully dispersed by the police. In November, a European Union delegation pulled out from observing the elections because of Kinshasa’s restrictions on the team’s electronic gadgets.
Disenchanted young people told Al Jazeera they will not “waste” their time at the polls. But some are determined to cast their ballots, despite the risk of violence.