Tension remains high in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as 44million registered voters woke up to cast their ballot in the hotly contested general elections amid open conflict particularly in eastern DRC.
The high stakes polls pitting the incumbent president Felix Tshisekedi aged 60 years against his main rival Moise Katumbi, a 58-year-old business magnate and former provincial governor who poses the strongest challenge to Tshisekedi.
A fragmented opposition has seen at least 19 presidential contenders after several withdrew from the race.
Polling stations opened at 6 am (0400 GMT) and will close at 5pm local time.
The government declared a bank holiday for today, and as during previous elections, it closed the borders and suspended domestic flights.
Around 44 million Congolese, in a nation of 100 million, are registered to choose their president as well as lawmakers in national and provincial assemblies, and local councillors.
In a strange turn of events, DRC government declined to accredit East African Community (EAC) observers.
On Monday EAC said it will not send observers to DRC becoming the second such bloc to be excluded from the elections by Kinshasa.
The EAC said it would not send a team of observers to monitor the DRC elections on the ground, as is the tradition among member states, blaming the authorities in Kinshasa for refusing to accredit the team.
“EAC will not physically be present in DRC to observe her 2023 General Elections as provided for in the Treaty Establishing the East African Community and as it has been the practice since the inception of the EAC,” the bloc said in a statement.
The DRC joined the EAC in May last year but has had an on-off relationship with the bloc, although it has yet to fully accede to all the bloc’s relevant protocols. The EAC was late in deploying a military mission known as the EAC Regional Force (EACRF), but its mandate ended on December 8 amid controversy, with Kinshasa accusing the troops of failing to crush rebels such as the M23.
On Sunday, Kinshasa recalled its envoy in Arusha Pierre Masala and its envoy in Nairobi, John Nyakeru, to protest a meeting of rebel leaders in Nairobi where they formed a coalition to unseat President Felix Tshisekedi. Kenya has since distanced itself from the meeting, although President William Ruto admitted that he had refused a request from Kinshasa to arrest the rebels.
The DRC had previously refused to accredit European Union observers, forcing Brussels to cancel the mission. The DRC did however accept an AU observer team led by Madagascar’s former president Hery Rajaonarimampianina. Other groups such as the Carter Centre have also sent observers.
“Elections in DR Congo are on a knife edge. Failures in the organisation of the elections are expected to lead to strong tensions,” said Richard Moncrieff, Interim Project Director at Great Lakes at the International Crisis Group.
“The Congolese authorities seem determined to avoid delaying the elections, but there are serious concerns over the distribution of electoral material, and many thousands of polling stations may not have adequate material to function. This will likely benefit the opposition, who are becoming increasingly inclined to reject the results of the election.”