Ebola, violence-weary DRC region proudly stages unofficial vote

Citing security and health fears, CENI blocked the cities of Beni and Butembo from taking part in Sunday’s presidential, legislative and provincial elections.

Improvised electoral agents count the ballots after a symbolic vote on 30 December 2018, at Kalinda Stadium in Beni, where voting was postponed for Democratic Republic of Congo's general elections. Picture: AFP

BENI - Thousands of voters, weary from frequent armed attacks and an ongoing Ebola outbreak, proudly cast ballots in a northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), even though they will count for nothing.

Citing security and health fears, the country’s national electoral commission (CENI) blocked the cities of Beni and Butembo from taking part in Sunday’s presidential, legislative and provincial elections.

But determined to have a taste of much-delayed democracy in the troubled country, many turned out at makeshift polling stations for a staged vote.

“The city of Beni is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we cannot deprive ourselves of the right to vote,” said one resident who gave his name as Manix.

“That’s why you see these people here voting.”

Old and young wrote their choices on blank pieces of paper, collected in plastic bags by mock poll booth operators dressed in official uniforms.

The voters even had their left thumbs marked with ink to avoid fraud, as in the neighbouring provinces where the elections were going ahead for real.

“We have taken all necessary measures of protection,” said Beni resident Kitonga Benshirak, referring to the highly infectious virus Ebola. “We were asked to wash our hands, we were vaccinated, we even provided (anti-bacterial gel).”

The count began at nightfall under the glow of mobile phone screens and lamps powered by generators.

While there was an air of joy at the symbolic effort, many remained angry that more than one million voters had been cut off from the rest of the country and joined an opposition protest.

The CENI announced last week that the elections would be postponed until March - two months after the scheduled presidential inauguration - in the northeastern Beni-Butembo region of North Kivu province, as well as in Yumbi in western Mai-Ndombe province.

It pointed in particular to parts of North Kivu province, affected by “a terrorist threat” and “a dangerous, ongoing epidemic of Ebola virus” in the areas of Beni and Butembo.

“We would like to tell the CENI to consider these elections. And if not, we will consider it as a Balkanisation - meaning the far north will be considered its own country. The regime is moving us away from the Democratic Republic of Congo”, said another Beni resident, who declined to be named.