KINSHASA, Congo — Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and a politician hoping to unseat him next month launched their campaigns Sunday as the incumbent leader faces ongoing violence in eastern Congo and a divided field of opposition candidates.
Opposition party representatives who met in South Africa in recent days failed to unite behind a single challenger to Tshisekedi for the country’s Dec. 20 presidential election. The candidates represented at the talks included Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive who lost to Thisekedi five years ago; businessman Moise Katumbi; Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege; former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo; and Kassai legislator Delly Sesanga.
In a speech to supporters at Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa on Sunday, the incumbent president accused Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kageme, of destabilizing Congo. Congo has alleged that Rwandan forces are backing M23 rebels in the country’s east, a claim Rwanda denies.
“I have broken with Paul Kagame because he took advantage of my good faith to destabilize North Kivu,” Tshisekedi declared, referring to a province in eastern Congo.
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He also accused other candidates of supporting Rwanda, though he did not name any of them. His focus on the rebels and the fighting in the east underscored the role it is likely to play in campaigning and the election.
Tshisekedi was declared winner of Congo’s 2018 election after President Joseph Kabila relinquished power under international pressure after 18 years. Fayulu, who also ran in the election, maintained that he had won and challenged the result but lost.
On Sunday, Fayulu launched another bid for the presidency in the town of Bandundu in southwestern Congo.
“It’s time to build a great Congo, a strong Congo, a prosperous Congo,” he declared. “It’s time to unite the north, south, east, west and center of the country. Now is the time to restore (Congo) to its rightful place in Africa and the world.”
Legislative candidates in the volatile east began putting up posters and photos starting at midnight. The fighting between the military and the M23 rebels is approaching the city of Goma, giving local voters other matters to worry about besides the general election.
“We’re worried because the M23 war is on Goma’s doorstep, and what’s more, this campaign isn’t like the one in previous years,” resident Kasereka Amani said. “People are afraid. They think that the enemy may take advantage of this campaign to attack the town.”
Tshisekedi raised the possibility of excluding the rebel-controlled territories of Masisi and Rutshuru from participating in the elections for security reasons.
Bertrand Bisimwa, the rebel group’s president, said Saturday that “the areas conquered by the M23 in eastern Congo will be led by men chosen by the M23.”