Two days before Christmas the Democratic Republic of Congo faces a crucial and controversial presidential election, but as Foreign Editor David Pratt reports, it also comes against the backdrop of an Ebola epidemic and sinister events in the east of the country

Despots, dictators, warlords, over the years the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had more than its fair share of what is derisively dubbed Africa’s “big men”.

It was one afternoon in 2008 as the Congolese rainy season thundered down on a nondescript compound of shacks in the village of Kichanga when I met the then rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda.

Tall, lanky and dressed in a green beret and camouflage fatigues, he was flanked by two menacing bodyguards carrying Kalashnikovs as we sat down to talk in a ramshackle hut that served as his command centre in North Kivu province.

For some time Nkunda had been leading his rebel militia in the eastern DRC clashing with the Congolese army and threatening to topple the government of President Joseph Kabila.

“We want security, we want to have an army, a national army. Not an army like what you saw in Goma, looting, raping and killing its own people,” he told me, referring to recent events in the provincial capital from where I had just come and his forces were threatening to overrun.

Nkunda himself, of course, was no Mr Nice Guy. As well as an alleged penchant for disposing of his rivals by having them tied inside sacks and thrown into Lake Kivu, he and his men were subsequently blamed for many other human rights abuses.

That day throughout our chat he clenched the black, silver-topped cane that had become one of his trademarks. It struck me that he seemed fond of theatrical props like this, in much the same way as former Congolese president and strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko, was with his leopard skin hat and leather walking stick.

In the end Nkunda, who was finally betrayed and arrested in neighbouring Rwanda, never did overthrow President Kabila, but the standoff between the two men typified the volatile nature of Congo’s seemingly interminable power struggles.

Kabila, who remains DRC president to this day, is currently seeing the country through yet another turbulent period as later this week it goes to the polls in what will be a crucial and controversial election.

Having held power for almost 18 years ever since taking over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, another authoritarian figure, Joseph Kabila is not allowed to run for a third consecutive term.

Under the constitution, his two-term presidency was supposed to end in 2016 but Kabila has managed to delay the coming election by two years.

Should, however, the poll this time really mark his departure as president, he still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running again in 2023, a prospect that horrifies many Congolese.

“It will be a catastrophe for the republic, because for 17 years his regime was characterised by corruption, impunity and the violation of human rights,” said Georges Kapiamba, president of the rights group, Congolese Association for the Access to Justice (ACAJ) speaking last week to the New York Times.

Ever since the previous electoral delays, Kabila’s political opponents have accused the Congolese leader of overstaying his welcome, and of using his security forces to violently repress protesters who demanded his departure two years ago.

His continuation as a contested caretaker president has only fuelled feverish speculation that he might still be plotting to tweak the constitution and seek a third consecutive term.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that despite Kabila’s assurances to the contrary, there remains some considerable unease as to what lies in store during this week’s poll.

That disquiet only grew over the past few days following a mysterious fire in the capital Kinshasa that destroyed 8,000 electronic voting machines – 80% of the city's stock – just 10 days ahead of the presidential election.

The ruined machines were among 10,000 due to be used in the vote, according to DRC electoral commission chief, Corneille Nangaa.

Made by a South Korean company and being used in DRC for the first time, the machines have raised concerns that they may be more vulnerable to vote rigging than paper ballots.

Given the scarcity of electricity in many regions of a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, there are worries also that swathes of the population could be disenfranchised.

The unease over the election also comes as the country struggles to cope with other major problems. Not least among these is the spread of the deadly Ebola virus that is now the second-biggest outbreak ever, after the vast epidemic that swept through the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014 and 2016.

“This is a milestone nobody wanted to hit,” World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in statement recently, stressing that the risk of the outbreak spreading to other provinces in the DRC as well as to neighbouring countries, “remains very high”.

The international humanitarian response to the growing Ebola outbreak has been stymied by the violence that for years now has gripped swathes of eastern Congo.

Unlike during the West African Ebola epidemic, health workers in Congo are sometimes forced to don body armour and helmets so subjected are they to attack from armed groups while working to prevent the disease’s spread.

“Armed groups pose an enormous obstacle for our staff,” says Michel Yao, the WHO’s response coordinator in the city of Beni in North Kivu provincethe epicentre of the outbreak.

To reach at least 20 % of Ebola-affected areas, health workers need armed police or UN peacekeeping troop escorts, he confirmed.

As has been the case for many years now, nothing about DRC either in terms of the country’s physical scale or that of its myriad problems is anything short of complex and enormous.

At least 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance according to the UN, a need up there on a par with Syria and Yemen that has doubled in the last year alone.

As ever, conflict lies largely at the heart of the problem. In huge parts of DRC especially the east, civilians are confronted daily by massacres, persistent and recurring displacement, rape, kidnappings, human trafficking, house burning and a proliferation of foreign and local armed groups.

Ironically, it’s in great part precisely because so much of eastern Congo is so rich in natural resources that two million children are at risk of starvation and 4.5 million people have fled their homes because of recent fighting.

Time and again while visiting the country I like so many other have been struck by the gulf between the nation’s prodigious mineral wealth and the grinding poverty and insecurity of most of DRC’s more than 80 million people.

In the midst of such natural wealth there have always been those warlords like Laurent Nkunda and others before and since, who have been only too willing to fight for the spoils on behalf of themselves and others.

In eastern Congo alone there are estimated to be more than 70 armed groups and many are heavily interconnected. In this labyrinthine conflict not only are ethnic and tribal differences exploited, but shifting allegiances and diverse agendas are commonplace with many fighters crossing the border to and from neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda.

Both these regional neighbours and nations further afield have long had their sights on Congo’s estimated $24 trillion in natural resources.

As David Pilling, Africa editor of the Financial Times, recently observed: “The West’s role is hardly edifying. It has grown used to Congo’s simmering tragedy. So long as mining companies can work with the next regime, it will be happy enough.”

Right now Congo has become the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, a vital component of smartphones and electric car batteries, and Africa’s biggest copper exporter. It is also awash with gold, diamonds, oil and coltan, the last another vital ingredient for components in our digital age.

In the struggle for control over the resource-rich northeast of Congo, many areas have been effectively rendered ungovernable despite the presence of some 20,000 UN peacekeeping troops.

In recent weeks and months armed groups have massacred many civilians in and around the Ebola-wracked area of Beni. In Ituri Province too, on the border with Uganda, there has been a wave of fighting, atrocities committed and mass graves discovered. While ethnic differences often underpin some of this violence, experts say this new wave of violence especially in Ituri does not follow the usual pattern of ethnic killings and reprisals.

According to survivors of the attacks on villages the attackers are men speaking languages from other regions and are often equipped with new weapons and expensive communications equipment, suggesting the fighters have powerful backers who may be looking to exploit the animosity between two ethnic groups the Lendu and Hema for their own purposes.

Among the explanations for the violence increasingly touted by locals, civil society and political activists in both Ituri and North Kivu provinces is that president Joseph Kabila and his allies want to destabilise the east of the country in order to postpone this week’s elections.

Another explanation is that Kabila’s motives are shaped also by being part of a corrupt network involving both DRC and other countries mining, banking and telecommunications industries, and that prolonging instability is actually a means of keeping control over the areas.

“There’s no one narrative that explains it all,” Ida Sawyer, the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying.

“We can say with certainty that, at a minimum, violence is part of the system Kabila presides over and profits from.”

This is a view shared by other major monitoring and analysis groups among them the UK based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

In a report earlier this year in which what it describes as “calculated destabilisation” IISS says that the “DRC’s large territory and the limitations of its security forces have impelled its leaders to employ the divide-and-rule tactics of manipulation, destabilisation and deal-making to establish and maintain relative control”.

The IISS analyses also points to how local and national politicians play ethnic groups against each other including in North Kivu and Ituri provinces and how the Congolese army provides weapons and equipment, and also conducts operations that are later blamed on rebel groups.

As for Kabila himself, the UK think tank says he enjoys the support of his political party, controls all major Congolese institutions and has confidants in key positions, from the lucrative state-owned mining company Gecamines to the electoral commission.

“Through multiple reshuffles of leadership, Kabila has tightened his grip on the security forces, making a coup very unlikely and providing him with an effective instrument to suppress mass protests and political opposition,” IISS concluded.

Which brings us back to this week’s elections, where although Kabila appears to be willing to stand down he has nominated Emmanuel Shadary to keep his seat warm until he can run again in 2023.

Shadary a former interior minister whose name resonates little beyond political circles in DRC, is considered to be a hard liner. Shadary is also said to have been chosen because he is malleable and has weak ties to the Congolese army and security services, two forces deeply loyal to Kabila.

As for the opposition standing in this week’s ballot, Shadary’s two main rivals Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi could on a level playing field give Kabila’s placeman a run for his money, but a level playing field is one thing the election will certainly not be.

Already tensions are running high with the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, urging Kabila’s government on Friday to “send a clear signal that threats and violence against political opponents will not be tolerated”.

Ten years ago sitting in that hut in Kichanga with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda he told me that, “instead of being ruled by those who would have us live in poverty forever, you have to suffer for freedom sometimes”.

Nkunda was never a legitimate voice for freedom or democracy nor did he care for impoverished Congolese. Joseph Kabila one suspects is much the same.

As the FT’s David Pilling writing this week wryly put it; “ two days before Christmas, voters in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country by area will attempt the impossible. They will try to put the “democratic” in the Democratic Republic of Congo”.

After two decades under the Kabila family rule it’s hard to see this happening smoothly, if indeed at all.