Beni, DR Congo | AFP | A key opposition candidate in DR Congo presidential elections launched his campaign Wednesday in a city caught between an Ebola epidemic and militant attacks in one of the country’s most dangerous regions.
Martin Fayulu, vying to replace President Joseph Kabila in the pivotal December 23 poll, was greeted by thousands at a small airport near the restive eastern city of Beni in North Kivu, a region blighted by armed conflict hampering efforts to curb the Ebola outbreak.
Supporters spilled onto the tarmac to encircle the MP’s plane, an AFP reporter witnessed, before Fayulu was driven to the centre of Beni along a road that many local people avoid taking by night for fear of attack.
Fayulu is among a host of candidates contesting this month’s high-stakes vote in a nation that has not known a peaceful transition of power since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960.
He is less well known than rivals such as opposition scion Felix Tshisekedi or hardline former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, Kabila’s hand-picked successor.
In all, 21 candidates are registered to run in the race to replace 47-year-old Kabila, who has ruled since 2001.
Kabila’s second and final elected term ended nearly two years ago, but he has remained in office thanks to a caretaker clause in the constitution.
Tshisekedi and his running mate Vital Kamerhe, a former parliamentary speaker, cancelled a planned trip to another part of North Kivu Wednesday over security concerns, a source close to his campaign said.
– Poor and battle-weary –
Fayulu is backed by ex-warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba and former governor and businessman Moise Katumbi, both barred from running.
Originally from western DR Congo, Fayulu held a public meeting as night fell in Beni, after promising last week to relocate a large army base from Kinshasa to the region to boost security.
Impoverished and battle-weary residents of the Beni region are hoping the polls will bring some respite from inter-ethnic violence, and the spreading Ebola epidemic which has claimed an estimated 268 lives.
A shadowy armed group rooted in Ugandan Islam, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia based in the mineral-rich east, has killed hundreds of people since 2014.
Last month, seven peacekeepers were killed, 13 wounded and two others reported missing in a joint military operation with DR Congo troops against rebels in the east.
The national army also reported losses.
Numerous armed groups operate in the region, wreaking havoc in the decades since the official end of a 1998-2003 war which claimed millions of lives.