GOMA, Congo (AP) — A fiery President Felix Tshisekedi rallied thousands of supporters at a stadium in a conflict-stricken eastern region of Congo on Sunday, making one of his final campaign sweeps through the country in the lead-up to elections later this month.
Supporters waited hours to hear the first-term president’s speech in a region torn by years of violence between the army and M23 rebels. He directed most of his ire toward President Paul Kagame in neighboring Rwanda rather than his opponents in the Dec. 20 election, where he is vying for a second-term leading the nation of 100 million people.
“I promise you that this fight will continue, and we will rid our country of the M23 terrorists, led by their leader Paul Kagame. We are going to put an end to their barbaric reign of terrorism, which has put the Congolese people into mourning,” Tshisekedi said at Afia Stadium in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
The election has resurfaced long simmering questions about overlapping conflicts in eastern Congo and neighboring nations such as Rwanda. Tshisekedi and many of the two dozen candidates running against him, including former oil executive Martin Fayulu and businessman Moise Katumbi, pledge to stem violence and displacement.
Tshisekedi has long accused Kagame and Rwanda of providing military support to M23, the latest iteration of Congolese Tutsi fighters to seize towns in parts of mineral-rich North Kivu. The U.N. and human rights groups accuse M23 of atrocities ranging from rape to mass killings and say it receives backing from Rwanda. Rwanda denies any ties with the rebels.
Beyond the speech, Tshisekedi sought to project symbolic power by visiting North Kivu’s capital. The rebels have taken over large parts of the region and since last week they have overcome volunteer self-defense groups and Congolese soldiers to seize major nearby towns.
As the election nears, Congo’s government is doubling down on a push to have regional and international peacekeeping forces withdraw. A regional force of officers from East African countries began leaving Goma last week.
Peacekeepers have faced protests and criticism from residents who see them as toothless and unable to protect civilians in Congo, which is the world’s top cobalt producer and fifth-largest producer of copper.
Tshisekedi, who has called for U.N. peacekeepers to leave, said Sunday that the United Nations “came to help and protect the Congolese people, but it didn’t work.”
“Its mission will come to an end, and we will salute their departure with honor,” he added.
Roger Mibenge, a Goma resident at the rally, said he supported Tshisekedi’s efforts to liberate the region from “Rwandan aggression.”
“We think we still need him for the next few years so that he can carry out the work he has started,” Mibenge said.
More than 120 armed groups are fighting over land and control of valuable minerals in Congo’s eastern regions.
Tshisekedi praised both the army and volunteer “Wazalendo” fighters in the right against armed groups, promising the region total liberation.
“All this is to say that we still have work to do, and to continue this work we need your support,” he told the crowd.
Despite his plea for votes, it is questionable how deeply the election will reach into North Kivu and other conflict-stricken regions. The election won’t be held in some areas wracked by violence and displacement, and last week Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission asked the government for help distributing ballots to insecure areas.
Justin Kabumba, The Associated Press