A deadly Ebola outbreak grows. Rebels kill civilians in the streets. And yet the arrival of voting machines in this troubled corner of Congo has some especially worried as a long-delayed presidential election promises further upheaval. The machines now arriving by the thousands in this Central African nation are of such concern that the U.N. Security Council has come calling, the United States has issued warnings and opposition supporters on Friday plan a national protest. As Congo faces what could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power, fears are high that the more than 100,000 voting machines will be ripe for manipulation. They also could pose a technical nightmare in a sprawling nation of more than 40 million voters where infrastructure is dodgy — just 9 percent of Congo has electricity — and dozens of rebel groups are active. “We cannot accept people inventing stories that trample our constitution,” said Clovis Mutsuva, a Beni resident with the LUCHA activist organization, which has tweaked the French term “machines a voter” into “machines a voler,” or “machines to steal.”
While President Joseph Kabila has ended years of speculation by announcing he will respect term limits and step down after the vote, the opposition has loudly protested what it calls Kabila’s attempts to ensure that his favored candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, will win. One opposition leader was blocked from returning from exile. Another, acquitted on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court, is barred from running.
Now attention turns to the voting machines, made by South Korean company Miru Systems, that security researchers say are vulnerable to rigging and print codes that include ballot-specific information that could strip away voters’ anonymity. The researchers include experts from Argentina, which rejected the company’s machines after learning of the issues.
Despite the concerns echoed by diplomats and human rights groups, Congo has plunged into training about 21,000 facilitators on the machines and is introducing the concept in cities, remote towns, Pygmy communities and places like Beni that are essentially war zones. Beni and the surrounding region are in the grip of an Ebola outbreak, which because of the violence could drag on for months before being contained.