Amid rolling green hills studded with lazy white cows and dairy farms in eastern Congo, renegade General Laurent Nkunda is running his own kingdom, collecting taxes and commanding fighters.
A runoff presidential vote today will decide who takes on the challenge of imposing central authority on war-ravaged Congo's far-flung provinces, where militiamen like Nkunda reign.
The eastern Masisi territory is known as the Switzerland of Congo, with villages nestled in the curves of a lush, quiet countryside. But watchful soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and clad in green army uniforms are stationed everywhere.
The soldiers are on the government payroll, but they take orders from Nkunda only.
"We've lost control. The government does not receive taxes anymore, Nkunda collects it all," said Andre Bayibika, the second most senior government official in Masisi. "Nkunda is running his own government here, with his own army," he added.
Bayibika and his colleagues in Masisi say Nkunda earns more than US$1 million a year from his network of road blocks manned by troops and taxes on businesses, village markets and farmers -- money Bayibika says Nkunda is using to recruit, arm and train more fighters.
Today's elections are meant to mark the end of a transition to democracy that began after a 1998 to 2002 war, which aid groups believe has killed nearly 4 million people, many through war-induced hunger and disease.
Nkunda, a former general, quit the army and launched his own rebellion after Congo's war ended, claiming Congo's transition to democracy was flawed and excluded the country's minority Tutsi community.
In 2004, he briefly captured the eastern city of Bukavu and his troops have been accused of torture and rape. Nkunda is named in an international arrest warrant for war crimes.
Days away from today's ballot, he promised a peaceful vote in his region and said he wants to cooperate with the newly elected government.
"My soldiers are securing the elections here. We are encouraging people to vote," Nkunda said from his forest base in Masisi. "I'm ready to rejoin the army if the government will work to defend my people's rights."