Society

War, peace and a ballot box

Article published on July 31, 2006
Article published on July 31, 2006
The Congolese people voted for a president and parliament in the first democratic elections in the country for decades. In a country ravaged by conflict, the election process faced some tough challenges

The freedom of the press is often a good thermometer of a country's political health. On 6 July, the journalist Bapuwa Mwamba wrote an article in Le Phare asking why "the process of transition was being blocked in the Congo". Two days later, he was assassinated, just a few months after the death of his colleague Franck Ngyke. In June, a French journalist was deported from the country. In the run up to a risky ballot, one which has evoked both enthusiasm and fear, no newspapers were published on the 18 July to protest "against those who want to muffle the freedom of the press" said John Richard Kasonga, the secretary of the National Union of the Congolese Press.

It is not just the press that is being muzzled. On 29 June, when the official electoral campaign was launched, there were 33 candidates for the presidency and almost 9,000 candidates for the parliamentary elections. Despite this huge number, only the president's campaign could be seen on TV at the beginning of the elections.

Despite Kabila's domination, an average of 50 people competed for each seat in the capital of Kinshasa. Some people believe the young president, Joseph Kabila, encouraged this huge number of candidates in order to divide his opponents. Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran politician and head of the opposition, withdrew from the election, claiming a transparent vote would have been impossible. Kabila, backed by the USA, has enthusiastically embraced the elections and claims he is the only one capable to unifying the country.

The country is currently in pieces.

One big mess

King Leopold II knew what he was doing when he made the Congo his personal property in 1885; with an area the size of Western Europe and a wealth of mineral resources (diamonds, petrol, copper, cobalt and gold), the Congo is one of the those "rich countries where everyone lives very poorly" as Azarias Ruberwa, the former Minister of Defence, puts it.

75% of the population live on less than €1 a day. In Kasai province more than 10,000 children mine diamonds in pits 100 feet beneath the earth. In Katanga, General Tshibumbu is leading a rag tag army against the Mayi Mayi fighters from a dusty little room he rented from a priest. In early 2006, 7,000 people arrived in Bunia, the main town in Ituri province, displaced by the fighting. In Isangi territory, they treat sleeping sickness with a derivative of arsenic. Katrien Timmermanns, a Dutch nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium (MSF), told IRIN: "Melarsoprol [the drug] is burning their veins. The next day the veins are often so hard that they cannot be used for the next injection." For the people in Isangi, it works better than the witchdoctor. In Kisangani, the capital of Ituri province, there are no doors on the prisons - the prisoners choose to stay in jail. Survival is a first priority, above and beyond all electoral considerations.

Or rather, it is the most important electoral consideration.

The country reduced to shreds

The Congolese divisions have their roots in the colonial era. In 1903, Roger Casement delivered a report to the British government on the administration of the Congo Free State (the private property of King Leopold). He concluded that Congo had been turned into a giant labour camp which worked harvesting rubber for the king, were obedience was enforced by rape, killing and mutilations. Today, the resources continue to leave the country, but it is Congolese soldiers who commit the atrocities.

The history of outside interference continued in the post-colonial period. Belgium supported successionist provinces, and the Congo found itself becoming part of the cold war, as the Soviets backed Lumumba, the pan-Africanist leader, and the Western powers supported his rivals.

Once Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, Kasavubu took power until General Mobutu seized power in 1965. He kept power until Laurent-Désiré Kabila launched a successful coup d'état in 1996. Mobutu's thirty one year rule was distinguished by its nepotism and kleptocracy, as, with Western support, he systematically robbed the country of its resources.

A fractured country

Today the DRC is split along several factional lines. Following a five year civil war, the first peace accord was implemented in 2003. The transitional government comprises three main factions: the DRC government (the PPRD, which is supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia), the RCD-Goma (Rwanda) and the MLC (Uganda). The history of foreign incursions into the country traces a web of interests in natural resources and escalating ethnic tensions in the region.

Since the Sun City agreement in 2002, Joseph Kabila has been at the head of a fragile governmental coalition composed of 4 vice presidents from rebel factions. While interim administration was made up of 50 ministers, Kabila also headed his own team, which the opposition claimed was a parallel government.

Somewhere between self-management and international aid

The international community wants to make up for its inertia in the face of the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The UN has despatched its largest ever mission, 18,600 soldiers, to the region, and the EU has added a military team. At the beginning of the year around 40 countries and approximately 100 NGOs met in Brussels to launch a plan of humanitarian action to help the DRC. The meeting was supposed to raise $680 million to finance 330 NGO projects approved by the UN. Only $156 million was raised. Disappointed, Jan Egeland, the UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator talked of a “blot on the international conscience”.

Despite all the money given by the international community, the logistics of the election were still a nightmare. The UN dispatched ballot boxes by helicopter into regions unsure when the elections were supposed to take place. Some complained things were happening too fast.

Discontent

This unrest can be heard among the opposition. On July 5, nineteen out of the thirty three candidates for the presidency called for the elections to be suspended. The candidates claim 10 million extra ballots have been printed and that there has been a fradulent enrolment of foreigners sympathetic to the government in the eastern and southwestern provinces of the country.

And despite the amount of money the EU has thrown at the elections, doubts remain as to whether they have not jumped the gun. "Voting for one's ethnic group will be the biggest factor in the elections, money the second," Baise, a member of the local majority Matoke community in Kisangani, told IRIN. "Already some tribal chiefs have received bicycles from candidates. For $100 you can buy the chief of a tribe."

In such circumstances, it remains to be seen whether voting will effect any real changes in the country - or worse, whether it will plunge the country into conflict once again.