Congolese hopeful ahead of July 30 vote

Congo's first free elections since independence in 1960 may face many hurdles in the coming month.

As two hulking white UN helicopters recently descended on this small remote town in eastern Congo's Ituri Province, hundreds of schoolchildren fled their classrooms to catch a glimpse of the spectacle.

Heavily armed South African peacekeepers set up a perimeter around the school's soccer field while UN representatives and a music ensemble set up a show to educate the villagers about voting in the country's July 30 election, its first multiparty vote since independence in 1960.

Powered by a portable generator, the band began the midday presentation by singing: "It is the time to vote. It is the time to vote." The crowd clapped along with the rhythm of the music. "Don't vote for someone because they gave you a T-shirt. Don't vote for someone because he is from your tribe, or has given you something to eat, or some money."

Before the show, primary school teacher Kanyere Maombi had no idea how elections were held. "I've never voted before, so I'm very happy," she says.

"If we elect someone who is good for the job, then the Congo can be reconstructed," says Ms. Maombi, whose top priorities are improved roads and better salaries for civil servants.

Across the country, hopes are high. With a price tag of roughly $460 million, largely funded by the international community, elections promise to change the political landscape of a country in which years of conflict have caused close to 4 million deaths.

The elections have been pushed back twice already but now seem to be on track for July 30, when about 23 million registered citizens will cast ballots for one of 33 presidential candidates and choose from more than 9,000 parliament candidates to fill a new 500-member Parliament.

"This is potentially a turning point for the Congo. If elections go well and are seen as free and transparent, then they are the first step in helping to move Congo onto a more peaceful footing," says Anneke van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "A stable Congo could become the driving force for development in the rest of Africa."

But major obstacles exist. Congo is the size of western Europe, but much of the country lacks roads, electricity, and running water. The delivery of election ballots to one village outside of Mambasa is a four-day hike through the forest.

The stumbling blocks are not only logistical. "The institutions that are organizing the elections are politicized. The police, army, media, and the electoral commission are all plagued by allegations of corruption and political favor that has really soured the climate in the run-up to elections," says Jason Stearns with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

But the biggest obstacle may be the active fighting that continues between the Congolese army and scattered militias in the country's east. The death toll in the Congo is the highest of any war since World War II, even though the war in the Congo supposedly ended with a peace agreement in 2002.

When Laurent Kabila, father of the current president Joseph Kabila, took power after the 32-year reign of dictator Mobuto Sese Soko in a 1996 coup, he enlisted the help of neighboring armies, but soon afterward, he turned against them, spawning a complex series of bloody turf battles between militias over the Ituri's diamond mines, many backed by neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.

Today as the ill-equipped and poorly trained Congolese army tries to stamp out the last of the militia, it has earned a reputation as being just as murderous and uncontrollable.

"How does one have free and secure elections when there is still active fighting in the Congo?" asks van Woudenberg.

Evidence of recent fighting is widespread in Ituri. On a recent 20-mile trek in the area, nearly every home was either burned and demolished or occupied by Congolese army soldiers. Civilians were nowhere to be seen.

Carrying sacks of cornmeal and spears taken from dead militia fighters, Congolese soldiers walk through the South African peacekeepers' camp. Without rations arriving regularly, the soldiers help themselves to maize, squash, and tomatoes growing in private farm plots.

"If soldiers are not paid and do not get their daily meals, do you think they will be well behaved and well disciplined?" says the Bangladeshi Brig.-Gen. Mohammad Mahboob, who oversees about 3,000 UN peacekeepers in the Ituri region. "The hope is that after elections good governance will return" and that abuses by the Congolese army will lessen.

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