Scramble to avert war after disputed Congo vote

Presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba rejects results of a runoff, sparking fears of a return to war.

Two weeks after a crucial presidential runoff, Congo is perched between war and peace.

With a final, but contested, count showing a nearly 20-point margin over his opponent, interim President Joseph Kabila is poised to be president in a capital city that largely voted against him.

His opponent, millionaire businessman Jean-Pierre Bemba, has rejected the results of the Oct. 29 presidential runoff. And, in a country where church leaders are often more influential than politicians, the Catholic archbishop has called on his church members to reject the results due to "systematic fraud."

The only thing preventing a return to civil war now is the frantic series of negotiations between leaders of the UN mission in Congo (MONUC) and the parties of Mr. Kabila and Mr. Bemba.

Few countries have as much impact over the future stability of Africa as does the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a territory as large as Western Europe, located in the heart of the continent, with mineral wealth that potentially makes it the richest nation in Africa, and a collection of nine smaller neighbors with rebellions of their own, Congo is the key to security in the region.

"Creating a stable Congo could have a positive ripple effect in the region," says Jason Stearns, an analyst on Central Africa for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "But the reverse is also true. A weak Congo can have a negative ripple effect, and destabilize the nations around it."

Diplomatic scramble

Right now diplomats in the capital say that one option for a political settlement to avert war is for Bemba to be president of the Senate, where he could remain influential and be the second most powerful under Kabila.

But Bemba's camp has hardened its position in recent days. Top members of his newly formed coalition Tuesday released a signed document claiming that vote results were manipulated and not credible, and warning the international community not to impose it's will.

International observers say voting was largely free and fair, and the election commission has rejected accusations that its count has been skewed by fraud.

But, in what observers say is a sign that Bemba is leaving the door open to accepting the results under certain conditions, he himself did not sign his camp's document.

"It's not a question of our returning to war, no way," says Fidel Babala, deputy campaign chairman of Bemba's Union for the Nation. "But we are concerned that they [Kabila's people] don't have the capacity to govern the country with more than seven provinces out of 11 voting against them."

He pauses. "I believe in God. Things will be a little hot, but in the end, it will be calm, because no one has an interest in going back to war."

Others, however, aren't so sure. Cars are clogging one main road out of the city, and there are long lines for boats to cross the river to Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo. Whole neighborhoods of people who can afford to are fleeing Kinshasa in anticipation of widespread violence.

There have already been examples of election-related violence. Gunfire erupted this past weekend in a skirmish between armed Bemba supporters and police. And, when results of the first round of voting were announced in August, Kabila and Bemba supporters battled on the streets of Kinshasa for three days, killing 23 people.

Preventing a slide back into civil war is the main mission of MONUC. With the largest peacekeeping force in the world at 17,000 troops, and an operating budget of $3 million a day, MONUC is a massive investment of UN resources and prestige.

UN officials argue that Congo's mission is worth the cost. Of the nine surrounding countries, more than half – including Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, and Sudan – have had civil wars where Congo provided a base of support for their rebel enemies.

But donor fatigue comes easily, particularly at a time when the UN is maintaining 18 peacekeeping missions worldwide. Underlining this point was the announcement this past weekend by the European Union to pull out its 1,800 peacekeepers at the end of the month, as planned.

UN officials say that they are in a position, militarily, to maintain control. But any long-term solution will depend on political negotiation.

"Kabila may be the ruler of the country, but he is not the winner here in Kinshasa," says one UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That is the problem."

A new divide

The elections of July 30 and the Oct. 29 runoff have exposed a worrisome divide in Congolese society between the Swahili-speaking east and the Lingala-speaking west.

Kabila's main source of support came from the east, where the majority of the population lives, while Bemba's support was mainly concentrated in the west, the traditional seat of power.

"You never had this language divide before, we were all Congolese," says Martin Fayulu, a prominent Kinshasa businessman with close ties to Bemba. "But these politicians are telling people, 'you are from the east, and he is from the west. Don't trust him.' This is just for their own benefit, but it's hurting our country."

After 100 years of colonial rule, and 40 years of dictatorship under US-supported President Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo has precious little experience in democratic rule to rely on. Instead, brutal war has marred its recent history. If negotiations fail, fighting is almost inevitable. All the political players are former military commanders of rebel movements.

Bemba in particular has been named on human rights charges by the neighboring Central African Republic. The moment he loses his current vice presidential seat in the interim government, he loses his immunity as well. The ongoing trial of Congolese rebel commander Thomas Lubanga, leader and founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots, on charges of using child soldiers, serves as an object lesson in what Bemba might face if he loses.

"This is Africa, it's all or nothing," says one African observer, working for an African embassy in Kinshasa. "First place is the presidency. Second place is the grave."

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