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Why so much is at stake as Congo goes to polls

Congo's polls today could be a crucial step for the resource-rich country's progress toward stability and self-determination. Disputed elections could leave it conflict-prone and poor. 

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Congo's riches have long attracted foreign occupiers. Belgium's King Leopold carved out a colony following the drainage of the vast Congo River Basin to profit from ivory and rubber. Now foreign investors – and militias – are after minerals. Congo has 80 percent of the world's known reserves of coltan – the heavy metal used in the circuitry of cellphones and video games – as well as 60 percent of the world's cobalt. Congo is also the world's largest supplier of industrial diamonds. Demand for tin, copper, and other minerals in India and China is so strong that mining companies fly out planeloads of unrefined rocks to have the minerals extracted elsewhere.

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Great mineral wealth, great poverty

All this wealth means little to the Con­go­lese people. Seventy-one percent of Congo's 68 million people live on less than $1 a day; food prices are rising at more than 23 percent per year. Lack of a stable government has meant lack of schooling and lack of medical care. Congo has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, at 81 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Politicians talk of creating strong national institutions that can funnel mineral wealth toward a richer, healthier, safer country. But as Congo moves toward only its second free election since independence in 1960, there is little evidence of those promises being put into action.

"The Congo has been without proper infrastructure for decades under Mobutu, but the Congolese have never felt any poorer and unsafe than they do now," says Nicolas-Patience Basabose, a Congolese political editor for Le Congo Hebdo, a weekly magazine based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Many Congolese blame Mr. Mobutu for having used Congo's riches as his personal bank account, Mr. Basabose says, but at least Mobutu had a political network of supporters and a broad-based organization. "That alone, in the eyes of many Congolese, is far more than [President Joseph] Kabila has offered so far."

Many Congolese doubt the credibility of the coming election, Basabose says, because the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) is behind schedule in registering voters, arranging polling stations, and ferrying voting materials to the farthest districts. Besides that, the CENI was largely handpicked by Mr. Kabila. But Basabose says that Kabila is "deeply unpopular," and political observers say his victory is far from certain.

Can anyone unseat Kabila?

Only two candidates are seen as having a chance to unseat Kabila, and the stronger of the two is perennial opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

Mr. Tshisekedi, from the south-central Kasai region, appears to be winning supporters simply by being everything Kabila is not. His experience, both as a Mobutu adviser and as a man who publicly called Mobutu a dictator, puts him in a good light compared with Kabila, who spent much of his youth outside Congo in the shadow of his father, whom he succeeded in 2001 when President Laurent Kabila was assassinated. But Tshisekedi's violent rhetoric has raised concerns, particularly his recent televised interview in which he claimed to be Congo's de facto leader, and urged party sup-porters to stage prison breaks and teach Kabila's police "a lesson in front of their families."

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