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Amid Congo election dispute, rival candidates carefully plan confrontation

Congolese President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi both claim to have won the Nov. 28 elections. Tshisekedi is now calling for street protests.

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Congo, of course, is well acquainted with war, following the 1998 invasion of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda to overthrow the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Five million people were killed in that war, and Congo’s inability to extend its authority across much of the east of its territory is a fact that makes Congo a safe haven for armed militia groups, and a source of instability in the region.

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For now, a tentative calm has descended over the country, as citizens wait for their leaders to make the next move. Small protests in Lubumbashi and in Kinshasa have been broken up, harshly, by Kabila’s elite Presidential Guard.

Yet if both sides are moving toward an open civil conflict, they are doing so with baby steps. The arrest and extradition of Cote D’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo to face human rights charges at the International Criminal Court at the Hague may serve as a reminder of what can happen to those who go too far.

“Between the two sides, there is no process of negotiation at all,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo for Human Rights Watch, who observed the election process from Goma and remains in Kinshasa. “With the UN, the question is what can they do to save the process. The opposition has no faith in the CENI, it has no faith in the courts, which they feel will favor Kabila.”

“I think they need time to find a solution,” Ms. Van Woudenberg says. “Right now, the opposition feels it has very little recourse but to go to the streets.”

David Pottie, head of the Carter Center’s observer mission in Kinshasa, says that the irregularities were so persistent that the entire election “lacked credibility.” But mathematically, the Carter Center has not been able to point to enough disputed votes to cast doubt on the order of the candidates, with Kabila leading the pack with a sizable lead.

For his part, President Kabila admitted to Al Jazeera that there were “mistakes” in the Nov. 28 vote. But his government contends those “errors and dysfunctions” should be chalked up to inexperience and to a “climate of violence that prevailed in a number of electoral districts.”

In a statement issued Dec. 14, Congo’s Minister of Communication Lambert Omalanga urged opposition leaders to take their objections to court, and “to create ideal conditions for a permanent dialogue among the Congolese political actors.”

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