Learning curve: Congolese master ballot basics

Part of voter education is getting people interested in voting, because elections here used to be worthless.

In the gloom of a dusty meeting hall, a circle of women in bright head scarves sit on hard school chairs, concentrating on what Felicien Nzitatira is writing on the blackboard: "Why to vote. How to vote. How to choose. How to behave."

Keen hands are already in the air as the aid worker turns to face the women. All leaders of church groups, they've come from 70 congregations surrounding this rundown town in eastern Congo more than a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa.

"We must vote because we must have peace," offers Jeanne Nabine, a middle-aged widow with five children.

The seminar is one of thousands taking place across this vast central African country in a bid to explain the democratic election process to Congo's 25 million newly registered voters.

Until a referendum on a new constitution last year, they had never participated in any ballot other than sham polls for former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, where the choice was a simple "yes" or "no" for the president's re-election. He usually "won" with 90 percent of the vote.

But on July 30, the country will have a first taste of genuine democratic elections, when they must decide on one of 33 presidential hopefuls, and choose between some 9,500 parliamentary candidates chasing just 500 seats.

"People here used to have no interest in voting because they lived so long under dictatorship and thought elections were worthless," says Mr. Nzitatira, who directs the Goma branch of the Peace and Justice Commission. Charged with educating voters throughout Congo, the $1.5 million nationwide program is funded by the UN and several partners, including the British Roman Catholic aid agency Cafod.

"We have had to start from scratch, to teach that the law ensures that their votes are secret and that each vote will be counted, that they must resist influence or intimidation by the candidates," he says.

The lessons seem to be working. Under the shade of a mango tree in the village of Lupaya, a string of dung-walled huts 250 miles southwest of Goma, candidate Dr. Didier Molisho faces a circle of subsistence farmers sitting in the dust. Perhaps the urbane Belgian-schooled doctor expected an easy ride convincing these unsophisticated villagers to mark their inky thumbprint next to his campaign symbol, an ear of corn, on election day. But the Peace and Justice Commission has passed this way, and the voters are not to be hoodwinked.

"They can give us presents and we will take them, but they will not know if we voted for them because it is secret and we will choose only the wise people who will change things and bring us peace," says Ali Jaffari, a 65-year-old farmer from Lupaya.

Peace, above all, seems to be the great hope.

Two wars between 1998 and 2003 brought foreign troops from six African countries onto Congo's soil and left 3.8 million people dead, mostly from disease and starvation.

Four decades of state looting has bankrupted what could potentially be Africa's richest country – laden with gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, coltan, timber – and enriched corrupt leaders, arms dealers, and international mining firms.

Now, voters want new hospitals and schools, electricity, tractors, modern houses, medicines, and – crucially – roads, in a country one quarter the size of the US with no more than 300 miles of paved highways.

But despite soaring hopes among ordinary Congolese about the vote, chaotic organization ahead of the polls could turn the elections into a farce and foment a dangerous disillusionment among the population.

Up to 11 people were killed this week in election-related violence, and on Tuesday policemen fired tear gas on rioters in Kinshasa protesting what they said were irregularities in the voting process.

Meanwhile, local officials are still waiting for voting materials. The UN mission in Congo has spent more than $470 million delivering ballot boxes and voting papers to key towns, from which the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) must distribute the materials to the 46,693 polling stations.

But in towns like Kasongo, a district capital near Lupaya, the IEC has few resources.

"We have asked Kinshasa for help, but we are still waiting," said Father Celestien Busangu, a director of Kasongo's IEC. He expects he'll have to rely on bicycles to ferry ballots to his districts' 719 polling stations.

For the ordinary Congolese, the only thing that matters is that they will have their few minutes behind the curtain of the polling booth on July 30.

"The only way we know things will change is if we vote," says Farakhani Mufaume, a member of Lupaya's council of elders.

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