On Sunday, the largest election ever organized by the United Nations will take place in the most war-ravaged country on the planet: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much more than a competition among candidates, it is a contest between Africa's best hopes and worst conditions.
The international effort to set up Congo's first democratic election in four decades has been Herculean. In a country as large as Western Europe but with only 300 miles of paved roads, more than 26 million Congolese have been registered to vote at about 50,000 sites.
It's an undertaking that recognizes the stakes in a country of superlatives, so many of them negative.
If outsiders know anything about Congo – depicted in the novels of Joseph Conrad ("Heart of Darkness") and Barbara Kingsolver ("The Poisonwood Bible") – they know of its vast natural resources: diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, and coltan (which is used in electronic devices such as cellphones). Its wealth, size, and location smack in the middle of Africa point to its promise.
But do they know that Congo's civil war, which officially ended only in 2002, was the globe's deadliest since World War II? It led to the death of an estimated 4 million people, many of whom died from disease and starvation caused by the fighting. The battle drew in eight countries, creating what seems to be an African commodity – regional war, now raising its head in Sudan's Darfur Province, and perhaps in Somalia.
Congo's elections for president and parliament are part of the peace process that ended the civil war – except that violence still rages in Congo's eastern area. There, militias and an underpaid (or rarely paid) national army rape and pillage, burn and murder. The International Rescue Committee estimates that the violence and displacement are causing about 1,250 deaths daily, even though the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world (another superlative) is trying to prevent this.
Such dismal conditions raise people's expectations for the elections, which may hardly be by the book. Leading the pack of 33 candidates for president is Congo's interim leader since 2001, Joseph Kabila, the son of the previous president, who was assassinated. He's less ideological than his father. Mr. Kabila's only viable challenger is boycotting the elections. Catholic leaders are also urging voters to stay home. (Catholics comprise more than half of Congo's 60 million people.) Indeed, violence and other problems have marred the process, and more violence could follow if sore losers refuse to yield.
And yet, the spirit of the Congolese vis-à-vis the democratic process is remarkable. The successful registration drive alone inspires, and in December, 70 percent of voters approved a new constitution.
All the more reason for the winners to do all they can to first create stability, and then begin to rebuild a nation. And all the more reason for the international community to do all it can to move this process along with civic instruction, aid, and a commitment to UN peacekeeping efforts.
The world knows that elections are just a first step. But it often forgets about a place after the voting is over. That mustn't happen this time.