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. 

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File
Etienne Tshisekedi, pictured here, has the best chance to unseat unpopular incumbent Joseph Kabila, observers say.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/File
President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila arrived for the yearly national parade last June in Kinshasa. Mr. Kabila took over when his father was assassinated in 2001, then was elected on his own in 2006. He’s up for reelection Nov. 28.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Holding elections in a postwar country with few roads, dense jungles, a weak judiciary, deep ethnic divisions, and roving bands of armed militants might seem like a daunting task. Add in the politicians – 19,000 of them, running for 500 parliamentary seats and nearly a dozen candidates for president – and the Democratic Republic of Congo's Nov. 28 elections take on a complexity that staggers the mind.

Yet the importance of these elections, which began in polling stations across Congo today, cannot be overstated. Credible elections that are accepted by the public and by politicians are the first step toward stability and self-determination, a huge issue for a country that is rich in resources but unable to channel those resources toward development. Disputed elections would continue to leave Congo weak, conflict-prone, and able to be manipulated by its smaller, stronger neighbors.

Some observers say the risk of failure in this election is a return to civil war. An invasion by Rwanda and other countries to topple the previous president, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1996 started a 10-year conflict that killed up to 5 million.

"It's easy to fall into the 'Congo is just a disaster' or the 'Heart of Darkness' mentality," says David Pottie, associate director of the democracy program at the Carter Center in Atlanta and an international election observer now in Kinshasa. "The importance of these elections is that they need to meet some reasonable degree of credibility in order to maintain the momentum for establishing some fundamental democratic practices and the institutions to keep it going. Also, if you have credible elections, that serves as a brake on the tensions that we find in country after country in which two-term presidents attempt to overturn term limits and cling to power."

Given Congo's strategic location – bordering the oil-producing Gulf of Guinea to the west, the volatile new nation of South Sudan, and the vibrant trading economies of the Great Lakes region in the east – and its own rich resources of gold, diamonds, copper, tin, and coltan, Congo is rich with possibilities. But weak governance has kept Congo from mastering its future and channeling its resources toward national interests.

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.

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."

On Saturday, Congolese police blocked Tshisekedi and his followers from holding a banned rally in Kinshasa. Police shot tear gas and live ammunition to disperse Tshisekedi's supporters, killing at least three. Gunmen in the copper-belt city of Lubumbashi, attacked campaign vehicles and set them ablaze. 

Inflammatory rhetoric on the rise

The biggest sign that Congo is entering an election season is not so much posters and slogans but the incitement of political violence. Reports by the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have documented both the threats and the actual incidents of violence, in which several party supporters were killed and more than 30 opposition activists arrested.

In southern Katanga Province, one prominent Kabila supporter, a state parliamentarian named Gabriel Kyungu, has made veiled threats against Tshisekedi's Kasai ethnic group. According to an HRW report, Mr. Kyungu referred to Kasai as "mosquitoes," saying, "There are too many mosquitoes in the living room. Now is the time to apply insecticide."

"Everyone, from all parties, is attempting to whip up support with inflammatory speech," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior Africa researcher for HRW in London. It's important for the international community – not just the UN and Western observers, but also the African Union and the Southern African Development Community – to speak out strongly against hate speech and to ensure that these elections are safe and credible, she adds.

"It was good to see strong condemnations by the international donors, but now we're seeing the temperature being raised, and we're in the final campaign phase," Ms. Van Woudenberg says. "How the African observers call this election will be crucial. We have a boiling situation where the credibility of these elections may be in question, and if Tshisekedi contests the results, he'll get thousands on the streets. If that happens, I can imagine a brutal crackdown by police. So the reaction of international observers will be crucial."

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