Congo hovers on the brink

Two years ago I wrote in Liberator that the election timetable for the first democratic elections for forty years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had fallen far behind but that there were "glimmers in the dark" which could indicate that reasonable elections might well take place.

Those glimmers struggled against considerable odds to avoid extinction and on 30 July eighteen million electors went to the polls in Congo's fifty thousand polling stations, guarded by 17,500 UN and 2,000 EU soldiers. Thirty-three candidates contested the presidential election but most were paper candidates. The top five candidates took 87% of the vote, with Joseph Kabila, the head of the transitional government for the past four years, topping the poll with 45% and Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the four transitional vice-presidents, coming second with 20%. These two candidates will contest the second round on 29 October. Nine thousand candidates also contested the five hundred seats in the federal parliament and these results are imminent. National and international observers noted a number of irregularities but declared the elections generally acceptable.

Post-election violence
Although there was some violence, and a number of deaths during the campaign period, polling day passed off peacefully, as is usually the case. The problems came immediately afterwards, with militia loyal to Bemba and Kabila's presidential guard involved in several lethal clashes in Kinshasa, the capital, which cost at least twenty-three lives. It took a special UN force of Spanish and Uruguayan soldiers to rescue a group of western Ambassadors who were in a meeting at Bemba's home which had come under attack from Kabila's forces.

The situation is certainly serious but does not - yet - necessarily threaten the second round of voting. In recent years the DR Congo has shown a remarkable talent for pressing on inexorably towards its electoral goals in the midst of chaos. However, even if the short term prospects for its democratic path are good, the long term future is far from assured. Elections are not the means of democracy but the result of democracy. There is far too much reliance on elections as a kind of magic bullet that can solve all the problems of a dysfunctional country. Unless a country has sufficient of the "marks" of democracy its long term democratic stability is extremely fragile.

A vast country with no infrastructure
DR Congo lacks many of those requirements and the electoral process on its own is not powerful enough to transcend the gaps. Its very size and location make it vulnerable to internal instability and outside interference. It is the size of Western Europe and its 10,000 kilometre border fronts on to nine other countries, many of which, such as Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Uganda and Angola, have themselves been unstable and have been the cause of violent incursions and of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The United Nations peace-keeping force (MONUC) is currently the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, with 17,000 soldiers and a one billion dollar a year budget, but is far from capable of policing such a vast and diverse country in which there are a number of warlords with their own private militias.

In addition to this heavy peace-keeping bill the donor community has provided a further $450 million to pay for the election itself. This huge sum - by far the largest ever provided by the donors - is needed to overcome the immense logistical problems in a vast country which lacks the basic infrastructure of roads, postal services, telephone land lines and just about everything else.

No unification of military forces
One crucial clause of the transitional agreement which introduced a tenuous peace and which led to the electoral process, was the unification of all militias into a single official army. The stated intention, to which all the various combatants signed up, was to accomplish this unification by polling day. The clear purpose for this timetable was to inhibit the losing candidates taking their militias back into the bush and continuing the armed struggle for domination of mineral rich territory. It failed. Despite every effort of MONUC, and of the political "Steering Committee" which underpinned the UN mission, only some 20,000 militia members had been incorporated into the official army by polling day. This was a fraction of the whole number and it was clear that warlords, aka party leaders, were hedging their bets in regard to the election. The violence that erupted in Kinshasa between Kabila's presidential guard and Bemba's militia once the results were known demonstrated the failure of the integration policy. However, the other two vice-presidents who contested the election, Azarias Ruberwa and Arthur Ngoma, polled so abysmally, even in their supposed fiefs that it may well inhibit any idea of continuing the armed struggle.

The efforts to draw militia members into the official forces was not helped by a decision of the electoral commission to make members of the army and of the police ineligible to register and to vote. Unable to recognise the difference between the civic duty to vote and political involvement through membership of a party, the electoral commission thus placed a further obstacle in the path of peace. Which party leader, having, perhaps, a private army of four thousand partisans, was going to be enthusiastic to give them up to the national army - Commander-in-Chief the declared election candidate President Kabila - when that would deprive them, and each leader, of their votes? I argued strongly but in vain against this perverse rule.

Registration problems and the boycott
Considerable efforts were made to register all electors but circumstantial evidence suggests that up to three million are missing from the registers. Hard evidence is difficult to come by, not least because there has been no census in DR Congo since 1984. The estimated population is around 62 million of which approximately 60% are under eighteen years of age. Thus around 28 million Congolese are eligible, compared with the 25 million actually registered. Some of the missing electors may be supporters of veteran Congolese politician, Etienne Tshesekedi. The 74 year old Teshesekedi was three times prime minister of Zaïre - as dictator Mobutu Sese Seko christened the country. Originally a colleague of Mobutu, he later fell out with him and was active in the external opposition.

Tshesekedi returned to DR Congo in 2005 to a rapturous reception. In subsequent opinion polls he and his party were the most popular party in the capital Kinshasa and other urban centres. However, neither he nor his party were participants in the transitional government and he regularly stated that he regarded the transition as ending at midnight on 30 July 2005, ie the precise two year term originally agreed. The inference was that he, Tshesekedi, should assume office thereafter. He organised two large marches in Kinshasa, both of which resulted in serious violence. Ambassadors, plus UN and European Union chiefs, beat a track to his Kinshasa home to persuade him to abandon his disruptive tactics and to accept the two six month extensions previewed in the transitional agreement in case of need.

The most they achieved was a grudging and tacit acceptance but when electoral registration began he called on his supporters to boycott the process - hardly a winsome argument to men and women who had been denied a democratic vote for over forty years. When belatedly he realised that many of his supporters were, in fact, registering he called off his boycott, registered himself and declared that he would be a candidate. However, when the 30 July 2006 polling day was announced, he demanded that voter registration be reopened to accommodate those of his followers who had followed his instructions and refused to register. Unsurprisingly this was turned down by the independent electoral commission, whereupon he reverted to his previous position of boycotting the election.

In the weeks leading up to polling day Tshesekedi's activists attempted to undermine the election, not least by destroying election posters and banners in Kinshasa and other cities. This was unsuccessful but there is still the simmering problem of an electoral process continuing for at least two more months without an individual who is arguably the most popular individual politician in the country. Tshesekedi could still play a wrecking role after polling day.

Second round - 29 October
Joseph Kabila, the young soldier son of Laurent Désir Kabila who ousted Mobutu before being assassinated by a bodyguard, is expected to win the second round run-off comfortably. He is an interesting man and an unlikely African politician. He is quiet and self-effacing, uncomfortable at having to deliver a speech and distinctly uncharismatic. Despite this background he has survived as president against the odds for over five years and the relative calm of those years following the long civil war has clearly endeared him to most of the electorate.

Although officially he ran as an independent candidate, the experienced Congolese politicians who have carefully maintained Kabila's government and promoted his image formed and fostered a political party for his support. It is likely that this party, "Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie" (PPRD) will become the largest party in the federal parliament.

Kabila's second round opponent is a complete contrast. The 44 year old Jean-Pierre Bemba is a rebel leader turned politician and as such was brought into the transitional government as one of the four vice-presidents. He is reckoned to be one of the richest men in DR Congo and his electoral strength is in the west of the country, including Kinshasa.

This vast and precarious country now faces two more months of election campaigning. Accusations of corruption will be flung by both camps and there will be sporadic outbreaks of violence but the country will stagger on to a second relatively calm polling day. Kabila will win a decisive victory, which will provide sufficient momentum, with MONUC's continuing assistance and massive aid from the donor community, to run the country for a year or so. Whether his administration can sustain a government thereafter, particularly in the rural areas, will depend on his success on delivering basic necessities, combating corruption, and building successful relationships with parliament and provincial administrations.

One thing is certain: after the long years of civil war, poverty and exploitation, the Congolese people deserve the opportunity to build their own destiny in peace and tranquillity.