Hope is fading for the Democratic Republic of Congo. On July 30, the country held multiparty democratic elections for the first time in decades, raising hopes that a ballot might provide the foundation for peace and stability that the Congo has not known in its 46-year history. While that dream is not yet dead, it appears more likely that the results will deepen divisions in the troubled country and unleash more violence. The international community has already made a substantial investment in Congo’s future: It must demand that all participants respect the election results and press the winners to create an inclusive government that reaches out to all its citizens.
Congo has had a difficult existence since the country was founded in 1960. Mobutu Sese Seko seized power five years later and proceeded to bankrupt one of Africa’s richest countries with his greed and corruption. Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, but that triggered a bloody five-year civil war that ended in 2003. Halfway though the fighting, Kabila died — killed by his bodyguards — and was replaced by his son Joseph, who retains the presidency to this day.
A ceasefire was brokered in 2003, and as part of that deal, elections were promised. Since then, the international community has spent some $6 billion in Congo. The election alone cost most than $430 million, and more than 18,000 international soldiers and police officers — the largest peacekeeping operation in history — have been sent to the Congo to maintain the peace.
Even with that support, elections are a daunting task. Congo is a huge country, the size of Western Europe, yet there are only about 480 km of paved roads. Over 25 million people registered to vote in the country’s first free multiparty election in Congo’s history. Over 50,000 polling places were set up and monitored as voters cast ballots for 500 parliamentary seats, in addition to the president. Over 800 names were on the ballot, which was eight pages in length.
The administrative challenges are matched by political ones. Congo is deeply divided geographically — the primary divide is east and west — as well as among ethnic groups. Neighboring governments have financed factions throughout the country, both to carve out their own spheres of influence (and take a share of Congo’s extraordinary wealth) and to pressure the Congo government to rein in rebels that use its territory as a sanctuary to launch attacks against them.
Fortunately, the elections themselves were largely peaceful. There were sporadic incidents of violence and some reports of irregularities. But international observers have declared the vote itself acceptable. Official results will not be available until the end of August. If no candidate wins a 50 percent majority in the presidential election, a runoff will be held Oct. 29, when voters return to the polls to pick provincial representatives.
A runoff between Mr. Joseph Kabila, who has strong support in the east part of the country, and Mr. Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president and former warlord who headed the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (a Ugandan-backed rebel group), who is strong in the capital of Kinshasa and the west, is anticipated. Mr. Bemba has said he is prepared to resume fighting — to “set the country ablaze” — if the election results are rigged; his supporters have already taken to the streets to prove his point, killing eight civilians and three policemen.
On the one hand, a runoff is in the best interest of the country. Neither Mr. Kabila nor Mr. Bemba is ready to accept defeat after one round. A runoff would force them to adopt a broad-based coalition government even after a second round victory. That sort of inclusiveness is in Congo’s best interest.
On the other hand, a runoff means at least three of four months of uncertainty (until the October ballot and after while results are tabulated). It is unclear what the impact of that delay will be on the country.
Congo does not have much time. Nearly 4 million people have died since fighting broke out in 1998 as a result of war-related diseases and hunger. It is estimated that 1,200 more people die each day. Nearly 1.7 million people have been displaced; more than 450,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries. It is increasingly apparent that instability in Congo is instability at the heart of Africa. Its woes are transmitted to its neighbors. July’s elections offer Congo a chance to end the violence, the deaths and the dehumanization.
But the ballot is only a beginning. The world must continue to press Congo’s politicians to respect the will of the people and put national interests ahead of personal gain. It would be a first for Congo and is that nation’s only hope for the future.
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