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Tensions High as Congo Holds Rare Free Vote

Some hope the third in its history will bring democracy. Others fear it will throw the key Central African country back into civil war.

July 30, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KINSHASA, Congo — The old man still recalls his nation's first election in 1960. After casting his vote, he partied in the streets with millions of others in a post-independence euphoria.

Forty-six years later, decades filled with dictatorship and war, this Central African country returns to the polls today for the third free election in its history.

This time, retired taxi driver Francois Mpaku Nsabu, 73, sees no reason to celebrate. Fearful that the election will spur violence, he's not sure he'll even vote.

"I don't trust the process," Nsabu said, sitting outside his cinderblock shed in a filthy slum in Kinshasa, the capital. "What do we have to be happy about nowadays? I'm afraid this will only make things worse."

The poll in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, places the huge country at the start of a new chapter in its long, troubled history. World leaders are betting that elections will usher in democracy. Others worry that the vote will throw the nation back into civil war.

Tensions ran high in the weeks before the vote. Clashes involving police and militias controlled by leading presidential candidates killed at least a dozen people. A journalist was shot to death and two candidates for Parliament narrowly escaped assassination. At rallies in the capital, candidates deployed rocket launchers for protection. Mobs at one event burned down a church and killed two policemen.

International election organizers, who have spent $400 million on the vote, have had to overcome enormous logistical challenges in a country the size of Western Europe that has only 300 miles of paved roads. Still, they predicted the vote would meet international standards.

"All the pieces are more or less in place," said William Lacy Swing, the U.N. special representative to Congo. Swing dismissed "doomsday scenarios," insisting that the Congolese were tired of war and eager to vote.

Despite anxiety, election fever was apparent in the countryside and the capital. Campaign posters for the 33 presidential and 9,700 parliamentary candidates plastered nearly every tree trunk, utility pole and fence in Kinshasa. Tens of thousands swarmed to final rallies.

"This is going to be the real time of Congo's liberation," said Makehgo Lukasi, 38, shouting over the din of a rally. Noting that he will vote in a free election for the first time, he rubbed his stomach and smiled. "I couldn't be happier if I were eating a chicken."

Ramifications probably will spread far beyond Congo's borders. History has shown that when Congo is in turmoil, so are its neighbors. A 1996 revolution to overthrow strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, a onetime U.S. ally, turned into what was called Africa's First World War, drawing in 11 African nations and leaving 4 million people dead, mostly from disease and hunger.

"The election is important for the entire continent," said Caty Clement, the Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization. "If you can stabilize this country, you can stabilize a lot of Africa."

Congo has long symbolized Africa's promise and its horrors. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" captured of one of history's ugliest colonizations, by Belgian King Leopold II in the late 1800s. In 1965, Mobutu, known for his characteristic leopard-skin hat, began a brutal 32-year reign, systematically looting an estimated $4 billion.

The collapse of the Soviet Union helped spell the end of Mobutu's rule, as Washington shifted away from such Cold War allies. With help from Rwanda and Uganda, rebel leader Laurent Kabila drove Mobutu into exile in 1997. But a year later, Kabila broke ties with his eastern neighbors, who invaded Congo's northeast and backed an effort to overthrow him.

After five years of bloodshed, an internationally brokered peace agreement created a coalition government of various rebel groups, led by Joseph Kabila, whose father had been assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001.

The elections are to replace what most believe has been an ineffective transitional government. Parts of the country remain largely under the control of rebel leaders. The northeastern region is terrorized by armed groups despite efforts of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping force, with nearly 17,000 troops.

Aid groups estimate that more than 1,000 people die daily due to Congo's instability and conflict. More than 80% of the people survive on less than 30 cents a day.

At the same time, Congo boasts natural riches such as gold, diamonds, copper and coltan, a mineral used in cellphones. There are vast jungles, and the 2,700-mile Congo River could provide enough hydroelectricity to power the continent.

A recent report by environmental advocate Global Witness found that the transitional government had done little to halt the plunder. It says politicians, including some close to Kabila, have used proceeds from the mines to fund their campaigns.

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