Tensions High as Congo Holds Rare Free Vote

Times Staff Writer

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.

Some political leaders and analysts in Congo say such conditions are evidence that the nation is not ready for elections.

"The problem is that that we haven't cultivated a democratic mentality, which is fundamental to elections," said Richard Mugaruka, a political analyst and Catholic priest.

After the war, Congo did not undergo reconciliation or seek justice against rebels accused of war crimes, largely because the rebels were given top posts.

"We have a government of criminals," Mugaruka said.

Parliamentary candidate Philippe Biyoya says the vote is "a way for today's leaders, who have been profiting from their positions in the last three years, to legitimize their rule."

Most worrisome to many is the transitional government's failure to disarm private militias and replace them with a strong, integrated national military. Kabila, for instance, has 15,000 well-trained troops under his personal control. Two vice presidents also vying for the presidency have their own forces.

"We don't have one army in Congo, we have four," complained Remy Massamba, secretary-general of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, a popular opposition party that is boycotting the election over concerns about security and transparency. "The problem is that if one of them is not pleased with the election results, they can use their armies to hold the country hostage."

Kabila has accused critics of wanting to delay elections that might remove them from power.

"Elections are going to put an end to the chaos that we have suffered since 1960," Kabila told thousands of supporters Friday, "and start the process of rebuilding the country."

Even before the polls open, there have been complaints about plots to stuff ballot boxes and buy votes. Rather than bolster confidence, the heavy international involvement has rekindled anti-Western sentiments among Congolese who believe foreigners are conspiring to install a weak government in order to continue plundering their natural resources.

U.S. Ambassador Roger Meece disputed such assertions. He noted that the international community had been calling for a democratic vote for 15 years.

He said international leaders hoped that by bringing peace and stability to Congo, they could wean the nation off international aid. The U.N. mission alone now costs $1.1 billion a year. The United States is Congo's largest donor, contributing about $400 million annually for peacekeepers, humanitarian assistance and other aid, Meece said.

"We along with many other countries have put in enormous resources to address these humanitarian crises," Meece said. "It's important to reverse that."

Kabila is widely viewed to be the front-runner, but the soft-spoken 35-year-old is not expected to win enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Opponents have questioned Kabila's perceived ties to the West, his inability to speak local Congolese languages because he was educated in Tanzania, and even whether he really is Laurent Kabila's son.

Kabila's chief challenger is Jean-Pierre Bemba, 44, a Uganda-backed former rebel who is drawing support from frustrated young men in Kinshasa and former Mobutu supporters.

Other contenders include Pierre Pay Pay, a 60-year-old former banker and investor, and Oscar Kashala, a cancer researcher who has lived in Boston for nearly 20 years. Popular among Kinshasa intellectuals, Kashala got a boost in popularity in May when his campaign staffers were targeted by Kabila with what many believe were trumped-up treason charges.

For Nsabu, the retired taxi driver, none of the candidates has made much of an impression. He said that if he decides to brave the polls today, he'll keep his choice a secret in case the victors seek revenge.

Thumbing through photos from the 1960 election, the graying widower recalled that the vote was quickly followed by a coup and dictatorship.

"I guess I just don't believe anymore that elections will make a difference, to me or my country."

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