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In Congo election, outcome is all but certain and violence is likely

In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second stab at democracy since the end of a ruinous civil war, President Joseph Kabila is likely to cling to power. But Monday’s election is already so flawed that the result will probably be contested, and the odds of violence or even a return to war are high, analysts and human rights activists warn.

After the last poll in 2006, security forces killed hundreds of opposition protesters in the capital, Kinshasa. And that was when Kabila was still popular.

Now that he is no longer a public favorite — having failed to improve the lives of his desperately poor population even though Congo has some of the richest mineral resources on Earth — Kabila has checked off every box in the autocrat’s handbook to fix the election.

The scene is set for bloodshed. One of Kabila’s aides has referred to critics of the regime as mosquitoes requiring insecticide, according to Human Rights Watch. Security forces have attacked opposition supporters for wearing political T-shirts, and pro-Kabila thugs firebombed the main opposition party’s headquarters. On Saturday, rival factions hurled rocks at each other, gunfire was heard across Kinshasa, and two people were killed in pre-vote clashes.

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Deprived of any fair chance of a victory and incapable of uniting with other groups opposed to Kabila, the main opposition presidential candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, already has declared himself the true president and for months has been urging supporters to prepare for an “Arab Spring"-styled revolt.

“I think Tshisekedi’s comments could be seen as outrageous in the context of the volatility of the DRC,” said analyst David Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies, based in Pretoria, South Africa. “You have a number of armed groups roaming around the country. You have many young people who are not employed who are likely to join armed groups.”

At 78, Tshisekedi probably sees this as his last chance at power, and he has little to lose. Many analysts are predicting an Ivory Coast scenario: Both sides declare themselves the winner, election dispute procedures fail, and the opponents fight it out.

“The security forces are on standby, and we are going to see clashes, particularly in Kinshasa,” said Zounmenou. “Both groups [opposition and government] have people who know how to use weapons.”

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Preelection violence and frequent examples of ethnic hate speech in campaigning are alarming in a country awash in weapons and recovering from a five-year civil war that killed more than 4 million people.

Kabila exerts almost no control over eastern Congo, where rampaging militias commit crimes against humanity. An estimated 48 women are raped every hour on average in the region, according to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It is home to the world’s biggest United Nations peacekeeping force, with 20,000 soldiers, but insecurity remains chronic.

Congo is a sprawling country about two-thirds the size of Europe, with $24 trillion in known mineral resources. Those include the world’s richest source of cobalt, used to make super alloys for turbines and jet engines, and coltan, used in electronics such as cellphones. Gold, diamonds and copper are often dug up by threadbare children. About 60% of its population of 70 million live on less than $1.25 a day. It ranked last of 187 countries in the 2011 U.N. human development index released this month.

“Nightmare nation,” ran a BBC headline. “Is DRC really the world’s worst country?”

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Kabila is the son of a militia leader, Laurent Kabila, who deposed longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and proclaimed himself president in 1997 of what was then Zaire. A corrupt authoritarian, he was shot by his own bodyguard in 2001, and his son was hastily installed 10 days later.

Joseph Kabila, a former army commander who started fighting as a youth, has presided over a country where human rights activists and journalists are beaten or killed and democracy is stymied. The ruling party’s methods of frustrating opposition candidates have included felling trees to prevent access along rural roads, surrounding airstrips where they plan to land or simply beating them up, according to Human Rights Watch.

A report in May by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nonprofit group that seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, said Kabila’s popularity had plummeted partly because of his failure to deliver a promise of peace in the east.

Kabila has established an electoral system that almost guarantees him victory, facing 11 candidates who will split the anti-Kabila vote. He has consolidated his power and can dismiss provincial governors or dissolve provincial assemblies at will.

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The head of the electoral commission, Daniel Nyanga, is a founding member of the ruling party who ran Kabila’s 2006 election campaign in Kinshasa. Kabila also stacked the Supreme Court, which adjudicates election disputes, with 17 compliant judges who have little experience in terms of the law.

Critics complain that the voting rolls are stuffed with ghosts, but many genuine voters looking for their names at polling stations before the vote failed to find them. The opposition claims that many of the 63,000 polling stations are fictional, a claim denied by Nyanga.

“You look at the question of the lack of neutrality and credibility of the electoral bodies, that’s where we really fear some problems. I think the likelihood of violence is very high,” said Zounmenou.

The 2006 election was organized, funded and secured by the international community. This time, the logistics are mind-boggling: 32 million voters, 18,000 candidates for 500 seats, and few roads, meaning that most of the ballot boxes must be flown across the country by dozens of helicopters or transported by river barge. In one Kinshasa constituency, about 1,700 people are running for office.

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Congo’s history is so grim, it deserves a better future. Colonized by Belgium’s King Leopold II, the population was enslaved in rubber plantations, and the limbs of those who didn’t work fast enough were routinely amputated.

The first prime minister of independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated at the height of the Cold War, ushering in a period of chaos followed by 32 years of kleptocracy by Mobutu, a U.S. ally. Laurent Kabila led a rebellion against Mobutu in 1996, triggering a brutal civil war whose effects are still being felt.

Although Joseph Kabila is powerful enough to intimidate the opposition and rig elections, he’s not strong enough to perform the Congolese equivalent of making the trains run on time — such as building roads.

“This election will not be a game changer,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Congo analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The DRC is in the same state it was five years ago. There’s no reason to expect change after the election. That’s why the Congolese people are so disenchanted. Poverty is still a very big problem for the Congolese people. You still have very high levels of violence and human rights violations, and reform has not started yet.”

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

facebook.com/latimesdixon


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