First Vote in Decades Tests Congo's Fragile Truce

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 22, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo -- In a hot haze of exhaust and smoke from burning garbage, a one-legged man hopped along a street clogged with overloaded minibuses while a woman sold tiny monkeys tied to a tree.

Tadjoudine Ali-Diabacte walked past the clatter into a sagging building guarded by men with AK-47 assault rifles and climbed two flights of stairs to his office. From there, on the banks of the chocolate-brown Congo River, Ali-Diabacte is directing the most expensive and logistically daunting national elections in African history.

"This is the biggest and the most important election the U.N. has ever supported," said Ali-Diabacte, the U.N. official in charge of organizing elections scheduled for next month, the first free balloting since Congo's independence in 1960.

At stake is the stability and prosperity of a country as large as Western Europe with a population of about 60 million people at the troubled heart of central Africa. Impoverished by Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who fleeced the country's vast diamond and mineral wealth for 32 years until he was overthrown in 1997, Congo is slowly emerging from a ferocious war that followed Mobutu's ouster and resulted in the deaths of 4 million people.

"The Congo represents in many ways the world's greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II," said David Pottie of the Carter Center, run by former president Jimmy Carter, which is a main international observer of the July 30 vote. "When numbers get that big, people's eyes glaze over a little bit. What does 4 million people look like? That's the whole population of metropolitan Atlanta."

Nine years after Mobutu's departure, Congo -- which Mobutu renamed Zaire -- is still run by an unelected leader: President Joseph Kabila, who was installed following the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who overthrew Mobutu. The country's political turmoil was accompanied by a war that began when Hutu extremists responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide took refuge over the border in eastern Congo. The complex guerrilla war raged until 2002 and dragged at least seven countries into the fighting.

Tensions still simmer and sometimes boil over into violence in Congo's remote eastern provinces near Rwanda and Uganda, where 17,000 U.N. troops, the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, maintain a fragile truce. In February 2005, nine U.N. soldiers from Bangladesh were ambushed and killed by rebels in Ituri province. Seven U.N. soldiers from Nepal have been held hostage by rebels in Ituri since May 28, when they were ambushed and one Nepali soldier was killed.

U.N. officials said this week that they were also investigating a report Sunday in Britain's Observer newspaper that U.N. peacekeepers fired mortar rounds at civilians and stood by as Congolese army troops set an Ituri village on fire in an effort to wipe out rebels before the elections.

A peace accord signed in 2002 established a transitional government, headed by Kabila and four vice presidents -- two of whom are former rebel leaders. As part of that deal, Congolese voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in December last year. Analysts here said a democratically elected government would be a critical first step toward building reliable government, economic and social institutions that have never existed in this former Belgian colony.

"This is all new territory," U.S. Ambassador Roger A. Meece said in an interview. "This is an election the Congolese people have been waiting for a long time. And it is of enormous importance to the overall stability of the continent."

On the hot and dusty streets of Kinshasa, where missing limbs and severe physical deformities attest to years of war and misery, many Congolese interviewed said the election was something they never thought they would experience. "I know this election will not solve everything, but we need it," said Alain Muke, 34. "In my life, I have never elected one of my leaders."

The Rev. Charles Kombe, a Roman Catholic priest in the city center, said the elections were a needed remedy for years of dictatorship, coups and war that have left millions of Congolese without jobs, food or access to health care. Officials estimate that more than 1,000 Congolese die each day from disease and hunger.

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