First Vote in Decades Tests Congo's Fragile Truce
Country's Stability at Stake Amid Massive Logistical Problems

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.

"Nobody is taking care of our people," Kombe said in French, the main language here. "Every day, we see people dying because they are too poor to go to the hospital. They are dying of hunger. People are dying for lack of money."

"Now," Kombe said, "the people want to vote."

Ali-Diabacte said it would take nearly $500 million to cover the enormous difficulties of staging an election in a nation with virtually no infrastructure. He said it cost $120 million for an eight-month effort last year to register more than 25 million voters and provide them each with a state-of-the-art biometric identification card. It cost another $50 million to have 66 million ballots (33 million for president and 33 million for the National Assembly) printed in South Africa and delivered to Congo.

The cost of the election, Ali-Diabacte said, was in addition to the U.N.'s $1.3 billion annual budget in Congo, of which the United States contributes about 27 percent.

Ali-Diabacte, who has worked on 10 postwar elections in countries from Haiti to Chad, said Congo's massive size and nearly total lack of roads outside of the capital posed massive logistical problems. He ticked off the formidable election statistics: 33 presidential candidates, 9,707 National Assembly candidates for 500 seats, 187 political parties represented.

"The ballots alone weigh 1,800 tons," he said.

Ali-Diabacte said they will be distributed to Congo's 10 provinces by U.N. planes, then taken to polling stations by car or bicycle, by boat down the Congo River or on foot. Some of the 53,000 polling stations are so remote that election workers will have to walk for 10 days down jungle paths to deliver the ballots.

U.N. officials are training more than 300,000 election workers, and a new 40,000-member police force is being trained so at least one officer can accompany ballots at all times. A 2,000-troop European Union military force will be on hand to provide extra security during the elections.

The ballots are among "the most difficult ballots in the world," Ali-Diabacte said.

In Kinshasa, for example, each ballot for the National Assembly will consist of six poster-sized sheets of paper, with the name, photo, party name and party logo of more than 3,000 candidates for 17 National Assembly seats. Voters will have to scan the cumbersome stacks of paper, identify the candidates in their district, and vote for just one.

While reliable polling is hard to come by in Congo, analysts said Kabila is the most likely favorite because of his national name recognition. But three of the four vice presidents are running and are also well-known. The field is rounded out by former ministers, children and widows of former presidents and prime ministers, a Harvard-educated physician from Massachusetts and a pair of sisters.

Meece and Ali-Diabacte said it was unlikely that a new president would be sworn in before the end of the year. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on July 30, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff later this year. No dates have been set, but they said it would be impossible to count the votes, stage the runoff and resolve inevitable court challenges before the end of December.

"This could be a difficult period," Meece said. "But it really represents the best shot at getting things right here."

Some Congolese, long accustomed to corruption and fraud, complained that the United Nations and the European Union -- another key financial backer of the elections -- have rigged the vote to favor Kabila. Several hundred marched in Kinshasa recently to protest, saying the elections should be delayed.

"They should not impose elections on us, and the people are going to stand up against imposed power," said Denise Lupeti, one of the march organizers.

Tom Tshibangu, 45, a writer and government worker, said the perception of rigged elections could be dangerous in a country where disputes are often settled with guns and machetes.

"We don't want elections to lead to more conflict," he said. "We are afraid that should we go to elections the wrong way, we might see more dead bodies in the streets of Kinshasa."

But his friend Peter Myamusenge, 43, who spends Sunday afternoons with a group of professionals practicing English, said critics of the elections were being "too demanding."

"There's so much corruption, it's difficult all of a sudden to change everything," he said. "We can't do something perfect with this rotten situation. But we have to start somewhere."

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