By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A16
KINSHASA, Congo, July 28 -- It is difficult for Sisca Imako, 34, a widow and mother of four children, to think of a single thing the government of this battered country has done to make her life better. The roads are rutted, the police corrupt, the decrepit schools priced beyond her means.
"Nothing," she said with disgust, her voice rising to a shout amid the din of a raucous opposition rally. "They don't do anything."
Few in Congo's impoverished capital disagreed. On the eve of Sunday's historic presidential vote, the country's first multiparty poll since 1960, Congolese say that although they are eager to cast ballots, they are frustrated. They are angry. And, many say, they are prepared to take to the streets if their favored candidate does not win.
The United Nations and many foreign governments hope the vote, to which they have contributed more than $450 million and massive logistical assistance, will allow peace and unity to return to this fractured central Africa nation after years of war and misrule.
More than 25 million Congolese have registered to vote for a president and legislators in this country of 60 million the size of the eastern United States. People in Kinshasa increasingly are wearing candidate T-shirts, waving signs and touring the city in rowdy campaign buses. Dense thickets of billboards and posters decorate roadways.
"There's a sense that it's a long road back . . . and that however long the road is, this is the first step," said William L. Swing, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.
Yet in Kinshasa, passions are running high, especially against the candidate regarded by many analysts as the likely winner, incumbent Joseph Kabila, 35. His father, Laurent Kabila, led a rebellion into this city in 1997 with the help of Congo's tiny but heavily armed eastern neighbor, Rwanda. Joseph Kabila took power four years later after his father was assassinated and remains popular in Congo's eastern provinces.
But after five years as president, Kabila is still largely regarded as a weak, corrupt and ineffectual outsider within his own capital, hundreds of miles west of his base of support.
Residents of Kinshasa, with a population of 7 million, frequently call Kabila a "foreigner," a reference to persistent rumors that his mother was from Rwanda and that his father was not Laurent Kabila but a family friend from another neighboring country, Tanzania. Some Congolese also complain that Kabila is more interested in serving Western powers and investors than in serving his own country.
"We have suffered enough," Imako said. "He has to go back to his own country. We are tired of him."
Rivals have taken advantage of doubts about Kabila's nationality. One opposition figure popular in Kinshasa, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is a former rebel leader whose militia received crucial support from another foreign power, Uganda. But he appears on his billboards wearing a colorful Congolese shirt and a beatific smile, his round face nearly filling a map of the country.
Kabila, by contrast, wears a dark suit on his billboards and averts his eyes from the camera, giving him the look of a bashful junior executive.
Other leading candidates include Harvard-trained physician Oscar Kashala, who touts his years living in the United States, away from Congo's conflict, as a major advantage, and Pierre Pay Pay, a former governor with ties to the late Mobutu Sese Seko, whom Kabila's father toppled. Overall, 32 candidates are vying for the presidency.
If no candidate wins a majority in Sunday's vote, a runoff will take place between the two top vote-getters, probably in October or November. Political analysts say that a runoff is likely and that a narrowing of the field could consolidate opposition to Kabila.
"If Kabila wins in the first round, there will be trouble in the country," said Philippe Biyoya Makutu, a political science professor at the University of Lubambashi in southeastern Congo and a former Kabila adviser. "People won't believe it. He could only win if the election was manipulated."
Most of the political debate focuses on Kabila's tenure, during which he signed a 2002 peace deal that ended cycles of war, started by his father's rebellion. Kabila also has tolerated some degree of dissent and, with the help of 17,500 U.N. troops, maintained a semblance of public order.
Yet voters complain about a shortage of accomplishments from a government that provides few public services. The United Nations keeps the peace. The World Bank builds the roads. Private clinics provide most health care. Few Congolese have access to public water or electricity, and for those who do, the service is erratic. Police are regarded as useless or corrupt. Unemployment is rampant.
Even Kabila supporters struggle to name anything the government has done for them.
"For that, I can say I don't know what," said Sandra Kadima, 19, dressed in a Kabila T-shirt and hat.
Another Kabila supporter, John Pabonane, 29, a dance choreographer, agreed that the Kabila government had made few concrete improvements in five years. "But," he added, "we've got peace. We had a war before. Now, we don't have a war."
Kabila echoed the idea in a final rally in Kinshasa on Friday. "I can say to you, without false modesty: mission accomplished," he said, according to the Associated Press. "We've reunited and pacified the country."
Yet even that peace appeared fragile in recent days. Outside a Bemba rally Thursday, three police officers were killed in a riot that also led to one civilian death, according to a U.N. spokesman. On Friday, the final official day of campaigning, the United Nations said that troops loyal to Kabila and other candidates had exchanged gunfire but that no one was killed. Nationwide, dozens of people have been killed in political violence during the campaign.
Many residents of Kinshasa, meanwhile, said they would demonstrate and perhaps riot if Kabila is declared the victor after Sunday's vote. Results may take several days, or even weeks, to be tabulated and announced.
"We won't accept it," said Yangi Carlos, 24, an unemployed man who fashioned a Bemba campaign poster into an unusually tall hat. "We'll go on the streets, and we'll begin a war, and it won't finish."
Christian Kianda, 25, a father of five who earns $200 a month in an office job, said he would demonstrate if Kabila is announced the winner. Yet pressed about the possibility of clashing with police, Kianda expressed reservations.
But his wife, Bijoux Kuelo, 23, said she was ready to fight. "He's a criminal," she said of Kabila. "He has to go."
Like many in Kinshasa, she said the country was better off in the days of Mobutu, who took power in a 1965 coup and, with the help of a succession of U.S. governments fixated on Cold War geopolitics, stayed in power for more than three decades. What followed were two devastating wars that drew in several of Congo's neighbors, left millions dead and placed many of the country's valuable natural resources -- mines for diamonds, copper and silver -- in foreign hands.
Mobutu is remembered by most Western historians as a repressive, corrupt tyrant, but many Congolese say they are nostalgic for the unity and peace brought by his rule, especially during its early years. Since his fall, Congo has only declined, many people say.
"When Mobutu was there, we woke up, we had breakfast, we had money," Kuelo said. "Now, we don't eat every day. When the parents eat today, the children eat tomorrow. We alternate."
The family pays $300 a year to put their two oldest children in private schools. The ones run by the government, Kuelo and Kianda said, have deteriorated so badly that students have trouble learning.
A few miles away, at Complexe Bwanya, 1,400 students attend classes in rows of concrete classrooms built in 1956 by the Belgians, the country's colonial rulers, but the school complex has badly decayed in recent years through a combination of poor funding and looting.
Thieves have broken locks, battered down steel doors, ripped steel bars out of windows and, when they were replaced by concrete breeze blocks, bashed them open, too. Mostly, school officials say, the looters steal wooden desks, which they break and burn for fire needed to cook meals. As a result, hundreds of children sit on the ground during classes.
Gilbert Kankonde, a top school official, blamed Kabila.
"He has already had five years, and he has done nothing," Kankonde said. "Our kids are sitting on the ground. Our country has money, but where has it gone?"