Final Stage of Election in Congo Holds Hopes of Many for Peace

Workers load election material to be distributed in Kinshasa, the capital. The runoff voting for president and provincial legislators will be one of the most significant moments in Congo's post-colonial history.
Workers load election material to be distributed in Kinshasa, the capital. The runoff voting for president and provincial legislators will be one of the most significant moments in Congo's post-colonial history. (By Schalk Van Zuydam -- Associated Press)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 29, 2006

GOMA, Congo, Oct. 28 -- By 8 a.m. Thursday, several dozen people had already lined up at the election commission office. Some had walked miles in leather loafers or flip-flops, ridden bicycles with skinny tires across lumpy dirt roads or traveled by car through the rolling green jungle.

Then they waited. They explained. They argued. They walked to a different election office across town, and back again. At last, lucky Augistin Busaka reached the plastic orange table inside the old stone building where stacks of handwritten lists spilled onto towers of cards and more lists. He handed an election worker a letter of introduction that began, "Dear Sirs," which he hoped would help him obtain the coveted prize: a voting card.

"I want peace," he said, explaining that his farm remains in the hands of one of several militia groups fighting in the palmy mountains around here. "Whatever it costs. If I have to walk 60 kilometers, I'm going to walk it, just to vote."

There is an exuberant, if fragile, sense in eastern Congo these days that the country is inching toward one of the most significant moments in its post-colonial history.

In the culmination of the first multiparty elections in 40 years, tens of millions of people are expected at the polls Sunday for the runoff vote for president and to elect, for the first time, provincial legislators tasked with bringing democracy closer to people who have seen decades of epic corruption and two ruthless wars.

The process has been largely peaceful, the result of a massive logistical effort by the United Nations, which has deployed 17,500 peacekeepers; international donors, who have given $450 million; and mainly, the Congolese themselves.

The Congolese Independent Election Commission has managed the mind-boggling, largely pen-and-paper task of registering 60 million voters across a mostly roadless country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. Through posters, music and even theater, election workers have explained such basics as how to mark a ballot, a task that continued until nightfall Saturday in Goma, a dirt-street town of wooden kiosks and markets.

Although an estimated 70 percent of registered voters turned out for the first round of elections in July, in this eastern province alone nearly 37,000 ballots were voided. Some people, for instance, had seized a long-awaited chance to express themselves, writing, "You fool!" next to the picture of a despised candidate or, "You are my savior, I love you so much!" next to a favored one.

"People drew faces on the candidates and things like that," said Jason Luneno, who leads a group that promotes good governance and educates voters in Goma. "So all that was an expression of anger. . . . Our job is to sensitize people not to do that again. So with all that, we hope the election will be successful."

In general, the Congolese seem to be sharply divided between the two presidential candidates. The western half of the country, including the capital, Kinshasa, voted heavily in the first round for Jean-Pierre Bemba, a businessman from that region.

Here in the war-ravaged east, people voted overwhelming for Joseph Kabila, whose father, Laurent Kabila, led a rebellion in 1997 that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, who, with U.S. support, ruled the country by force for 37 years. By some estimates, he looted billions from the government of this nation abundant with diamonds and minerals.

The younger Kabila took power after his father was assassinated in 2001 and in the east is generally credited with helping to end major fighting among various militias. Some of the groups have demobilized, others have been integrated into the national army, and some still roam here, seeming to have settled into a routine of brutal violence. Human rights groups estimate that 4 million people have died as a result of the fighting since 1998. And even now more than 1,000 die daily because of hunger, disease and other consequences of being run into an unforgiving jungle.

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