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High hopes and low blows in DRC election battle

Tanya Pampalone

Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi takes on President Joseph Kabila in the DRC's November elections, and already there's blood on the streets.

As you drive into Kinshasa, the battle lines become clear. These are not potholes, they are large ponds of water where concrete gave in to time long ago, and cars and trucks and windowless, battered taxis have no option but to exist in a constant state of near collision.

One of the city’s poorest, most densely populated areas, Tshangu—called China by the locals—runs along the road, immersed in grey slippery mud, with the stench of dried fish and urine hanging thick in the wet air. Traders scrape by on a few dollars a month, selling peppers and onions and second-hand shoes next to rubbish piles that form small urban hills.

Then the road changes. Four lanes on each side, freshly paved and painted with straight white lines, and Boulevard Lumumba—named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister—emerges in its full glory. Straight ahead there are ultramodern streetlights and an expansive Chinese-themed shopping complex and public square is rising slowly from the dirt.

The M&G travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, where the threat of violence and unrest simmers as veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi takes on President Joseph Kabila in a fight to the finish.
The man responsible for all this, his supporters in the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) will tell you, is the quiet, shy, 40-year-old President Joseph Kabila, whose face you cannot miss these days. His billboard election posters display images of yesterday—an old boat, a small hut, a ramshackle train—followed by a generously imagined today: a more modern boat, a newer house, a freshly painted train. But the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades. Here is a grand home, a state-of-the-art speed train, a luxury ship.

Some of les cinq chantiers, the five pillars that make up Kabila’s promises of education, health, infrastructure, water and electricity and job creation, are already emerging, thanks to a controversial $9-billion deal he made with the Chinese to build roads, hospitals, schools and dams.

But as his main opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi pointed out the total length of roads built in the 10 years of Kabila’s rule amounts to just a few kilometres.

Most things away from those roads are miserable. Corruption is systemic and feeds on a crippled economy. The largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world is based in the east of the country, with 20 000 troops attempting to contain conflict in the region. One recent report from the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a woman was raped each minute in the Congo. In 2002 an independent panel of experts reported to the UN Security Council that 85 multinational companies were supporting violent militias to get to the Congo’s rich mineral deposits.

The 79-year-old veteran opposition leader is playing into the massive public discontent. Tshisekedi is widely known as cranky, arrogant—a wild card for the international community nervous about its heavy investment in the country’s mineral wealth. He appears unwilling to compromise, or form a coalition with other members of the opposition before the election, including Vital Kamerhe, a leading opposition candidate widely ­recognised as the man who delivered the conflict-ridden east to Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) first multiparty elections in 2006.

On April 24, at a rally in the stadium where, in 1974, George Foreman took on Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title, Tshisekedi drew tens of thousands of supporters. He told them, as he released two white doves, that the Congolese had to forgive themselves for the violence that had wracked the country for so many years. He said he would win this election, but if it were stolen the people had to be prepared to do as their brothers in Tunisia had done.

The groundswell of support for him since then has been impressive. But one does not see Tshisekedi’s election posters very often in Kinshasa.

His Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) simply does not have the kind of resources that Kabila’s has commanded since being installed in 2001 as president following the death of his father, Laurent, who was killed by his own bodyguard.

The trouble at Ceni
It is a telling image. Voters run crazed in all directions, machete-wielding thugs attacking some of them and Ceni, the National Independent Electoral Commission, lies trampled in the street. The headline above Le Potentiel‘s editorial cartoon screams: “19 days of high tension”.

That afternoon, at the headquarters of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, which is training 10 350 Congolese election observers, country director Vincent Tohbi explains the enormity of the problem. Questions about bloated voter rolls are wreaking havoc and the electoral commission has been under heavy pressure to postpone the November 28 election date because much of the material has not even arrived in the country.

In an air-conditioned boardroom that overlooks the Congo River, maps that outline the 11 provinces are stuck on the walls. Across the vast country some 62 000 polling stations—a number of which are in remote areas accessible only by air—will have to be erected in the next two weeks to accommodate 32-million voters.

The ballots are overwhelming, too. With more than 18 000 candidates running for 500 seats in the National Assembly, as well as 11 candidates for the presidency, size matters.

In the densely populated Tshangu alone there are more than 1 500 candidates vying to get their piece of the lucrative political pie. The 56-page ballots there will be printed on A3 paper and 1.6 metre-high ballot boxes will accommodate them. Candidates have taken to writing their ballot number and page number on the election posters that dot every available surface in the city.

“People here no longer say ‘vote for me’,” Tohbi says. “They say ‘vote for number 1 378’. We don’t vote for the party or for the person. We are inventing democracy in this country. We are at the forefront!”

Nineteen days before the election and not even half of the ballot boxes have been delivered. The ballot papers—printed by a private company in South Africa—are not in the DRC. Asked about the impossibility of getting the material to the polling stations in time, Tohbi grins.

“It doesn’t matter what you think, or what I think, or what the international community thinks. The Ceni is on another planet.”

Indeed. In late October the head of planet Ceni, Daniel Ngoy Mulunda declared: “There will be no war, there will be no trouble. There won’t even be rain on November 28, we’re going to stop it. I’ve already started praying for that.”

Truth, lies and Photoshop
Every day but Sunday hundreds of UDPS supporters gather from 6am on Dibaya Street in the suburb of Kasavubu. On this Wednesday a group of 100 men speak about Tshisekedi’s recent controversial proclamation on RLTV, the opposition television station.

It has been widely reported that, in a phone call from South Africa to RLTV Tshisekedi declared himself president, causing an uproar in the international community and confusing civil society groups that know him as the man who has been preaching non-violence since the formation of the UDPS in 1982 under Mobutu Sese Seko.

The man with the megaphone says it is not a coup d’état that Tshisekedi was advocating. In fact, it is not at all like the newspapers say. It is the will of the people. “We, the people, have voted for him and we are waiting for December 6 to swear him in,” the man tells the impassioned crowd. “Viva Tshisekedi!”

One supporter holds up the good news to show the opposition newspaper Tapis Rouge‘s fantasy headline of the day: “Obama and Sarkozy confirm Tshisekedi as president of the DRC.”

Also circulating in the area are two photos going for 500 Congolese francs (about R4) a piece. One has United States President Barack Obama shaking hands with Tshisekedi; another is of a grinning Obama holding a famous photo of the opposition leader. Above it: “I don’t want to interfere in your election — but in my humble opinion this “huy” [sic] is the best candidate to lead your country into the 21st century.”

The men in blue
At the weekly United Nations press briefing officials are seated in a row before a blue UN flag sticky-taped in front of two big-screen TVs. The officials run through the day’s agenda items, including a report on pre-election human rights violations in the DRC from November 2010 to September.

There have been 188, they note, many of them against opposition supporters that “involved elements of the Congolese national police or the national intelligence services”.

The report also notes the concern of Roger Meece, special representative of secretary general Ban Ki-moon in the DRC and head of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission (Monusco), that all politicians and their followers must help to ensure “conditions for a peaceful, open and democratic election”.

At the end of the briefing a reporter raises her hand. “What is Monusco doing to prevent the chaos around elections?” she asks.

The visibly frustrated spokesperson shoots back at the group of 100 or so journalists. “Don’t say the international community is absent. Peaceful elections are not the international community’s responsibility. That’s up to the Congolese people.”

But many in civil society insist that governance in the DRC rests with both the Congolese and the international community. They believe that many Western countries are implicated in the chaos and corruption that rule the region—and they like things just the way they are. “They are sharing the Congo like it was 1885,” one civil society advocate told me. “The Western governments even defend Kabila when people are shot on the street. They tell the media: it’s not good to toyi-toyi because you can get shot.”

No justice, no peace
“Kimia ezali?” is a greeting in Lingala. Literally, the translation is: “Is there peace here?” It is a good enough question to ask. The answer, though, is obvious. In fact, there is a common refrain from anyone you speak to about the elections here, from the local airtime vendor to political analysts: there will be violence.

Dolly Ibefo Mbunga has a round face, delicate hands and sad eyes that look through you, searching, perhaps, for something he has lost forever, something irretrievable.

In his office, which has yellow curtains and a concrete floor, the head of Voice of the Voiceless, a human rights advocacy group, faces a reminder each day of the weight of his work. In front of him is a poster with a photo of the group’s former head, Floribert Chebeya, and his driver, Fidele Bazana Edadi.

Chebeya was killed in June last year, his body found on the back seat of his car, after being called to a meeting with the head of the national police force. The body of his driver was never found.

Mbunga runs through concerns about rising reports of election violence. Among them are claims that the PPRD is recruiting martial arts experts to block opposition supporters when they march. They come, he says, armed with machetes and are supported by police.

“This regime has a culture of killing. The international community should intervene now, instead of counting the numbers of people who die. They should be helping to help prevent it.”

Beaten down
Dozens of men hang around outside the UDPS headquarters, some milling about in the yard, others sitting in the few plastic chairs left in the burnt-out interior of the offices.

The headquarters were petrol-bombed in the early morning hours of September 6. The day before, Tshisekedi supporters had followed their leader on a march to submit papers for his candidacy. On the way back, men armed with machetes and iron rods blocked their way and began attacking the group. The supporters scattered and, at some point in the mayhem, a PPRD office was attacked. The retaliation: the UDPS office and RLTV’s premises were attacked with Molotov cocktails.

In a makeshift room that has been partitioned with chip board, a man lies face down on a dirty blanket, his back burnt, his head beaten. The man, we are told, was attacked in late October after UDPS supporters leaving a meeting were beaten by machete-wielding men.

Benjamin Bajikijaie, a lawyer who has been with the party since its early days, sits behind a wooden desk in a back room, a lone fan his only relief from the heat. He wears a tight, white T-shirt and spectacles, his cheeks full, as if ready to burst in frustration. He cannot, he says, get his own election observers registered. The form is supposed to be on the Ceni website. It is not. He sent someone over to pick up a form from the commission’s offices the day before and was told that Ceni needed an official letter. Today he has written an official letter. Now he is waiting for the response.

Asked about Tshisekedi’s inflammatory outburst, about accusations that UDPS supporters are violent, he spits out: “Someone in this race has a record of violence. You know who will be violent. You know who has the monopoly on violence.”

Then Bajikijaie narrows his eyes and speaks slowly so that I can understand each word he has to say.

“We don’t have weapons. We have nothing. We have practised 30 years of non-violence. We are a party of peace. People know that. They rape women and kill people. They are playing games. They cannot say we are the bad guys. They are infiltrating our movement with bad guys and are saying it is us.”

For the love of Kabila
At the PPRD offices in Kinshasa things look very different.

In a grand house atop a small hill a tiled terrace accommodates visitors on comfortable couches. An air-conditioned boardroom with a shiny new conference table sits at the foot of the ubiquitous framed portrait of Kabila in a smart suit. A slow stream of supporters wanders in and out of the generous premises to pick up their Kabila-blue umbrellas, scarves, T-shirts, caps, pamphlets and vuvuzelas.

Meanwhile, at the side of the newly refurbished section of Boulevard Lumumba, a group of PPRD supporters gathers next to a hill of rubbish nearly 3 metres high. A yellow PPRD flag hangs limply in the humidity and a framed photo of Kabila dangles from a rusted nail stuck to a small tree.

Joseph Ilangala, 39-years-old and unemployed, greets us. He tells of how the Kabila supporters meet here each day, all day long, to talk about what the president has done for the country. It is a calm crowd, without a megaphone, without chanting, without aggression.

“We can see with our own eyes,” he says. “We are eyewitnesses to how the president is modernising the country. Little by little the country will be developed. The people here love him from the bottom of their heart. It’s not for money. Nobody here gets money. A lot of people support him, but most are afraid to show it. They know if you support Kabila you can be harmed.”

What if Kabila loses the election? John Wetshikoy, a 26-year-old medical student, chimes in. “To begin with, we are sure he won’t lose. But if he happens to lose, we are democrats, we will accept the results.”

Leaving the land
Late Sunday afternoon, inside two separate hangers at Kinshasa’s N’Djili International Airport, clear plastic ballot boxes emblazoned with the words “Ceni” and “DRC” are stacked 3 metres high. We are told these enormous batches are just 15% of the total number of ballot boxes that will be distributed across the country.

“In two or three days all of this will be evacuated,” says Alain Tshimanga, Ceni’s logistics agent in Kinshasa. “By Wednesday everything will be out.”

Getting those ballot boxes and their yellow and blue plastic tops from there to the 62 000 polling stations in the next two weeks still seems impossible, even if by now, Tshimanga says, all but one consignment of ballot boxes is yet to arrive.

Tshimanga, a large man in long denim shorts and a white polo shirt, nevertheless backs his boss in the face of the impossible. He shakes his finger and points for emphasis: “The elections will take place on November 28!”

This is the first in a two-part series on the build-up to elections in the DRC. Travel-related expenses for this story were supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

Articles in the series: “High hopes and low blows in DRC election battle”, “And now for the bad news”, and “Singing for his SUVs—and Kabila


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