Region's most complex poll

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s 60-million people are unlikely to wake up on Monday to a dramatically changed country after Sunday’s first democratic elections in the Central African giant. They will, in all probability, still be voting in what has become Africa’s most expensive and complex election.

There’s no official word yet on an extension, but with more than 27-million voters—80% of them illiterate—having to negotiate what is easily the longest ballot paper in history, you do the maths.

At last December’s constitutional referendum, voters were taking an average of three minutes to make their simple yes or no decision.

This time they are faced with ballot papers the size of newspapers, some as many as eight pages thick. There is a total of 33 presidential candidates and 9 707 candidates competing for 500 parliamentary seats.

Official sources said that in a dry run earlier this month a group of Kinshasa voters were taking an average of 28 minutes each to cast their ballots.
“That ballot paper intimidates me,” a senior United Nations official said. “What must it do to an illiterate person?”

Is the country ready for this process?

A rational response has to be that the DRC is no more ready for its first democratic elections in more than 40 years than it was for the constitutional referendum. The reality is it will happen, whatever the state of preparedness.

Hijacked

The people have been in transition since 1995 when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, under Western pressure, falsely promised to democratise the country.

There would certainly be bloodshed if advice, both well meaning and malicious, to halt the process were heeded. The likelihood of violence during the process cannot be dismissed. However, the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monuc) says it is confident that its 17 500 soldiers, backed by 1 500 European Union peacekeepers, will maintain law and order.

In Goma, considered to be one of the hottest spots in the troubled east of the country, the most notorious warlord, Laurent Nkunda, has promised not to disrupt the voting process, but has kept his options open if it doesn’t produce the result he wants.

Another group of bandits hijacked a truck carrying election materials. They took only the screens to be placed around the ballot boxes.

They have no problem with the election, they say, so long as they can actually see the people voting the way they want them to.

There will doubtless be similar colourful anecdotes—real and manufactured—from around the country. These will be used to fuel suspicion and mistrust in the time between polling and the official results.

The lapse could be several weeks. This country doesn’t have a road or railway running from one end to the other. So gathering the counted ballot papers from the remote polling stations to check and collate data could mean the final result is not announced until September.

An offer of helicopters from South Africa and Angola would have cut this to two weeks, according the Deputy Defence Minister Mluleki George, who heads the South African observer mission to these elections.

The UN, which is already pouring $420-million into the process, decided it could not spring for the fuel to operate the choppers.

Whatever this weekend produces, South Africa cannot be accused of not coming enthusiastically to the party.

Official ignorance

One has to resist drawing too many parallels with South Africa’s successful elections 12 years ago though.

For starters, forget about those patient, orderly queues of voters snaking out over the veld. Here, in North Kivu province, three people were crushed to death while waiting to cast their ballot in the constitutional referendum and I saw police crack open the head of at least one queue jumper.

The lack of voter education matched by an official ignorance of how to run elections is what most threatens the event.

Technical difficulties

A concerted effort has been made by the Independent Electoral Commission, under Appolinaire Malumalu, to teach both electors and the people who must serve them on Sunday what has to be done.

Add to this the logistical nightmare. Election officials needing to travel more than 200km into the country had to leave mid-week. Some have refused to go to their posts until they are paid for work in the registration process and the referendum.

It is not, however, these technical and mechanical difficulties that most worry observers who’ve watched the DRC deal with kleptocracy, two wars and a convoluted transitional phase negotiated under South African mediation.

“It’s afterwards that I’m really concerned about,” says one of the development specialists pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into this country. “We never gave up hope because we were assured that quality leadership would come through with the transition to democracy. We know those good leaders are out there. But they are not on the billboards this time.”

A Congolese academic I’ve been visiting here for the past five years remarked: “Such a pity. We’ve waited all this time to vote and look at the choice we’re being given. One is as corrupt as the other.”

The presidential election looks like a three‑horse race. Transitional President Joseph Kabila must be the favourite, having fully used the “incumbency factor” to best effect.

This goes light years beyond using official transport to get to political rallies. The so-called Global and Inclusive Agreement allows for ministers in the transitional government of hire their own senior officials.

Those who have the latter stand out like the proverbial Inuit on the equator, with huge, professionally produced billboards across the country, dedicated television and radio stations and the means to pay supporters who attend rallies with T-shirts, food and even hard cash.

Add to this some active dirty tricks such as having customs block the entry of opponents’ voting material and liberal use of the menacing presidential guard against demonstrators and one sees how determined the man is to stay at the helm.

Contenders

Kabila’s closest rival is the formidable Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose ability to hold the country to ransom was demonstrated repeatedly during the Sun City process.

He’s already threatened not to accept the outcome if he loses.

“Bemba frightens us,” a European diplomat said. “But I had no idea how much he frightened his own supporters until I saw him at a rally in Bukavu last week. ‘My people, what do you want from me?’ he asked. And they replied: ‘Stop eating us!’”

It’s all about nationality—how Kabila is “not really” a Congolese because of his halting French and poor command of the vernacular—and others’ links with Sese Seko and dipping too eagerly into the pork barrel.

The contenders uniformly promise peace, stability and order. Not a bad call in a country that lost between three and four million people in a war involving eight other African nations.

The appetite among voters in these historic elections is for the knock-down-drag-out stuff rather than the arcane substance of its complicated draft constitution—it was unread by more than 95% of the population who nevertheless voted on it in the referendum .

The third top contender is Pierre Pay Pay, who must have endured hourly plays on his name as governor of the Reserve Bank.

A former International Monetary Fund and World Bank employee, he’s regarded as the man technically best equipped to grow this country out of its misery.

He is, however, a former Sese Seko minister, and the venality that came with the job has lingered. Pay Pay once proudly owned a fleet of 20 Mercedes-Benz cars in different colours to match the suit he was wearing that day.

Etienne Tshisekedi continues to get more attention as a non-player than the rest of the candidates combined.

In reality, he’s been out-manoeuvred. He missed playing the classic strong hand as the candidate who came in from outside the transitional process offering to clean up the mess, including persistent claims of electoral irregularities.

At 72 this very popular veteran has to realise that any pitch for the presidency has now gone.

What will his supporters do on Sunday? They’ve had muscular demonstrations broken up with the help of the tough presidential guard.

Tshisekedi has not called for a boycott, but his people say he can’t be responsible for how his violence-prone supporters express their frustration and disappointment.

Insecurity continues after the war

Every day more than 600 children die in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making it one of the most dangerous countries in which to be born, according to a United Nations report published this week.

Nearly a decade of conflict has created a humanitarian crisis that kills the youngest and most vulnerable—through hunger and disease as well as violence.

The 1998 to 2003 war is officially over, but insecurity continues to displace civilians and cripple efforts to supply food and basic medical care, according to the UN’s children’s agency, Unicef. “Children bear the brunt of conflict, disease and death, but not only as casualties,” said Tony Bloomberg, a Unicef official. “They are also witnesses to, and sometimes forced participants in, atrocities and crimes that inflict physical and psychological harm.”

More than four million people are thought to have died since the country imploded, making it the bloodiest conflict since World War II. About 1 200 die every day, about half of them children. In a land the size of Western Europe, but with scant infrastructure, it is not possible to count the precise number of victims.

Martin Bell, the former BBC reporter and British MP who is a Unicef ambassador, said the July 30 election offers some hope. “We owe it to the children to give them the future they deserve ... these elections may be the opportunity of their lifetime.”—Rory Carroll Â

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