Congolese will go to the polls this weekend in an election that is as unusual as it is important. It is unusual because, despite its name, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has not held a democratic election since 1960. In this period, the long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese-Soko pillaged the enormous mineral wealth of the former Belgian colony (which in 1971 he renamed Zaire) for personal and elite benefit; and under the rule of Mobutu's successor Laurent Kabila, the rebranded DRC was quickly drenched in a series of hideous civil wars involving domestic militias, international companies and the armies of six neighbouring countries that since 1998 have cost the lives of as many as 3.9 million people.
In light of this history, the fact that Sunday's poll is taking place at all following a referendum in December 2005 in which 83% of voters endorsed a new constitution (on a 58% turnout) makes the DRC election a special event.
The election is important too because of the high stakes involved most immediately for the long-suffering people of Congo, but also for the international community which is bankrolling the $432-million bill for the election (with 75% of it paid by the European Union). If Congo is to escape its degrading, imprisoning image as a country synonymous with war, corruption, dictatorship and greed, this election may be its best chance for a generation to come. If the result is to install a legitimate government with sufficient authority to take decisions and command the respect of Congolese citizens, rather than just another dictator reign over a warring country that is a state in name alone, it is likely that 30 July 2006 will be seen in retrospect as a key turning-point.
Tristan McConnell is Uganda correspondent for Africa Confidential
He also writes about central Africa for British newspapers, including the Independent and the Christian Science Monitor
Also by Tristan McConnell on openDemocracy:
"Uganda's unsettled future"
The view from the ground
The bare statistics that the election's international backers like to quote are impressive enough: at 53,000 polling stations across the vast central African country, 25.7 million voters will cast their ballot for thirty-three presidential hopefuls, as well as more than 9,000 candidates (representing 213 political parties) for the 500-seat national parliament in Kinshasa and more than 10,000 candidates for provincial assemblies. But on the ground, the reality is less streamlined and more chaotic than the figures suggest though not necessarily less hopeful.
It is striking that the electoral playing-field is far from level. In Bukavu, in the eastern DRC towards the border with Rwanda, the image of a well-dressed, chubby-faced young man gazes out benignly against a yellow background. His face is everywhere: strung across potholed roads, hung from decrepit buildings and stuck on the front of motorcycle taxis. This is Joseph Kabila, 35-year old president of Congo (and son of Laurent, picking up the baton of leadership when his father was slain in January 2001). Joseph is the firm favourite to win the presidency, partly because he is the most widely known of the thirty-three candidates, partly because he commands some genuine support, and partly because the fact of incumbency offers such huge advantages in terms of recognition, financial backing and media influence.
Joseph Kabila has used his monopoly on state media to the full in a country whose size and logistical difficulties (only 500 kilometres of passable roads make nationwide campaigning available only to those who can afford to fly) make "virtual politics" a potent reality. Many of Kabila's thirty-two rivals barely have any profile outside of their local areas. One who might have run Kabila close is veteran Congolese politician Etienne Tshisikedi, but he has called on voters to boycott the poll on grounds of its unfairness and manipulation, and his supporters are protesting daily on the streets of Kinshasa demanding its annulment.
The protests have been accompanied by sporadic violence; seven people were shot dead at a rally in Kinshasa on 19 July at Mugogo, in the eastern North Kivu province, only the most serious of several such incidents. The confrontations reflect the raw passion and energy of electoral mobilisation as well as the dangers of its manipulation and repression. They also highlight the fact that political power in the Democratic Republic of Congo is for many a prize truly worth having.
A damaged, rich country
The DRC may be a damaged country, but it is also an immensely rich one in reality and in potential. Name a mineral and Congo has it gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, uranium, and many more. It also has the hydropower resources of the Congo river system and the timber of half the forests in Africa; plus oil, coal and gas.
It is perhaps little wonder, then, that in the desperate conditions that followed Mobutu's repressive rule, powerful forces domestic militias, rapacious global corporations, and foreign governments (Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad were all at one time involved) saw the DRC as a resource to be exploited rather than as country to be helped back on its feet. When Laurent Kabila broke with the Rwandan and Ugandan backers who had helped him to power, a series of conflicts was sparked that assumed the character and scale of Africa's first world war.
The full horror of a collapsing Congo is still being felt by the citizens who will flock to the polls on 30 July, and by their children. 1,200 people die from conflict-related causes every day, 20% of the country's children die before their fifth birthday, and life-expectancy is around 41 years. The conflict also spawned numerous rebel militias which still rampage through the thickly-forested hills in the eastern region of the country.
At this stage, two days before election-day, the prospects are good that the election itself will be relatively peaceful, but the aftermath may be messy. There will be many disappointed candidates and the results are bound to be contested but the capacity of the poorly-funded independent electoral commission and the judiciary to deal with complaints is severely limited. Some of those likely to lose out also command militias, and how they react will be significant.
In the unstable east around Bukavu, it is the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) that stands to lose most. During the war, support from Rwanda meant that the RCD could control a third of Congolese territory; at negotiations in South Africa in 2002 to end the war, RCD leader Azarias Ruberwa claimed one of four vice-presidencies for himself. But the RCD's constituency is limited to Rwandaphone Congolese (known as the Banyamulenge), a small group whom other Congolese tend to disparage as foreigners and invaders.
When Ruberwa visited Bukavu this week he kept a low profile, and addressed only an invited group of loyalists at a wealthy supporter's home. People on the streets claimed that he was afraid that any address to a grouping of ordinary citizens would be met with stones not cheers. In the weeks to come the most potent indicator may be how RCD supporters and other disenfranchised groups greet the election results: with acceptance, protest or guns.