The DR Congo's dangerous run-off

Tristan McConnell
22 August 2006

Three hours late, the results in the Democratic Republic of Congo's first proper elections in forty-five years came through on the evening of Sunday 20 August. It was not the triumphant moment many Congolese, as well as many in the international community, had been waiting for. The chief of the independent electoral commission sat nervously before the cameras in a state-owned television studio in the capital, Kinshasa. There were no journalists there, no grand announcement, just a man and a list – and eventually the message that no one, not even the first-round frontrunner and incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, had won outright.

Outside, Kinshasa was in turmoil. Combative rhetoric between the two leading candidates – Kabila himself (whose electoral base is in the east of the country where his father Laurent had waged a long guerrilla struggle) and Jean-Pierre Bemba (a former close ally of ex-president Mobutu, who has strong support in Kinshasa) – defined the electoral campaign until the actual voting on 30 July; their rivalry has continued to dominate the DRC's political scene in the weeks that followed, as each candidate declared himself victor.

Tristan McConnell is Uganda correspondent for Africa Confidential

He also writes about Uganda for British newspapers including the Independent and the Daily Telegraph

Also by Tristan McConnell in openDemocracy:

"Uganda’s unsettled future"
(27 February 2006)

"The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?"
(28 July 2006)

The combustible atmosphere between them and their supporters finally erupted into real combat shortly before the results were announced, when the presidential guard loyal to Kabila fought it out in the streets with Bemba's personal bodyguards. United Nations sources say that the fighting, which lasted for several hours, left five people dead – though the total of all post-election incidents is likely to be significantly higher.

The violence led to the urgent reinforcement of the 1,000-strong rapid reaction force assigned to the DRC by the European Union, and already operating in support of the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the country. A further sign of international concern was the UN's arrangement of a ceasefire between the Kabila and Bemba camps on 23 August.

This latest violence, in a country notorious for the ease with which its people are murdered by armed groups or drop dead from disease, casts a shadow over the results themselves in which the incumbent Kabila won 45% of the vote and Bemba 20%. The failure of Kabila to reach the 50% threshold necessary for outright victory means that the two men will go head-to-head in a presidential run-off on 29 October.

The other thirty candidates who stood for the presidency were way behind in the voting. Most were largely ignored by the 17-million Congolese who turned up to vote, but some achieved a respectable performance. In third place came Antoine Gizenga (13%), a veteran politician and dedicated follower of murdered independence-era prime minister Patrice Lumumba. In fourth position was Nzanga Mobutu (5%), the son of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose kleptocratic dictatorship was established in the aftermath of the assassination in January 1961 of the hero of Congolese independence from Belgium's vicious colonial rule, Patrice Lumumba.

In fifth was Oscar Kashala (3%), an academic from the diaspora who recently returned to Congo after years in the United States. He was followed by two eastern candidates, former rebel leader Azarias Ruberwa (2%) and Pierre Pay Pay (2%), who served as finance minister and central-bank governor under Mobutu.

Analysts argued before the results arrived that a presidential run-off would be the best option for maintaining the tenuous peace that currently holds in this huge country, the logic being that an outright victory for one candidate – presumed to be Kabila – would be violently disputed by the losers. A run-off, say the analysts, gives time for coalitions to be formed, new alliances to be struck and for tempers to cool.

A shadow over the future

It may not work that way. The violence of results day suggests that the coming campaign period is set to be tense, and weeks of hostile speeches may widen the gap between the series of related oppositions revealed in the elections: between east/west, Swahili/Lingala and Kabila/Bemba.

Eastern Congo suffered a brutal civil and regional war which, in waves between 1996 and 2004, was characterised by rape, displacement, invasion by neighbouring armies, murder and mutilation of civilians, the use of child soldiers and a concomitant spread of lethal diseases. It is estimated that 3.9 million people died during a conflict that has earned the sobriquet "Africa's first world war". Kabila is credited with ending the war and voters in the east have shown the 35-year old former soldier their gratitude by giving him a landslide victory.

While the east bore the brunt of that devastating conflict, the west was largely unscathed. Kabila's self-designation as La Pacificateur (the peacemaker) earns him little political capital here. His unpopularity is compounded by his sketchy grasp of Lingala, the main language of the west, while he is at ease with Swahili, spoken in the east. None of this goes down well with westerners, especially in Kinshasa. Kabila's opponents took advantage of this animosity to brand him a "foreigner" during the campaign period.

In the capital, Kabila was trounced by Jean-Pierre Bemba, a 43-year old former rebel leader and the son of a wealthy businessman who made his money during the thirty-two-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Bemba mounted a strong challenge to Kabila using his own money made during his years in business before he underwent military training and set up a rebel militia.

Bemba is wanted for war crimes committed in neighbouring Central African Republic – a case that has been referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In Congo he, along with his soldiers, is accused of heinous abuses. He has repeatedly had to deny allegations of cannibalism alongside the more common crimes of rape and murder.

The source of Bemba's popularity lies in his harnessing of nationalist fervour by portraying himself as "100% Congolese" in opposition to the "foreign" Kabila.

With voter turnout above the nationwide average in the east, Kabila will be unable to squeeze many more votes from there and will have to turn westwards to find the extra 5% that would give him victory in the run-off. Bemba, however, may find more votes in the west where turnout was far lower. He has to mobilise that dormant support, but he too may be forced to reach across the east/west divide if he hopes to add 30% to his tally in the next two months.

Ahead lie weeks of political horse-trading and deal-making as well as fractious campaigning across the country ahead of the second-round on 29 October. The dangers of regional schism and linguistic-ethnic polarisation highlighted by the inflammatory rhetoric of some of Bemba's supporters to the DRC's fragile democratic path are evident. But if Kabila and Bemba can continue to seek more second-round votes as electoral adversaries rather than as enemies across an unbridgeable dividing-line, the republic may yet have found a way out of the cycle of violence that has afflicted it for so long.

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