Voting is only the start

Observations on Congo

Simon Ngoma came to Britain to escape Congo's civil wars, in which four million died, and worked as a warehouse supervisor for Bosch in west London. Then, in 2004, encouraged by the stability of President Joseph Kabila's transitional government, he went home to Kinshasa, where he is now making money importing milk powder from Lithuania.

Ngoma did not vote for Kabila in the recent election. On polling day, 30 July, he worked for Kabila's main rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice-president in the transitional government and leader of the Mouvement de Libération du Congo.

Ngoma travelled around, monitoring the voting, and then watched as ballots were counted through the night at the polling stations where they had been cast. "The polling stations got the result exactly," he said. "All the parties were there so they know this is true." Foreign observers and local NGOs agree. There was some malpractice and violence, but the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa's 2,000 monitors reported only 30 problems at 50,000 polling stations nationwide.

Counting the votes, though, was no small matter. The Kinshasa ballot paper ran to seven poster-sized pages, listing the names and photographs of the 885 candidates for the capital's 58 parliamentary seats. Working by candlelight, weary and hungry election officials took two minutes on average to find and confirm the cross on each ballot paper; after that they had to tally the votes for each candidate and fill in the election commission's complicated returns.

But it was at the next stage that the problems really began. The results had to be sent under police escort to the Independent Electoral Commission's compilation centres to be checked and the figures entered into computers, a task that overwhelmed both the electoral commission and its United Nations truck drivers.

Each polling station produced half a dozen boxes or bin bags of paper, which were duly put in the back of a truck to be taken to the local centre. But by the time each vehicle had reached its destination, the results from the different polling stations were all mixed up and the trucks looked as if they were carrying refuse rather than precious election results.

In Kinshasa, the material was piled on the ground outside the compilation centre, where order was not easily restored. By the third day, the gym-sized halls were three metres deep in boxes and bags, and officials were searching desperately for result sheets. By the end of that day only 200 of the 2,000 sheets had been registered, and just four results checked and recorded on the computers. By day four only 44 results had been confirmed. "The election officials are not really coping," said Ngoma.

In other parts of the country things seemed to go better. There were fewer candidates, and so fewer ballot papers. And as the polling stations were more spread out, results arrived more gradually at the compilation centres.

In the capital, the electoral commission ought to be able to compile enough results to identify the two front-runners in the presidential race for the French-style run-off ballot on 29 October. Whether it manages to capture reliable results for the National Assembly is an open question.

But democracy has made a start. This was the first free election in Congo for more than 40 years. In a country where average life expectancy is just 42 years, that is a lifetime, and on polling day the Congolese queued up to vote.

Abused in the past by their Belgian colonial masters and treated no better by their rulers since independence, they knew their vote was precious because it gave them power. This election looked and felt like the first free election in South Africa a decade ago. Like that election, it could change things.

The Congolese people rose to the challenge. Now their leaders must do the same.

Hugh Bayley MP is chair of the Africa all-party parliamentary group

12 issues for £12