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8 May 2006

Congo on the edge

After its elections, will this gigantic African nation begin a new, normalised future - as the inter

By Michela Wrong

In the lakeside town of Bukavu, a nervy day followed a violent night. In the early hours, soldiers had broken into the house of a local man, stolen cash meant to pay for his wife’s hospital treatment, and shot him dead. The previous night, a 16-year-old girl had been killed by looting soldiers. Come daybreak, Bukavu’s students showed their exasperation the only way they could, blocking traffic on the main avenue with burning tyres.

That both of last month’s incidents were virtually routine highlights the challenge facing the international community in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In less than three months’ time, Congo will stage its first multi-party elections in 40 years, polls that will theoretically solder the social contract between citizen and state. The soldiers’ behaviour raises the question of whether there is any contract there to be salvaged at all. “The state died here a long time ago,” shrugs Father Jean-Pacifique Balaamo, stationed at a seminary on the outskirts of Bukavu. “Since 1990 there has been no state.”

When the western officials who committed themselves to the continent’s recovery at Gleneagles last year survey sub-Saharan Africa, they juggle two alternative scenarios in their heads, each hingeing on events in this huge nation. In upbeat mode, they see the Sudan peace agreement gelling, an end to the insurgency in northern Uganda, Somalia’s warlords reaching a modus vivendi, and a post-electoral Congo, its leadership newly legitimised, beginning to resemble a normal nation. In the dark hours of the night, they see the Sudan deal foundering, Ethiopia imploding and post-electoral Congo slipping into chaos – a swathe of instability stretching like a festering sore across the continent. “Après moi le déluge,” whispers the ghost of the late Mobutu Sese Seko, who not so much ruled Congo as oversaw its steady collapse.

It is a scenario that the rest of the world is ready to spend a great deal to prevent. The United Nations, European Union and other donors are contributing $422m to the elections alone. The UN force stationed in Congo, numbering 17,000 men, is the biggest in the world and costs $1.2bn a year. Britain, sensitive to accusations of favouritism towards Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, is the biggest bilateral donor to the election process in the DRC.

Sadly, goodwill and funding may not suffice. There are many who fear that the elections, far from setting Congo on the right path, could actually make things worse, spelling an end to a semi-peaceful hiatus in which mortality rates have fallen and trade has picked up. One problem is the eagerness of President Joseph Kabila to emerge as undisputed victor. Under the three-year-old transition arrangements, he is at present obliged to share power with two rebel movements and the opposition, and he is itching for an undisputed mandate. Many observers fear that, given the absence of credible, politically unbiased mechanisms for policing election irregularities, Kabila will be unable to resist rigging the vote to ensure he gets that mandate at the first round.

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It looks unlikely that the donors will kick up a fuss if this occurs. There are uncanny echoes in their relationship with Kabila – a mild-mannered, pleasantly spoken man who strikes most whom he meets as strangely devoid of charisma, drive and vision – of the west’s initial indulgent attitude towards the young Mobutu, once hailed as “le doux colonel” (“the gentle colonel”).

“History is repeating itself. The international community is backing Kabila, although there’s nothing there, just as it built up and backed the young Mobutu,” says Thomas Nziratimana, vice-governor of South Kivu Province. “It’s all a question of perception, but a sense that Kabila is unstoppable has been created.”

Initially, various legal mechanisms aimed at giving election also-rans some voice in the political dispensation were envisaged, but none has been enacted, dooming Congo to a winner-takes-all system. In a country where losers rarely agree to fade quietly into the background, this is asking for trouble.

One loser is certain to be Étienne Tshisekedi, Congo’s veteran opposition leader, who originally announced he was boycotting the polls and urged his supporters not to register, only to change his mind. His original refusal to play ball means millions of voters in Kinshasa, the two Kasais and Katanga will in effect be disenfranchised. It is not clear how much pulling power the 73-year-old Tshisekedi still possesses, but he was once a figure who could rally the angry youth of Congo’s dilapidated cities.

Another likely loser is Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former head of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, now a transitional vice-president. Son of a close Mobutu ally, Bemba went into the bush to win a stake in Congo’s political game. It is hard to see him accepting anonymity now.

The biggest loser, however, may be an entire ethnic group, the Kinyarwanda-speaking population of Congo’s east, tinderbox of previous wars. In the wake of two invasions by neighbouring Rwanda, this community, made up of Tutsis and Hutus, is regarded by other Congolese tribes as a fifth column in its midst. The Kinyarwanda speakers, in their turn, live in terror of a local version of the genocide staged across the border, which left Rwanda scattered with rotting bodies.

One of Kabila’s great failings is that, aware of his vulnerability on the nationality issue (he spent much of his youth in Tanzania, and avoids speaking Lingala in public), he has done nothing to preach ethnic reconciliation in the east or to dilute the loathing felt towards the Kinyarwanda speakers by other Congolese.

“For us, the Banyamulenge, the Rwandans – there’s no difference,” says Colonel Joseph Tchimanuka, a former member of the Mai-Mai, the home-grown militia that sprang up to fight Rwandan infiltration. “I have never regretted killing a Tutsi, after what I saw they had done to our country.”

In North Kivu, the Kinyarwanda-speaking people look to the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) for protection. This Rwandan-backed former rebel group, which once controlled nearly a third of the Congo, is likely to win fewer than 50 seats in the new, 608-seat Kinshasa parliament. In South Kivu, administered from Bukavu, the Kinyarwanda speakers are dubbed the Banyamulenge, after the isolated Mulenge plateau on which they live. They stand to win no seats at all.

“The problem is that a lot of people who are in power now will lose it in the elections,” says Jason Stearns, senior analyst at the non-profit-making International Crisis Group. “Many of those people have links to armed groups. The maths is simple: why go through a process that’s not in your interests?”

Braced for anything smacking of ethnic cleansing, the Kinya-rwanda speakers are growing increasingly jittery as polling day approaches. Banyamulenge fighters listed for demobilisation are heading instead for the hills, wary of disarming at such a sensitive moment. In North Kivu, watching and waiting, sits a mutinous force of Kinyarwanda-speaking soldiers who split from the Congolese national army in 2004, poised for a return to action.

If conflict does break out, Rwanda could once again intervene to protect what it sees as kith and kin. “If there is anything that even looks like the beginning of a Banyamulenge witch-hunt, the Rwandans will return,” predicts Danilo Rosales Díaz, UN political officer in Bukavu. “I’m not saying they would come to stay, but they would not let the Banyamulenge be targeted.”

For citizens in the east, Congo’s soft underbelly, the future rests on the whims of armed groups that “tax” local businesses, stealing and raping at will. These include the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda militia, many of whose members took enthusiastic part in the 1994 genocide; the Mai-Mai (“little more than bandits”, despairs one resident of Bukavu); breakaway Banyamulenge factions; and, most worryingly, the army.

When I lived in Kinshasa in the mid-1990s, in the Mobutu era, people lived in fear that the army, whose pay was routinely stolen by the generals, would launch one of the bouts of pillaging that had already twice battered Congo’s cities. It is depressing to discover, 12 years later, that military pay is still being stolen, soldiers still receive only $10 a month, and the public still lives in constant fear.

While acknowledging the urgent need to reform an ethnically divided, factionalised and demoralised army, western donors have dithered over who should take the lead. The money the international community has spent preparing elections would arguably have been better directed towards tackling a collapsing institution that has such a noxious daily impact on Congolese lives.

No wonder that when the World Bank recently conducted a survey of attitudes and put the question, “If the state was a person, what would you do to it?” the answers included the blunt, but no doubt heartfelt: “Kill it.”

Congo’s Elections: making or breaking the peace and Security Sector Reform in the Congo are both published by the International Crisis Group.