In the old days, under kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo had error-proof elections. A voter chose between a green card meaning "yes" to Mobutu, and a red card meaning "no." The only problem, recalls 52-year-old David Kasali, is that there were no red cards.
"If police saw you, that you did not vote, you were in trouble," Kasali told WORLD. "That was our democracy then."
Now the Democratic Republic of Congo hopes to live up to its name. First known as the Belgian Congo under its colonizers, and Zaire under the 30-year rule of Mobutu, the sprawling central African nation has survived six cosmetic name changes and the deep gashes of civil war. On July 30, Congo will have its first national multiparty election in 45 years, and with it, many hope, a chance to leave behind its violent and corrupt past.
Kasali heads a Christian leadership-training and community-development program called the Congo Initiative. He recently returned to his old hometown of Beni in the eastern North Kivu province to break ground on a new Christian university, due to open next year. He also had another reason to return: to see the election for himself.
By mid-July, he said, presidential and local candidates were rolling through Beni daily. Election posters plastered the city, residents gathered eagerly at political rallies, and supporters rode around on motorcycles honking for their candidates. "There is an atmosphere of talking, speaking, listening," Kasali said, the "first time that this has ever, ever happened."
Fostering the atmosphere is an infusion of outside funding for the election: over $400 million to, among other logistics, set up thousands of voter-registration sites. That is a Herculean task in a country the size of western Europe with only 300 miles of paved road.
According to a report of the International Crisis Group, each unwieldy voter-registration kit includes a generator, computer, digital fingerprint machine, ID card printer, and digital camera. In the end, UN aircraft had to fly some kits to their destinations, while electoral workers have endured weeks- or months-long delays in salaries.
Congolese, too, are recuperating from 10 years of conflict, which worsened into a broad civil war between 1998 and 2003 that sucked in five other African countries. Nearly 4 million have died during that time due to the violence and attendant starvation and disease. Instability has displaced a further 2.4 million Congolese from their homes.
Violence first erupted in 1996 as Mobutu's grip on power faltered under an influx of 2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees who flooded across his borders escaping widespread massacres. Among them were militiamen responsible for what would become known as the Rwandan genocide, and they began attacking hated Tutsis in then-Zaire and Rwanda.
Rwanda and Uganda soon came to the Tutsis' aid, joining with anti-government forces that marched on the capital, Kinshasa, and overthrew Mobutu. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila succeeded him as president.
By 1998, however, Kabila turned against Rwanda and Uganda, expelling Tutsis from his administration and ordering their lingering troops out of the country he renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. The two countries fought back, hoping to replace him as leader. Rebel groups backed by Uganda and others by Rwanda formed along tribal lines. Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe dove in on Kabila's side, lured by Congo's mining resources and their own security interests.
In 2001, a bodyguard assassinated Kabila, and his 30-year-old son Joseph replaced him. Peace accords ended the fighting in 2003, and Joseph Kabila now heads a transitional government that has absorbed both rebels and political rivals.
UN peacekeepers this year have fought and disarmed remaining rebel groups.
But the election marks more fundamental changes. The new constitution reorients power away from Kinshasa toward its oft-neglected 11 provinces, now subdivided into 26. These provinces will manage 40 percent of the nation's revenues, dispersing power away from the capital but also risking a reignition of battles in mineral-rich provinces. At the same time, elections under the new constitution will replace the current power-sharing arrangement of a president plus four vice presidents with a president and prime minister.
Under these circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that the election has been delayed six times in the last year. Some candidates this month began calling for another delay after they discovered that millions of extra ballots had been printed.
Also no surprise is that new freedoms have given rise to a colorful election landscape: 33 presidential candidates and 267 political parties. They include both the young Kabila and one of Mobutu's sons. Kabila is proving to be the most popular candidate. On a visit to Beni and other eastern areas for the first time, he promised electricity in the city by July 30, and emphasized the relative stability of the area by walking three miles with little security.
If that seems like politics as usual, other candidates tried to be more outlandish. A Mobutu aide popularly known as "Mr. Cash," former minister of finance and economics Pierre wa Syakassighe Pay-Pay, arrived in Beni July 16 and gave away $3,000 to supporters to "quench their thirst," in other words, to buy beer. "The politicians are just learning democracy, too," Kasali said.
Kasali is more encouraged by evening walks to chat with residents than by campaign stopovers. Buying corn from a roadside vendor, he listened as the vendor criticized politicians for handing out money to locals. "We don't want their money," said the woman. "They should build schools for us. I didn't go to school. I want my children to go to school."
On another evening Kasali ran into an old university friend, a conservationist who had spent the war trying to protect a rare species of forest zebra, called the okapi, in a national park. Whether fighting for schoolchildren or zebras, Kasali said, these are the frail beginnings of a move from civil war to civil society.
Another town showing hesitant progress is Bunia in Ituri Province, which was a hotbed of rebel violence, including an attack on a Christian hospital during fighting four years ago (see "On the road to genocide," Nov. 16, 2002). Toni Stenger, missionary team leader for the Africa Inland Mission, told WORLD the town now enjoys trading and open movement during the day. Nights, however, bring deserted streets. Old rebels and some locals have taken to banditry, stealing and attacking residents both in town and in surrounding areas. With dangerous roads, not as many food supplies as needed are making it to Bunia.
Stenger also grapples with hard-to-heal war wounds. Local Christians continue to work to reunite street kids who disappeared in the war with their families. Educating and integrating former child soldiers is another pressing need. The election brings expectations, Stenger said, but "if the changes do not come as fast as they hope, some people may rise again."
Congo's volatility and its restive eastern region are why a 17,000-member UN peacekeeping operation is necessary. Though tarnished by recent reports of sexual abuse elsewhere in Africa, peacekeepers in this region are helping to bring calm, locals say. One challenge is to rehabilitate poorly paid Congolese soldiers who have resorted to harassing locals at checkpoints for bribes or food.
"They do not have ammunition, boots, or clothing and they are not given their daily meal," said commander of the UN mission's Ituri brigade, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Mahboob, in July. "If the troops do not have their daily meal guaranteed, then what options are available?"
This month, if elections proceed as planned, one option will be to vote without fear.