Friday, August 25, 2006

Congo elections stalemate

The first election in 46 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ended in deadlock. The 30 July result means that the country is headed for an 29 October second round run-off between President Joseph Kabila and former rebel chief Jean-Pierre Bemba. The 35 year old incumbent is son of ex-president Laurent Kabila who was gunned down by a bodyguard in his own office in 2001. Kabila hails from the southeast Katanga province. But having spent much of his formative years abroad - going to school in Tanzania, studying at university in Uganda and receiving military training in China -- many Congolese see him as a foreigner. This perception is not helped by his poor knowledge of Lingala, the language spoken in the west of Congo including Kinshasa, the capital. But he remains popular in Congo's east.

The 43-year-old opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba headed the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) in the Second Congolese War between 1998-2003. His was the first rebel group to sign peace deals with Kabila and the MLC became a political party, joining the transitional government in 2003. He is from the northwest province of Equateur which was also the home of longterm ex-dictator Mobutu who was overthrown in 1997. Bemba graduated in business and finance in Belgium and is also a qualified pilot who has run an airline. Backed by Uganda in the war, his faction captured much of the country including the diamond mines which financed his campaign. He represents the Mobutists and as a Lingala speaker picked up significant support in Kinshasa.

As a result of the stalemate in the election, a heavy gunbattle broke out in Kinshasa on August 20 between forces loyal to the two main candidates. The fighting erupted Monday around Mr. Bemba's Kinshasa home. Bemba and several foreign ambassadors were in the house when the gunfire began but escaped uninjured. Elsewhere at least five people were killed in clashes between the two groups.

The provisional results show Mr. Kabila winning 45 percent of the vote, with Mr. Bemba taking 20 percent. A veteran politician, Antoine Gizenga, finished third with 13 percent. Over 25 million people registered to vote for the elections and the turnout was estimated at 70 per cent. Congo's first election in 46 years, which cost the United Nations almost $500 million US, was held to select a leader for the country's 58 million people and end years of corrupt rule and war that have disrupted the vast country and wider Central Africa.

Since 1994, the Congo has been rent by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the genocide in Rwanda. Kabila the elder overthrew the longterm dictator Mobutu in 1997 and change the name of the country back from Zaire to the Congo. Neighbouring countries turned against him and sparked the first Congolese War. The parties signed a tenuous ceasefire in 1999. It didn’t last long before the second Congolese War broke out. The five-year civil war left nearly three million people dead from hunger and disease. The war still drags on in the east by Rwandan-backed rebels. The war dragged in many other nations in Southern and central Africa including Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (who all supported the central government) and Uganda and Rwanda (who supported the rebels). A transitional government led by Kabila has been in power since 2003. It has four vice-presidents representing the various opposition factions. The peace deal signed at the war’s end called for elections by June 2006.

The UN has also expressed concerns about the logistics of holding an election in a country which is so large, yet lacks basic infrastructure. According to the UN's humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, about 1,000 people are dying every day in DR Congo - many from disease and malnutrition. Troubles in the remote, resource-rich provinces near the eastern border continued to loom in the background. Congo was voted the world's most neglected humanitarian hotspot in AlertNet's 2005 poll of forgotten crises.

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