Congo Prepares for First Free Elections

man in front of white boardCongo is one of the most resource rich countries in the world, but it is also one of the poorest economically. Many people are unemployed or they work for small compensation mining for industrial grade diamonds. The upcoming elections, in which 33 people will battle for presidency and another 5,000 for the 900 seat parliament, are seen by many as way to change the current situation for the better. Many people are simply to disillusioned to believe that the elections will change anything.

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DAVID JACOBSON, Missionary Pilot: It’s amazing.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, Correspondent, Twin Cities Public Television: David Jacobson spends much of his job for a missionary air service flying over Congo, in landmass, Africa’s third-largest country. In natural wealth, he says, it’s likely first.

DAVID JACOBSON: Just where we’re flying now, there’s some places you fly that it even messes up your compass in the airplane, there’s so much gold and other minerals in the ground, believe it or not.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Amid its vast timber forests, Congo has some of the world’s richest deposits of gold, copper, diamonds and coltan, a substance essential in cell phones. But most Congolese can barely afford food, let alone a cell phone.

The picture in this cell phone ad — a miner calling in his big find — could not be farther from the real lives that thousands of people lead. The more realistic scene is played out daily, as scores of freelance miners work from small holes more than 50 feet below ground.

Clay-like soil is hauled up in small bags, then down to the river bank. The soil is sifted. The yield, if any, is tiny industrial-quality diamonds. Theodore Bechmanga leads a team of miners.

THEODORE BECHMANGA, Miner (through translator): You can see I’ve been working from morning until now. I don’t have any money. I don’t know how my kids are going to eat today. I’ve been working four months now and have earned less than $100 — less than $100.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The diamonds they do find are sold through a chain of middlemen that begins in a market near the mines. Eventually, some stones reach bigger dealers, like Alphonse Kassanji, one of far too few Congolese playing in the big leagues, he says. Kassanji says most miners, even the lucky ones, are vulnerable to being cheated.

ALPHONSE KASSANJI, Diamond Dealer (through translator): They can have a stone valued at $100,000, for example, but they’ll end up selling it to whites or Lebanese dealers for $30,000. Those people take that money to their countries. They don’t contribute to building roads here, and it doesn’t benefit the local population.

Elections reverse years of despair

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In fact, Congo’s history is filled with rape and pillaging, by foreigners like Belgium’s King Leopold and homegrown dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko, who pocketed billions and changed the country’s name to Zaire. More recently, there have been the rival warring factions and invasions from neighboring countries.

Warfare in Congo has claimed, by some estimates, as many as 4 million lives in the past decade. Many have died directly in fighting, many more as a result of war’s consequences, from disease and deprivation. Today, 2.5 million people live in camps, displaced from their homes and fields.

Despite an internationally-brokered and -enforced peace treaty, which installed a transitional government in 2002, about 1,000 people still die every day from fighting, diseases and treatable illnesses.

The U.N. says it’s critical that elections, which are called for under the treaty, be held to reverse decades of despair. On July 30th, some 33 candidates will be vying for the presidency, another 9,000 for the 500-seat parliament. A second round of elections will install local representatives, including governors in 11 provinces.

Retired U.S. diplomat William Swing is the U.N.’s chief administrator here.

WILLIAM SWING, U.N. Special Representative: In a way, the elections are the beginning. Up to now, we’ve been in a transition, trying to achieve a modicum of reconciliation that would allow the people to close ranks and say, “We’re all Congolese. Let’s go forward together.”

People are now, frankly, tiring. They’re really fatigued from the transition.

Misgivings about political process

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Diamond dealer Alphonse Kassanji agrees it’s time to move forward. He’s running for governor of Kasai Province. His goal: to make what’s above the land more reflective of the wealth beneath it.

ALPHONSE KASSANJI (through translator): We don’t have roads. We don’t know how to bring food here from the countryside, and vice versa.

And the other issue: no jobs. Seventy percent of the people are jobless. We need foreigners here, but we need them to invest so that people have decent jobs.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At the national level, the country has had a transitional government since 2002, led by Joseph Kabila, son of the assassinated dictator Laurent Kabila. He serves with four vice presidents from rival parties.

Kabila is expected to win the presidency this time. Miners, like Theodore Bechmanga, aren’t sure elections will bring any difference to their lives or any difference from the current transitional government.

THEODORE BECHMANGA (through translator): I don’t really care who wins. As they say, whoever marries my mother becomes my father. I think we’ve been dealing with thieves.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some political parties and the influential Catholic Church have also expressed misgivings about the process and called for postponing the elections. One leading party, the UDPS, is boycotting them.

Spokesman Valentin Mubake says it’s a deal that rewards corrupt warlords, and he suspects the motives of the international community. He says they’re after Congo’s soil or wealth.

VALENTIN MUBAKE, Spokesman, UDPS Party: Why people are so running to Congo? Is it for Congolese people? No. Is it for Congo? No, it’s for Congo’s soil.

“We don’t want election rigged”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: “Tshisekedi or nothing,” chant the UDPS supporters, invoking their leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, a democrat long revered across the country.

CONGOLESE CITIZEN (through translator): This is the message of the Congolese people: We don’t want the election rigged. The election is being run from Belgium. There really is no choice in who to vote for.

We don’t want this, because the people are sovereign. We’re going to burn all you white people, because you’re running this election without us.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In Congo’s war-ravaged eastern region, there seems greater support for the electoral process. About 90 percent of voters registered; maybe, they say, the election process will bring peace and a return home for more than 2 million displaced Congolese, refugees like Kialo Kasamani, from unspeakable horror.

KASAMANI KIALO, Congolese Refugee (through translator): We’ve been here for three years. I left Bunia three years ago. We fled when a neighbor, a young man of 18 years, was killed. The dogs were eating him. We fled by foot, me and my five children. We walked here, took 10 days. There was no food, nowhere for us to sleep.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Laurent Paluku heads the electoral commission office in the eastern town of Beni. A recent car accident left bruises on his face.

LAURENT PALUKU, Electoral Commission (through translator): I don’t want to play the prophet. I do have hope for these elections. For more than 45 years, we have had an illegal regime. Me, I think personally that at least, after the election, we will have designated people directly responsible for this country. We will have elected leaders, even if they’re not good leaders. And I think that’s a lot.

Results released mid-September

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But U.N. Chief Swing says international assistance, already more than $4 billion, will have to continue for years to achieve a stable, truly Democratic Republic of the Congo.

WILLIAM SWING: There is a tendency to see the elections as the exit strategy. I think we have to be more focused on what I would call a sustainment strategy.

First of all, there will not be a formed, integrated army. There will not be a new police force. You will still have these 10,000 foreign-armed elements there. You will still have armed local militia forces that will need to be disarmed, and you will still have a need for the state authority to be extended to all parts of the country, which hasn’t happened yet. So there’s a lot of work to be done.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Assuming no last-minute delays in the elections, official results will be released in mid-September.