With Congo’s elections just five days from now, the political climate is starting to heat up. I’m keenly aware that I am witnessing something quite historic. News stories on the subject almost always call these elections “the first free elections in 45 years”. There are others who will tell you that in reality they are the first “free elections” ever for Congo. There are still more who are criticizing these elections claiming that they are far from free.
I’ve intentionally avoided addressing politics very directly in my stories here. That’s not to say that the last five months haven’t been a lengthy lesson in Congo’s sordid political drama, past and present. There is no way that I could tell you the entire story here. It would take too long. It took months and many, many conversations before I finally could say that I understood the major movements of the most recent war, officially ended in 2003. (It’s still hanging on in some corners of the country, but not where I live.)
The jungle landscape and its lack of infrastructure (roads, principally), perceived insignificance to Westerners, and the sheer complexity of the crisis have kept much of the story out of the world media. All major roads were allowed to deteriorate by the dictator Mobutu in order to slow any opposition from sending a militia to the capital Kinshasa to stage a coup. He had plenty of money to maintain the roads constructed in the Belgian colonial era as his government was heavily funded by the west in the Cold War. He was the darling of Washington DC when he showed up in his trademark leopard skin hat at the White House during numerous visits. He was portrayed as a benevolent dictator even as he was eating his country’s future and building villas on the Italian Riviera, (probably the French one too and any other Riviera that struck his fancy…). Mobutu, like many African leaders, was left unfunded -down and out- after the end of the Cold War when the wealthy nations stopped paying many of the bills in Africa. They no longer cared about Mobutu’s allegiance. While writing his checks, they never seemed to care about his style of governance or the treatment of his people, either.
The Congo seems insignificant to the West because it’s largely landlocked in the dead center of the poorest continent. It is one of the poorest nations on earth. The Congolese chased out the Belgian colonizers in quick order after independence. (Read up on the colonial history and you may agree you’d have done it the same way.) The Belgians were here for the rich natural resources, many of which are still not fully explored or exploited. Their nice little country is bankrupt without external resources. Since they left, people from all over have been here to find diamonds, gold, cobalt, coltan, (something they need to make your cell phone and is almost exclusively found here,) and a laundry list of other natural riches. One great irony of the DR Congo is that it’s the richest poor country. The Congolese have been on the losing end of business deals for a long time. If you still think that your life has absolutely nothing to do with the Congo, just look at your diamond jewelry or wait for your cell phone to ring. Congo is quite significant to the rest of the world.
As Mobutu’s regime faded after the Cold War it left the door open for chaos to explode in a mad grab for Congo’s riches. Every neighboring country wanted a slice to sell in the world’s black markets. Without going into detail here, the world paid little attention while around 10 countries allied themselves with ambitious Congolese leaders and warlords and they waged a brutal war for the control of those resources. In an already poor nation, the feeble health system disintegrated. Every system failed under the weight of chaotic war. Millions of people have died from the failure to provide for basic needs. Meanwhile a prolonged war meant more wealth for those waging it and the illicit export of minerals funded the war nicely.
So Sunday will be a historic day with its election. These are some of the most tricky elections, with results being transported from local polling centers to about 65 regional centers (we’re talking about tens of millions of voters in a country the size of the USA east of the Mississippi) by motorcycle and from there to main cities by helicopter. I don’t believe that anyone really knows the true cost of the elections, or of the war for that matter, but considering the cost of the UN contingent here it’s well into the multiple billions. It’s probably the most expensive election the world has ever known.
I’ve been watching the campaigns, especially when they are hard to miss. There were two major rallies in front of my apartment on Saturday. (One was for the man who was allied with the Rwandese and the other for the man who was allied with the Ugandans.) Yesterday I saw people clamoring, even fighting, over yellow hats being handed out in support of Joseph Kabila, the current president.
All things considered, the elections are going very well here in Kisangani. I am keeping aware of the security situation. Please pray for peace as we know that true peace comes from God alone. As always, I ask for your prayers. I especially ask for your prayers for the people of Congo. I am not in any grave danger and if news comes out of trouble surrounding the elections in the coming weeks, remember that it is a very big country. I will be posting some of my observations here.
I encourage anyone who is interested to read up on the current coverage of the DR Congo. I’m sure it is being obscured somewhat by the most recent conflict in the Middle East. But nonetheless I have been following some very good coverage on the BBC, The New York Times, and NPR.