Successive wars in the Congo, one starting in 1996, the other in 1998, have left the country devastated. After five years of fighting and an estimated 3.5 million dead, most of them civilians, an agreement was reached in 2003 that called for general elections and a new constitution by 2005. In the first round of elections last summer some 3,400 candidates came forward to contest the 500 seats in the House of Assembly, 800 on the ballot in the capital Kinshasa alone. There were thirty-three presidential candidates. The ballot paper was a six-page poster-sized document with pen portraits of all the candidates that made them hard to recognize. The campaign sloganeering and banners didn’t say ‘Vote Adam Bombole, Health for All’, for example, but ‘Vote Adam Bombole, page 4 No. 352’.
Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and a veteran former minister under Mobutu Sese Seko, had called for a boycott of the elections in July. Young men in Kinshasa fought battles with police in his name as they tore down and burned election paraphernalia, directing special hostility at the face of President Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his father, Laurent, after he was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001. Joseph Kabila was running as an independent, though he was listed as an ‘initiator’ of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, which chose him as their candidate.
I asked a Congolese friend if he had a theory about the large number of candidates. ‘Visibility is everything,’ he told me. ‘Get yourself on a list, so when the next thing happens, perhaps a peace agreement where power and influence are divided up, you will be on it somewhere.’ Kabila and his main rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who have been at war with each other and control separate armies barracked in Kinshasa, have unofficially divided up these spoils for years.
Bemba, who is the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a rebel group turned political party, took twenty per cent of the 17 million votes to Kabila’s forty-four per cent in the first round. The Kinshasa streets mirrored the wasteland that has been wrought by war between these two men: the lack of basic services, the populist politicking, the violent rallies. But there is a hope that the 450 million dollars, given mostly by the European Union towards the election, will transform this rivalry into a constitutional debate.