DRC set to rumble

Despite incidences of violence that have characterised the run-up to the poll in some parts of the DRC, the United Nations, the European Union, and other observers have expressed confidence that the poll, slated for this coming Sunday on July 30, will be successful.

The UN, which has deployed a 19,800-strong peacekeeping force to monitor the election and keep tempers down in volatile parts of the country, last week expressed optimism that the election would not be marred by incidences of violence, with early indications coming as rebel leaders have started showing interest in a political transition.

Joseph Kabila’s government last week accepted an offer by Ituri-based militia leader Peter Karim Udaga to lay down arms in exchange for a job as colonel in the Congolese army in what has marked the beginning of a wave of disarmaments among rebel groups.

Udaga’s forces, who recently kidnapped seven Nepalese UN peacekeepers, would disarm and be integrated into the national army ahead of the polling, which is scheduled to begin next week and this move has generated optimism in the prospects of greater stability in post-election DRC.

The disarmament of the rebel group comes amid calls by human rights groups in the DRC for all Congolese troops to be confined to their barracks to reduce chances of an outbreak of violence during next week’s election.

While it has already attracted the world’s biggest UN peacekeeping force, the DRC poll could mark a turning point in the history of the vast and wealthy country and the entire region, with significant investment prospects from both African countries and other global players awaiting the onset of stability.

Contrary to widely held perceptions that the poll would be a farce, Philippe Morillon, who heads the EU’s Electoral Observation Mission in the DRC last week said the country’s historic poll was not a masquerade preordained to install a semblance of democracy in the DR Congo.

He said the observer mission would be neutral and would not tolerate any attempts of fraud during the elections, adding that the Congolese people would also have their own witnesses to monitor the voting.

At least 12 European deputies are expected to arrive in Kinshasa on Tuesday this week to participate in the monitoring of the polls. Morillon is reported to have said the DRC’s future would begin on July 30, and he promised that the EU would offer assistance to the country after the election.

The UN-backed polls are aimed at ushering in a new era of stability to the former Belgian colony, which went through a gruelling five-year war that claimed four million people and displaced millions more between 1998 and 2003 following the death of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The war drew in six countries and only ceased in 2003, marking the end of one of the continent’s bloodiest conflicts.

Since the assassination of the DRC’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba in 1962, only Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 32 years, had contested in elections in DRC’s history. Mobutu organised a series of masqueraded polls in which all citizens belonged to his party and were required by law to vote for him.

He was toppled by militias led by Laurent Kabila and backed by other countries in 1997, after which Kabila assumed power and fended off a Uganda-Rwanda led insurrection with the assistance of Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe until he was assassinated by one of his personal guards in 2001.

The DRC has an estimated 62 million people, and is one of the wealthiest countries in the region, with vast gold, diamond and uranium deposits that have been at the center of endless conflicts throughout the country’s history.

It also holds promise for southern Africa in the region’s efforts to alleviate the current energy woes, as there are a number of gorges along the Congo River that can be harnessed for generating hydro-electricity. The country stands as an unexploited regional powerhouse in mining and other industries, as its development has been stalled by looting and conflict.

At least 50 percent of the DRC’s population is below the age of 16, forming a significant human resource base for the country’s economic growth and reconstruction. International efforts to maintain peace have greatly reduced hostilities in the country, but an estimated 1,200 people still die daily from conflict-related causes.

The election is expected to change the fortunes of many in the DRC, and the African Union, EU and the UN have all expressed hope that all will go well in Africa’s biggest and most expensive election in history.

July 2006
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