DRC clings to peace

Last week’s eruption of violence ignited by the outcome of the poll had endangered a delicate ceasefire achieved by the UN and other African countries after the country’s four-year civil war. A run-off poll pitting Kabila against arch rival Bemba is set for October 29.

Kinshasa was rocked by gunfire for three days as the tension that had gathered throughout the period of voting came to a head with the announcement of results, in which Kabila failed to reach the mandatory 50 per cent with 45 per cent while Bemba trailed with 20 per cent.

The DRC’s once notorious rebel groups and members of the army with split loyalties between Kabila and Bemba are reported to have joined the peace effort in Kinshasa this week, patrolling the city’s volatile suburbs with UN and EU troops deployed to quell the violence.

The UN called on Kabila and Bemba to create a conducive atmosphere to allow the smooth running of the second round of the elections to be held in October.

Kabila scored a majority of 45 percent of the more than 16 million votes cast in last month’s historical election, while vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba got 20 percent. United Nations peacekeepers assisted by EU troops evacuated 14 foreign envoys from Bemba’s lakeside residence after it came under heavy attack from suspected Kabila loyalists.

Observers say that the 17,000-strong United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUC) must utilise its robust mandate to use force in order to quell the violence, as it has done previously in the volatile eastern regions during the run-up to the July polls, before things spiral out of control.

Bemba, a wealthy former rebel leader, is reported to have refused to disarm his private army while Kabila ignored all demands by the international community to garrison the presidential guard, answerable only to the head of state, during the electoral process.

Bemba and Kabila are reportedly also being subjected to intense diplomatic pressure in a bid to end the current impasse that threatens to overshadow the success of the DRC’s first multiparty polls in 40 years held on July 29.

Many Congolese agree that the run-offs are crucial to ending decades of misrule and conflict in Africa’s most mineral-rich state. More than a thousand people continue to die daily from treatable diseases and the effects of years of war.

Meanwhile neighbouring Zambia and Angola have reportedly deployed soldiers at their respective borders with the DRC, as the escalating violence reverberates throughout the region.

The UN-backed polls were 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 demise 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.

But in January 2001, a personal guard assassinated Kabila. His son, Joseph, took over, negotiated peace, and has promised national elections this year.

Despite relative international peace, DRC is still a killing field. About 1 200 people die daily from conflict-related causes. Civilians are at greater risk of violent death than soldiers.

August 2006
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