Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Elections in Congo

I wrote this post from on July 30th - elections day.

Today is a historic day for Congo - democratic elections. After five decades of dictatorship then war then a temporary post-war government, a president will be elected rather than imposed. The logistics are astounding. Congo is the size of Western Europe, and the systems of roads can hardly be called a system of anything. The international community is using helicopters, planes and whatever else it takes to get ballots and observers to remote areas. An article I referred to in an earlier post stated that Congo elections would make the ones in Iraq look like a cakewalk

Yesterday two friends stopped by for some apple pie and lemonade (what can I say, I was feeling a bit Martha Steward ala Congo). They could not stay for long because apparently some key elections document had an error in it and they were organizing the printing of 45,000 new documents. I volunteered that we could print some out at our office - with out little boxy photocopier, I'd say we could print out about 500 before it simply overheated. Needless to say, they didn't take me up on the offer.

I would like to head around town and see if it looks like a historic day or just a normal Sunday. Perhaps check out a polling station. But for security reasons it is best to stay put. Should any one group of people be unhappy at the way things are going, there is a tendency to express anger at whoever is around, and foreigners are good targets.

Apparently there’s a protest at the headquarters of United Nations peacekeeping mission (known as MONUC). I feel a bit bad for MONUC. Here they are, doing more for Congo in terms of security and democracy than the government has ever been able to do, even if the mission has had a few serious problems along the way. But every bit of negative energy is displaced onto MONUC. If MONUC messes up, I get it. But so much of the time it has nothing to do with them. Example - A student is killed in a rally? Protest against MONUC. The Congolese Independent Electoral Commission postpones elections? Set fire to some MONUC vehicles. A soccer player in Lubumbashi is traded to a European team? March outside of MONUC headquarters to express your anger (this actually happened). The classic psychological defense mechanism of displacement seems to have been perfected, if not invented, on a collective scale in Congo. This is a place where unpaid soldiers have gone and raped women in response to not getting paid. This is a place where criminals will be protected from punishment, because in the end, no one who has managed to get power at this point has done it without blood on their hands, with the possible exception of an opposition leader who did not register for presidential candidacy. So others will be blamed that are not within the ranks. Casting the first stone has no advantages. I hope the war criminals will go the way of the International Criminal Court, because there is not much likelihood for justice within these borders.

But all of this - protests, rape, war, politics, anger, hope, etc - seems quite far away as I sit on the porch of the house where I am staying in Lubumbashi. It is a lovely day where the weather brings to mind southern California. I’m sipping a coffee mixed with vanilla soy milk. Who knew you could find vanilla soy milk in Congo? You can, but it costs $12.

I am working with two friends from work on a project proposal. I have three days left of work, and then I am no longer among the ranks of the employed.

We hear a noise that sounds like a gunshot.

“Was that a gunshot?”
“Hhmmm. Maybe. Or just a truck back-firing.”
“Who knows. Do we have any coffee left?’

We go back to our work.

So my friends are creating a pool where we bet which day elections results are going to be announced. No one to whom I’ve spoken - including people working on the elections - has been able to pin down a date. I say August 22nd. We could also add the following questions to our bets:

Who will be the first candidate to claim fraud? (I say Bemba)
When will the first protest march take place? (as if they hadn’t started already! Peaceful ones for the most part)
What province will experience the first post elections violence? (Ituri, perhaps?)


In the end, elections went fine. Let's watch out for the results though. When candidates have their own armies and only one can win, there's bound to be some trouble. Congo is still worth fighting for, and the fight is hardly confined to politics - the losers have more have more to gain operating outside of the political framework once they fail to hold on to power within it.


Blogger TheMalau said...

Hi Sarah
The problem is often that many people have internalized a sense of "mascarade", of a smoke-screen, of a fake safety-net, when it comes to MONUC. See, if people :
- are already convinced that everything is somewhat rigged to maintain those in power there;
- and there is a sentiment that foreigners/"International Community are behind the rigging in one fantastic form or another;
- and the CIAT (The International Community watchdog institution of the transition) is - in many people's eyes - the real kingmaker, and the real center of power in the country;
- And this CIAT is headed by an American (who was already in the country, as US Ambassador, during the years when his country supported Mobutu), who is also the head of MONUC;
Then MONUC is somehow seen as an occupying power, a surrogate interim-authority, doing the bidding of those foreign interests that people are scared of. So since they are seen as somewhat the real power in the country, and they are the only part of this system that is sensitive to popular pressures, they are used as the target for people's anger.

We often forget that this (MONUC) is the second UN mission in Congo, and that the first one (ONUC) did not leave good memories in Congo, especially when we know that they did nothing to stop Prime Minister Lumumba from being killed.

Don't get me wrong, I am a supporter of MONUC. But I can also understand people's mistrust of them, because until recently, foreign governments (of any part of the world) had little to show for their support to the Congolese people development. People are grateful for food, refugee camps, and peacekeepers, and elections. Now they want community empowerment, education tools, cultural recognition and respect, and economic empowerment. Now, I know MONUC is trying hard, but they are largely understaffed for the task. Wherever they DID something (power plants, bridges, roads, joint military operations (ituri), etc), they are not protested against.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Kingston Girl said...

I've been following the elections as best as I can (you know the usual - anything happening outside of the west or the middle east is ignored) and hope everythign stays calm. One of my friends is heading off to Cote D'ivore to work with the UN for their elections so the subject of the UN getting attached is close to me at the moment!

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I guess it is time for you to bid farewell to the Congo. When are flying in to Kinshasa? Are you taking the 1700 flight to Kinshasa on Friday? I am leaving for the motherland on Saturday via Paris (hurrahh) and I will be gone for 16 days. I would like to take you out for a drink or dinner or lunch or whatever, if you are around. Give me a call at 0811 710 314. If not maybe we can meet in the States sometime in the future. You an email me at my last name@un.org (you can find my last name somewhere in your blog...)

Take care,

Tasos K.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

Leaving the Congo already!? Like your good friend 007 in Africa, your postings from the DR Congo will be sorely missed. Thanks for helping to enlighten those of us who yearn to know more about day-to-day life in the DRC.

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices Online and My Heart's in Accra has a related post this month on the role of U.N. peacekeepers in crisis regions and the unfair blame they get from all quarters. You're right, the Blue Bonnets cain't get no respect no matter how hard they try. Forget about their minor problems down in the DRC, look at the vicious attacks against them in Lebanon and Iraq.

Good luck on your trip home to the States and Godspeed. Tell your Dad not to worry about those UN Blue Helmets in the Congo offering you free drinks, they're just lonely and far from home. It's those local wolves offering to buy you a drink STATESIDE that he needs to be worrying about.

Again, good luck with your life and career.

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