Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Turning A Nightmare into a Dream -- Maybe

Earlier this year the cynics and the nay-sayers predicted that Africa would never see a woman as president of any country. Then came January 17, 2006 in Liberia – the “step-child” of the U.S. -- and the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president.

As head of a nation of 3 million that emerged a scant two years ago from two decades of civil war, Johnson-Sirleaf has a monumental challenge before her – one described as “turning on the lights one at a time.”

This past Sunday, July 30, another election took place that the cynics and nay-sayers had said would never be held. Yet for the first time in a little more than 46 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country the size of Western Europe with more than 200 ethnic groups, appears to have successfully held a nation-wide election.

International observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and from the European Union (EU) expressed their satisfaction that the election, in which an estimated 22 million voters cast ballots, was transparent and credible.

There were instances of intimidation and attacks on some of the 50,000 polling stations by small factions that had refused to join the political process or who foresaw a loss of prestige and influence if they fared poorly. For example, Azarias Ruberwa, who led one of the larger rebel groups until appointed a vice-president in the current government, has already said he will demand a repeat ballot in some specific areas. Significantly, Ruberwa has said he will employ all legal means to annul Sunday’s results.

Recognizing these shortcomings in Sunday’s general balloting, the Electoral Commission directed 172 polling stations to re-open on Monday to allow those who might have been denied the right to vote on Sunday by the presence of anti-election demonstrators to participate in the ballot.

Conversely, Jean-Piette Bemba, also a former rebel leader (Congolese Liberation Movement) and a vice president in the current government, holds leads in six of the country’s eleven provinces.

Given the size of the DRC, the condition of the transportation grid, and the necessity to use paper ballots, the results may not be definitive for as long as three weeks. Even then, there is a strong possibility that no one candidate will pull the 50+ percent of the votes required to win outright. Should the contest go to a run-off, most observers say the opponents will be Bemba and the current president, Joseph Kabila. Initial returns favour Bemba in the cities and Kabila in rural areas.

Regardless of who finally wins, the probability is slim that the 17,000 member UN peacekeeping force – MONUC – could be reduced significantly. Eastern DRC remains volatile from continuing ethnic tensions, the presence of armed bands professing solidarity with the objectives of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and government troops from neighbouring Rwanda hunting exiled Hutus who conduct cross-border raids.

In January, 1961 the Congo’s only elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. It has been said that he was thbe only Congolese leader who rose above "ethnic difficulties and tribal pre-occupations.”

If the winner of this election can do the same, and also get the lights to come on, even one by one, perhaps – just perhaps – DRC will finally begin to pull itself from its nightmare.

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