Can Congo's new leopard change his spots?

Fourteen years after kleptocrat Mobutu was overthrown, his son is aiming to restore the family name. But many Congolese feel little has changed, reports Daniel Howden from Kinshasa

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The Independent Online

With its neat lawns, white mansions and wide verandas overlooking the fast flowing Congo River, Avenue de Nations Unies preserves a little of the colonial era in Kinshasa. While most residents of this dilapidated African metropolis picked their way gingerly through flooded lanes and open sewers yesterday to reach polling stations, the elite residents of the avenue made their way down a road lined with flowering trees and armed guards.

By midmorning, Mobutu Nzanga had left his palatial home in the exclusive district in a black motorcade with tinted windows. His car raced over the capital's crumbling roads, lights flashing and foetid water splashing over the people as it went. The eldest son of the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was on his way to vote for himself for president.

He wasn't seriously expected to challenge the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, the son of the man who toppled his father. But his presence on the ballot was a reminder that the starkest divisions in the land his father ruled for 32 years are not so much political as between the haves and the have-nots.

A big man in an ample business suit, Mobutu Nzanga was surrounded by a gang of youths who chanted "son of the father" and screamed at other voters to get out of the way. Obliging poll officials were keen to overlook the fact that his wife – the sister of Jean Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician on trial for war crimes at The Hague – had forgotten her voting card. She declined the offer.

After voting, Mobutu Nzanga declared that Africa's legendary kleptocrat would have been "proud" of the democratic process Mobutu Jnr had just taken part in. Holding a bible and speaking in US-accented English, he extolled the virtues of decentralisation and development while being careful not to slander the status quo. He then paid tribute to the former dictator: "Under my father there was peace for 32 years and after he went five million of my countrymen died." (His father, the "old leopard", had toyed with democracy but in the end he held a sham vote instead.) "Some people want to bring back the old days of one-party rule," said Mobutu Nzanga, and while he didn't agree, he was "proud to have a name that still resonates".

As his motorcade churned the mud on its way out of the school used as a polling station, there was a last "son of the father" gesture. The window rolled down and a hand emerged with a fat wad of banknotes for the mob. And perhaps such a moment reinforces the idea that some critics hold: 14 years after "Mobutism" collapsed under the weight of its own failings and a foreign-backed invasion led by Laurent Kabila, the Democratic Republic of Congo is little different from the Zaire of old.

"The Mobutu regime is not dead, it's still there under different management," said Professor Phillip Biyoyi of the University of Kinshasa.

On the other side of the sprawling capital, among the densely populated slums of Ndjili, people were having a different polling day experience yesterday. Ndjili is the stronghold of Etienne Tshisekedi, a septuagenarian opposition leader who has been jailed at different times by both the Kabila and Mobutu clans.

Francine Asabiel, 26, was searching for her name at stations all over the area. Drenched and fed up, she was one of hundreds of voters unable to find somewhere to cast their vote.

"I'm not angry but I am worried," she said. "It's happening to almost everyone and I'm worried what people will do."

Blood was spilled in this neighbourhood last weekend when the Republican Guard, loyal to the president, opened fire on unarmed opposition supporters. Yesterday, armoured personnel carriers with heavy weapons and truckloads of armed police dressed head to foot in body armour patrolled the mud roads.

At one polling station people had been waiting for three hours as despairing election officials told them there were no booths and no ink to mark their fingers so they couldn't vote. In the schoolyard a frightened female official had been surrounded by a furious mob demanding to know where she was taking a stack of unused ballot papers.

At least nine people died in election-related violence. And disturbing reports emerged from Eastern Congo suggesting pro-Kabila militiamen were seizing people's voting cards and stuffing ballots. So chaotic was the process that it was announced last night that voting would continue into a second day.

Many worry that this is just the prelude to more serious unrest when a result is announced next week. The vanity of the country's elite has helped to create 400 political parties whose armies of candidates have resulted in a ballot paper of 53 pages.

This is a crisis long foretold. Experienced logistics experts agree that Congo is the "toughest place in the world" to hold elections, beating even Afghanistan. It has few roads outside the capital and neighbouring provinces, a slow-burning civil war in the East and an ineffective, corrupt government whose control barely extends beyond Kinshasa.

The absence of a road network has meant that the mammoth ballots have in many placed had to be delivered on foot or by canoe. As the poll date loomed South Africa, Angola and the UN scrambled planes, helicopters and speedboats to deliver election materials to Congo's otherwise inaccessible interior. Helicoptering ballots to villages deep in the forest, where few people can read and where there's no running water or electricity has struck some observers as bizarre. "It's insane," agreed one Western diplomat. "But what else can we do?"

Profile: Mobutu Sese Seko

Joseph Mobutu, then an army chief, seized power from Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1965 in a bloody CIA-backed coup. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire and himself Mobutu Sese Seko.

Under his 36-year dictatorship, Zaire became a springboard for US operations against Soviet-backed Angola. He was tall, imposing, and never without his trademark leopard-skin hat and cane. He was blamed for mass corruption and the economic ruin of the country.

At the end of the Cold War in 1990, Mobutu agreed to end the ban on other political parties, but retained substantial powers. Following riots, he brought in opposition figures.

In 1997 neighbouring Rwanda invaded Zaire, boosting the anti-Mobutu rebels, who overthrew Mobutu, installed Laurent Kabila as President and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mobutu went into exile in Togo, but lived mostly in Morocco, where he died of prostate cancer in September 1997.

Jenny Stevens