World's most complex election brings hope to war-ravaged Congo

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Seventeen-year-old Maria turned to her son, Joseph, aged nine months, and told him what she hopes will happen when he grows up. "You will be elected President of Congo," she said.

Maria left school at 13. She has no job and is shunned by her family who believe she has brought shame upon them by having a child out of wedlock. But she has hope - and a new-found belief in democracy shared by the Democratic Republic of Congo's 60 million people that none of them have ever experienced before. While the chances of baby Joseph becoming head of state may be slim, many of her compatriots believe that another Joseph - Kabila - will become the DRC's first democratically elected leader in more than 40 years when the country goes to the polls on Sunday.

The 25 million voters will choose between 33 hopefuls and 9,500 parliamentary candidates on ballot papers the size of a table cloth. It is the most expensive election in Africa's history.

According to the United Nations, it has also been the world's most complicated election to organise. In a country the size of western Europe but with only 300 miles of paved road, many of the 53,000 ballot boxes are on their way to polling stations via dug-out canoes or on election officials' backs through the jungle.

The main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), is boycotting the poll, claiming it will not be free or fair. Their demonstrations in Kinshasa, the capital, have been broken up by riot police firing tear gas. At a rally in the eastern border town of Rutshuru last week seven demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers.

Mr Kabila, who came to power in 2001 at the age of 29 after his father, Laurent, was assassinated, is the favourite. As President of the transitional government, Mr Kabila has a 14,000-strong presidential guard and total control of state media. He is the only candidate with name recognition across the country's 11 districts. The top two candidates will run off against each other in October, at the earliest, and a final result is not expected until the new year. Whoever wins will have to do nothing less than build a nation from the bottom up.

The DRC has endured more than a century of brutal misruleand the effects of a regional war, which involved at least six other countries and killed four million Congolese over the past decade, are still being felt. About 1,200 people - half of them infants - are still dying each day from war-related diseases. And if they are not dying, children are fighting. Abducted in their thousands by militia groups, the boys become soldiers, the girls sex slaves.

Mugele Mukobya Mizegele's village in the southern Katanga region was attacked by armed militiamen. As his family fled for their lives, his father, brother and sister managed to escape but Mugele and his mother were captured. The militia's leader told Mugele's mother she had to stay and work for them as a porter. "She refused," said Mugele, "so they killed her in front of me. Then they gave me a gun and made me fight."

Before his village was attacked, Mulenge was training to become a mechanic. But from the age of 14 he has carried an AK-47. For the past three years he has lived alongside the people who killed his mother in the jungle fighting against rival militia groups and government forces.

When baby Joseph grows up, Maria will have to tell him his father is dead. She married a militiaman at 13 and had twins while he fought in the bush. After he was killed she was forced to become a soldier. Several of her husband's comrades raped her. The last rape produced Joseph. "I wish to be able to go to school," she said. "But I am too old now. I will learn something manual so I can work and afford to send my children to school. They will learn, work, then one of them will become President of Congo. If my children can study, they will be useful for society. We need people who can be useful."

Mugele and Maria are no longer part of the militia and are being supported by humanitarian groups. But for countless others, the fighting continues. Save the Children says an even greater number of of children are being re-recruited as fighters and sex slaves. Regional observers fear that militia groups, concerned that they might lose power when the votes are counted, are gearing up for a fresh conflict. There are no signs that Congo's nightmare is coming to an end.