DR Congo vote: The dangers of democracy

Andrew Harding
Africa correspondent
@BBCAndrewHon Twitter

media captionHopes and fears for DR Congo's election on Monday

There is a frenzy in the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The crowds one evening this week surge along the dark, dirt roads towards the blare and roar of a slow procession of cars.

Even the pickpockets are grinning, as I pull one hand, then another, from my pockets.

The presidential election campaign has come to town, and the local favourite, Vital Kamerhe, is being borne on the back of a pickup, atop a makeshift throne, through the centre of Goma.

"We want roads, we want hospitals, we want jobs, we want our leaders to pay us attention," shouts a group of young men to me in near unison, as the procession surges round us and we cling to a police post for safety.

There is a ferocious desire for change, and peace, in DR Congo - coupled with a deep sense of humiliation that such a rich country has been brought so low for so long.

But the elections - 11 people are running for the presidency and a mere 19,000 for seats in parliament - have also inspired the sort of heated loyalties that could well trigger violence when the results come through.

"The incumbent will win, and the losers will create chaos - or try to create chaos. But we will sort it out here in Goma in a couple of days," says Bizima Karaha - an influential powerbroker and businessman, who invites me for dinner at his lakeside villa.

Mr Karaha, who has the ability to insert himself into every key moment in the country's tumultuous political journey, seems fairly confident that President Joseph Kabila will hold on to power, if only because the opposition is divided and there is only one round of voting.

But like many here, he warns of the deep Balkan-style ethnic tensions that still simmer in the DR Congo and compares the situation to Ivory Coast - "the only difference there is that the incumbent lost".

As if to prove the point, a tribal chief arrives at the villa from the mountains west of Lake Kivu, and tells Mr Karaha that forces linked to a presidential candidate are arming local men with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket propelled grenades.


Nothing better illustrates the enduring lawlessness and impunity here in eastern DR Congo than the case of Ntabo Ntaberi Cheka, a militia leader wanted for allegedly organising mass rapes, who is openly campaigning for election as a local MP.

A credible source tells me that he appeared in the centre of Walikale on Wednesday, under the protection of the Congolese army that has orders to arrest him.

"We are disappointed," says Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, who runs the UN's mission, Monusco, in the region. "But we hope that he will face justice in the future."

Elsewhere in the Kivus, other candidates have faced death threats and been forced to abandon their campaigns.

And yet, one well-placed Western official in Goma, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that, despite massive logistical problems - and the lingering possibility of a short postponement - the election process had been going more smoothly than anticipated, and that most of the tensions were related to "parochial" issues that might create "flashpoints" but would not necessarily derail the country.

Perhaps DR Congo will manage to navigate a smooth path through the coming days.

The region will be watching this wounded giant and its latest election closely.

But it could be close, and tense - a dangerous ordeal rather than a celebration of democracy.

Inside DR Congo
size map
The Democratic Republic of Congo covers 2,344,858 square km of land in the centre of Africa, making it the 12th largest country in the world.
size map
Eastern DR Congo is awash with a variety of different rebel groups – some have come from neighbouring countries, while others have formed as self-defence groups. Many are taking advantage of the lack of a strong state to seize control of the area's mineral riches.
mineral wealth map
DR Congo has abundant mineral wealth. It has more than 70% of the world's coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet's diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. This wealth however has attracted looters and fuelled the country's civil war.
transport map
Despite the country's size, transport infrastructure is very poor. Of 153,497km of roads, only 2,794km are paved. There are around 4,000 km of railways but much is narrow-gauge track and in poor condition. Waterways are vital to transport goods but journeys can take months to complete. Overcrowded boats frequently capsize, while DR Congo has more plane crashes than any other country.
population map
With an estimated population of 71 million, DR Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa. Some 35% of the population live in cities and the capital Kinshasa is by far the largest, with more than 8 million inhabitants. DR Congo has around 200 ethnic identities with the majority of people belonging to the Kongo, Luba and Mongo groups.
demographic map
Given its size and resources DR Congo should be a prosperous country, but years of war, corruption and economic mismanagement have left it desperately poor. In 2011 it lags far behind in many key development indicators, with average life expectancy increasing by only 2 years since 1980, after a period when it actually fell during the mid 1990s.