Fears of violence cast cloud on Congo election

AP News
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Posted: Nov 21, 2011 9:46 AM
Fears of violence cast cloud on Congo election

One leading opposition candidate already has proclaimed himself president. Police have fired live bullets into the air at protests. And rebels in the country's violence-wracked east have been burning voter cards to keep people from going to the polls.

The outcome of Congo's Nov. 28 presidential election is almost certain to keep President Joseph Kabila in power, but so too is the likelihood it will bring more chaos to sub-Saharan Africa's largest nation.

How the elections unfold will be a likely indicator of whether Congo is consolidating its fledgling democracy or returning to a state of widespread instability after decades of dictatorship and civil war, according to the International Crisis Group.

Western nations have spent billions of dollars trying to stabilize this vast mineral-rich nation, where China also has massively invested in recent years.

But already human rights groups are expressing fears about an atmosphere of spiraling violence and hate speech ahead of the vote. New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has documented dozens of cases, including one targeting supporters from leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi's province.

"There are too many mosquitoes in the living room. Now is the time to apply insecticide," Gabriel Kyungu, a Kabila ally, was quoted as saying. Kyungu, who is president of the Katanga provincial assembly, has denied the accusation.

Next week's vote also comes as large-scale impunity continues to plague the Central African country. Among those running for legislative office is Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, an eastern militia commander accused of ordering the rapes of hundreds of women last year.

"Congolese authorities should be arresting Sheka for mass rape whether he is running for office or not," Human Rights Watch said. "The failure to arrest someone who is out publicly campaigning for votes sends a message that even the most egregious crimes will go unpunished."

An estimated 5 million people died in back-to-back wars in Congo that began as a spillover from Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The fighting continued until 2003, and drew in the armies of a half dozen nations in what became a scramble for Congo's vast mineral resources.

Kabila became president after his father's 2001 assassination and won a landmark 2006 vote that was largely run by the United Nations, which still has some 19,000 peacekeepers here nearly a decade after civil war ended.

Since then, Kabila has pushed electoral reforms though parliament that include only one round of voting for the presidential ballot, instead of two. Opposition parties acknowledge that their only chance of beating the incumbent in this scenario is to field one common candidate, but egos and political ambitions have prevented them from agreement.

Eleven candidates are running for president, and opposition politicians charge the electoral commission is biased toward Kabila. Tshisekedi, the leading opponent, has resorted to inciting his supporters to stage jailbreaks to free detained supporters.

The elections are already taking place amid significant unrest in the country's east, where dozens of militia groups and rebels continue to terrorize people. Government soldiers and rebels have brutally raped women, men and children, and burned down villages. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes because of violence.

The fighting is fueled by the competition to control mines, many operated by soldiers, rebels and militiamen who use the minerals to fund their armed groups.

Kabila swept the vote in the east during the last elections, but his inability to bring peace to the region has cost him support as did his invitation for much-hated Rwandan troops to return there during 2009 in a failed attempt to stamp out Rwandan rebels wreaking havoc inside Congo.

On the development front, Kabila has negotiated a massive, $6-billion barter deal with China, trading some of Congo's minerals for infrastructure including roads, railways, hospitals and bridges in the country where most transport is by river or air. Congo sprawls across an area the size of Western Europe in the heart of Africa and neighbors nine other countries.

But Kabila has done little to fulfill promises to bring transparency and end the endemic corruption that riddles business in Congo. His is the only well-funded electoral campaign and some are pointing to a murky deal in which the state copper and cobalt miner Gecamines is said to have sold assets at billions less than they were worth. No one will say how much the mines' assets have been sold for, nor what has happened to the money.

A U.N. report on election violence blames most on a crackdown imposed by politically manipulated police, intelligence agents and justice officials. Information Minister Lambert Mende said the report was trying to make martyrs of the opposition.

"A trend seems to be emerging wherein parties are targeted more often in regions where they have significant numbers of followers and are predicted to be the biggest threat against the ruling majority and the president," the U.N. report said.

It warned that continued repression and rights abuses "may increase the likelihood of individuals and political parties resorting to violent means, endanger the democratic process and lead to post-electoral violence."

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Faul reported from Johannesburg.