Dread permeates Congo ahead of election results

AP News
Posted: Dec 04, 2011 7:00 PM
Dread permeates Congo ahead of election results

Business owners moved their stock into secure locations on Sunday and families waited to board boats to leave this troubled nation by crossing the mighty river separating it from its neighbor, as early results gave the country's 40-year-old president a nearly insurmountable lead in the recent election.

A sense of dread permeated the capital, as citizens awaited the proclamation of results Tuesday from Congo's contested presidential ballot, a vote that was supposed to mark another step toward peace but which instead could be a flashpoint for more violence.

With half the precincts counted, President Joseph Kabila was leading with 4.9 million votes, or nearly 49 percent. His opponent Etienne Tshisekedi, who had proclaimed himself president before voting began, was trailing with 3.4 million votes, about 34 percent.

The opposition has insisted the vote was rigged, and over the weekend, the 10 parties vying to unseat Kabila said they rejected the partial results.

The Roman Catholic Church, which holds enormous sway in this overwhelmingly Christian nation, held a rare news conference to appeal to the country's political leaders.

"The image that comes to mind is that of a train traveling at high speed, heading straight into a wall. We're under the impression that no one is putting on the brakes," said Bishop Nicolas Djomo, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Congo on Sunday.

"We call on all the political actors, on all the leaders, to stop this train from slamming into a wall. ... We're worried. And there's reason for worry," he said.

International observers have said the election was marred by irregularities, including the late arrival of ballots which caused last Monday's vote to be extended over three consecutive days.

They also noted instances of possible fraud but said there did not appear to be a systematic pattern which would have changed the outcome of the election. The largest observation mission was organized by the clergy which dispatched a team of 30,000 election monitors, who were present in over 20 percent of the 60,000 polling stations.

Djomo said that they too had witnessed irregularities but that their conclusion is that the vote overall was credible because the anomalies were limited. Opposition party members heckled the bishop when he made the statement and Tshisekedi's chief of staff said he was disappointed by the church's position.

Throughout the city, shop owners had emptied out their merchandise. On one of the main boulevards downtown, a business that sold LG flatscreen televisions had taken them down. Looking into the showroom from the street, all you could see were the wall mountings where the TVs used to be affixed.

"It's just until the election results are announced," said Benjamin Famba, the lone guardian who was left to watch over the empty business. "As soon as we see what happens, we'll bring the TVs and the fridges back."

At the port on the Congo River which separates Kinshasa from Brazzaville, the capital of Congo's neighbor to the north, a security official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press said that for the past week, the boats have been filled with the wives and children of Congo's elite.

"I recognize the politicians. They're fleeing. They came with their suitcases. Their children," he said.

Congo has survived two civil wars, which together pulled in nine neighboring countries in a conflict that ate at the heart of Africa. Even though Congo is the size of Western Europe, it remains one of the globe's most impoverished nations recently listed dead last on the United Nations worldwide index of human development.

Country experts fear that the showdown between Kabila, who controls the army, and Tshisekedi, who controls the street, could cause Congo to lose the little ground it has gained since the country held its first democratic elections in 2006.