Congo holds its breath, election results expected

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2011 11:58 AM
Congo holds its breath, election results expected

Hotels were emptying out, airlines canceled their flights and people were rushing to stock their pantries ahead of the announcement of results Tuesday from a contested presidential election which could plunge Congo back into conflict.

Many fear a return to violence in the showdown between the country's 40-year-old president, who controls the army, and Congo's 78-year-old opposition leader, who controls the street.

With half the votes counted, President Joseph Kabila was ahead with 49 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for longtime opposition chief, Etienne Tshisekedi. It makes it all but certain that Kabila will be declared the winner when results are published.

The country's five mobile phone providers agreed to suspend text messages after inflammatory messages were sent out calling for violence. Air France suspended a midweek flight. And people with suitcases were waiting to board speedboats to cross the 3-mile-wide (5-kilometer-wide) river separating Kinshasa from Congo's neighbor to the north.

"We're worried," said Bishop Nicolas Djomo, president of the Catholic bishop's conference of Congo. "The image that comes to mind is of a high-speed train that is barreling straight toward a wall. We're under the impression that no one is putting on the brakes."

Besides the clergy, the African Union and the United Nations have appealed to the two leaders to avoid bloodshed. South African President Jacob Zuma said he had personally called both Kabila and Tshisekedi to urge them to put the nation before their personal ambitions.

"I impressed upon them the need for sound leadership and unity at this time," said Zuma, in a statement released by his office. "They assured me of their willingness to cooperate and put the country first."

Congo's back-to-back wars which ended in 2003 consumed this nation at the heart of Africa.

"The Congolese that you see here are more dangerous than the Tunisians and the Egyptians. It takes them a long time to get angry, but when they do, its violent," said Sebastien Tshibangu, editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper and an opposition supporter.

The political impasse facing Congo is a result in part of a chaotic and badly organized election. Not enough ballots were printed, and the planes carrying some failed to leave the capital in time due to stormy weather. The Nov. 28 vote had to be held over four consecutive days in order to give time for porters carrying ballots on their heads to reach the remote interior of a nation that's the size of Western Europe. Only 2 percent of roads in Congo are paved.

Observers saw numerous irregularities including several instances of possible ballot stuffing, but the majority said that the vote overall was credible because the anomalies were not widespread enough to have changed the outcome of the election. Opposition parties see it differently, however.

At an intersection, opposition supporters were selling sheets showing provisional results that put Tshisekedi ahead. Before cell phone providers suspended texting, text messages were being forwarded that claimed Tshisekedi was leading with 90 percent. Opposition leaders held a press conference over the weekend where they said they rejected the results published so far, and made clear that they considered Tshisekedi the vote's winner.

In a four-star hotel downtown, an employee was vacuuming the red carpet leading from the elevator to the empty rooms on the second floor. "Everyone has left," said the employee, Raoul Katunda. Only around 20 rooms were still occupied in the 180-room hotel, he said, which days earlier had been nearly sold out with international observation missions.

"Everyone's afraid," said Katunda. "I too would like to send my family away, but I don't have the money for the boat ticket."

Violence following the 2006 election degenerated into street battles, forcing people to board themselves up indoors.

Foreign embassies sent emails to their citizens advising them to stock up on water and nonperishable food.

Store owners said they were doing double the business of a normal week, with customers especially stocking up on baby formula and diapers. "It's almost too much buying," said Nibal Asaad one of the owners of Kin Mart, among the largest supermarkets in Kinshasa.

Hotels in Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo, were fully booked. Only 3 miles of the swirling river separate the two, and residents of the two capitals have ping-ponged back and forth during periodic upheavals.

Boats, continued to arrive on the Brazzaville side Monday carrying Congo's fleeing residents. A security official at the port who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press said that many of those crossing are politicians, including members of parliament and ministers who are taking their wives and children to safety.

"I am going with my four children and we are going to content ourselves with a motel that is offering a single room for all of us," said Agnes Mulumba, 54, a bank teller from Kinshasa who said she requested vacation time to be able to get her family settled.

"The situation in Kinshasa is one of uncertainty," she said. "Anything can happen at any time."

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Associated Press writer Louis Okamba contributed to this report from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.