Congo on the Edge: After Its Elections, Will This Gigantic African Nation Begin a New, Normalised Future-As the International Community Fervently Hopes-Or Will It Implode? Michela Wrong Reports from Kinshasa

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In the lakeside town of Bukavu, a nervy day followed a violent night. In the early hours, soldiers had broken into the house of a local man, stolen cash meant to pay for his wife's hospital treatment, and shot him dead. The previous night, a 16-year-old girl had been killed by looting soldiers. Come daybreak, Bukavu's students showed their exasperation the only way they could, blocking traffic on the main avenue with burning tyres.

That both of last month's incidents were virtually routine highlights the challenge facing the international community in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In less than three months' time, Congo will stage its first multi-party elections in 40 years, polls that will theoretically solder the social contract between citizen and state. The soldiers' behaviour raises the question of whether there is any contract there to be salvaged at all. "The state died here a long time ago," shrugs Father Jean-Pacifique Balaamo, stationed at a seminary on the outskirts of Bukavu. "Since 1990 there has been no state."

When the western officials who committed themselves to the continent's recovery at Gleneagles last year survey sub-Saharan Africa, they juggle two alternative scenarios in their heads, each hingeing on events in this huge nation. In upbeat mode, they see the Sudan peace agreement gelling, an end to the insurgency in northern Uganda, Somalia's warlords reaching a modus vivendi, and a post-electoral Congo, its leadership newly legitimised, beginning to resemble a normal nation. In the dark hours of the night, they see the Sudan deal foundering, Ethiopia imploding and post-electoral Congo slipping into chaos--a swathe of instability stretching like a festering sore across the continent. "Apres moi le deluge," whispers the ghost of the late Mobutu Sese Seko, who not so much ruled Congo as oversaw its steady collapse.

It is a scenario that the rest of the world is ready to spend a great deal to prevent. The United Nations, European Union and other donors are contributing $422m to the elections alone. The UN force stationed in Congo, numbering 17,000 men, is the biggest in the world and costs $1.2bn a year. Britain, sensitive to accusations of favouritism towards Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, is the biggest bilateral donor to the election process in the DRC.

Sadly, goodwill and funding may not suffice. There are many who fear that the elections, far from setting Congo on the right path, could actually make things worse, spelling an end to a semi-peaceful hiatus in which mortality rates have fallen and trade has picked up. One problem is the eagerness of President Joseph Kabila to emerge as undisputed victor. Under the three-year-old transition arrangements, he is at present obliged to share power with two rebel movements and the opposition, and he is itching for an undisputed mandate. Many observers fear that, given the absence of credible, politically unbiased mechanisms for policing election irregularities, Kabila will be unable to resist rigging the vote to ensure he gets that mandate at the first round.


It looks unlikely that the donors will kick up a fuss if this occurs. There are uncanny echoes in their relationship with Kabila--a mild-mannered, pleasantly spoken man who strikes most whom he meets as strangely devoid of charisma, drive and vision--of the west's initial indulgent attitude towards the young Mobutu, once hailed as "le doux colonel" ("the gentle colonel").

"History is repeating itself. The international community is backing Kabila, although there's nothing there, just as it built up and backed the young Mobutu," says Thomas Nziratimana, vice-governor of South Kivu Province. "It's all a question of perception, but a sense that Kabila is unstoppable has been created."

Initially, various legal mechanisms aimed at giving election alsorans some voice in the political dispensation were envisaged, but none has been enacted, dooming Congo to a winner-takes-all system. …