Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fear and loathing on the eve of DRC elections

Whew -- happy to get out of Kinshasa before elections tomorrow; tensions real and imagined are in the ascendant. Kinshasa, the giant anthill of 'inhabited devastation' (Conrad), is the night of Lubumbashi's day, where I landed today, quite malarial from too many bloodsuckers in my crappy Kinshasa hotel room.

I'll be working here this coming week before heading to Ituri and the Kivus. A lovely city, this Lubumbashi, home of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first and only true martyr; it is long since my favorite. While looking for photos of the place on the web, I ran into this curious site, apparently assembled by former colonials with a deep affection for Katanga, called Inchi Yetu. Loads of images and curios of the region from past and present.

Lots is happening across the country in these final days before voting occurs tomorrow; some of it making international news, much of it not. Kofi Annan is making the usual appeals for calm, most certainly unheard by the illiterate thugs ruling the streets of Kinshasa. Of particular note are events in Gbadolite, Mobutu's former feifdom, where his son Nzanga Mobutu, a presidential candidate in the August elimination round, was taken hostage by Bemba's forces. BBC reports on it here, but do not capture the intriguing nature of the Mobutu - Kabila alliance. I'll elaborate very unscientifically on this clever alliance below.

It seems that young Mobutu wants political relevance at any price , going so far as to ally himself with the son of the man (Laurent Kabila) who drove his father, Mobutu Sese Seko, from power in disgrace and terminal illness in 1996. Two sons of former enemies now joining forces -- stranger things have happened of course, but why this particular alliance? Both are rich as sin, which makes them equals in one way. They can visit their Swiss accounts together, perhaps even share the same private jet.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the opposing candidate who's wanted by the International Criminal Court, hails from Equateur province, as does the Mobutu family. He married into the Mobutu clan years ago, compounding their riches with his own self-made wealth. In the popular psyche here, Bemba lays claim to the Mobutu heritage and days of yore when the place actually functioned -- rotten governance for sure but with a patina of joie de vivre that all Congolese recall with nostalgia. Like Saddam's Iraq, it was a brutal dictatorship but a boatload better than anything on the horizon today. Today, any Congolese will tell you, is relentless misery.

(Bemba and Kabila in a clever montage - IRIN)

So young Mobutu's alliance with Kabila is a veritable slap in the face to Bemba and the many Congolese voters who favor a continued reign of the Lingala speakers who descended upon Kinshasa from Equateur when Mobutu senior first seized power in the early 1960s. The alliance also offers Kabila far greater leverage over the Equateur-based, Lingala speaking electorate, with whom he had little clout up until now.

Tomorrow's voting, described by Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent as a 'Match' à la football, will hopefully attract a majority of the population. In Kinshasa people fear violence and are less keen to get out and stand around in the long lines. Adrenaline will be high among the lawless thugs supporting this or that candidate and roaming the streets looking for an exuse to explode. Here in Lubumbashi people are calm and content to see the process unfold, come what may.

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