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Democratic Republic of Congo About to Hold Presidential Elections

Aired July 29, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


JEFF KOINANGE, GUEST HOST: Welcome to INSIDE AFRICA, our weekly look at news and life on the continent. I'm Jeff Koinange in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, we're in the DRC this week for the country's first democratic elections in more than 40 years. Voters go to the polls Sunday to pick a new president.
Now, political tensions have been high in the run-up to the polls, but that's nothing new for a nation whose past has been anything but peaceful.


KOINANGE (voice-over): In order to fully understand the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one must go back four and a half decades. A former Belgian colony, the Congo, as it was then known, gained independence in 1960, and was ruled for a short while by the pan-Africanist and self-declared communist Patrice Lumumba.

But his days seemed numbered from the very beginning. For those were the heady days of the Cold War, and the Congo was viewed by the West as an important ally. Six months into his rule, Lumumba was overthrown by his army chief of staff, and a friend of the U.S., Mobutu Sese Seko. The former prime-minister was arrested, detained and subsequently murdered.

Mobutu went on to install himself as president, and soon after changed the country's name to Zaire. It would be the beginning of a long and painful chapter in Africa's history.

By the middle of the 1990s, Zairians and the world had had enough of Mobutu, and when its tiny neighbor Rwanda invaded the country under the pretext of routing out fleeing leaders of that country's genocide, most turned a blind eye.

Mobutu's disorganized forces gave little resistance, and the Rwandans continued their onward march across a wide swath of dense African jungle. Along the way, they picked a local Zairian to, in their words, legitimize their so-called revolution. His name: Laurent-Desire Kabila, a washed-out former brothel owner who shared the Rwandan hatred of Mobutu and a longing for the return of the rule of law.

In early 1997, after traveling more than 3,000 kilometers mostly by foot, Kabila's forces finally entered the capital Kinshasa, bringing an end to Mobutu's rule.

But just as quickly as Kabila's star rose, it came plummeting down to earth. He cut off ties with his war allies, Uganda and Rwanda, while clamping down on anyone who dared challenge his rule. On January morning in 2001, Kabila's bodyguards, tired of his stubborn leadership, turned on him. In the ensuing battle in the presidential palace, Kabila was gunned down, throwing the nation into further turmoil.

As a country paused to mourn its fallen president, a new reluctant leader was selected by the country's cabinet to fill the vacuum. He was none other than Kabila's 29-year old son Joseph Desire, the country's army chief of staff.

In 2004, a peace deal was finally signed between Kabila and his main rivals. He offered several of them key posts in his cabinet, including the vice presidency.

Two years later, the country faces its toughest test yet, as 26 million registered voters get ready to do something that hasn't been done here in more than four decades: Cast ballots in a free election.

The clock is ticking, as an African giant poses to take a collective breath.


KOINANGE: Now, the list of presidential candidates reads like a who is who of the Congo. Two sons of former presidents, several former rebel leaders, and there is even a former Harvard University professor. Close to three dozen presidential candidates alone, and thousands more vying for the national assembly.

So, how do voters decide, and who helps them to chose? We take a look at some of the players in this very crowded fields.


KOINANGE (voice-over): The largest list of presidential and parliamentary hopefuls ever in Africa's short history of multiparty politics. Thirty-three candidates vying for the country's tough job, and close to 10,000 others contesting for 500 national assembly seats, making this the most anticipated event in what's potentially one of the most important countries on the continent.

ALEX GORBANSKY, SECURITY EXPERT: The Congo has the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of the minerals industry. That's just how wealthy it is in copper, cobalt, gold. But at the same time, the irony is it's also one of the poorest countries in the world when you look at the GDP per capita and the average standard of living among the population.

KOINANGE: And it's the poor who have grabbed the spotlight in the days leading to the landmark election. Taking to the streets to riot, burn and loot, accusing some of the candidates of fraud and vote rigging, even before the first ballots have been cashed.

Regional leaders are understandably nervous about the outcome of Congo's first democratic election in more than 40 years.

JAKAYA KIKWETE, TANZANIAN PRESIDENT: The Congo is still tricky. Still tricky. But what I'm seeing is they're going into an election. We don't subscribe to the idea of postponing the elections. We want the elections to go ahead. And then let's see what comes of the elections. We'll try to manage the post-elections problems.

KOINANGE: The Congo shares a common border with no fewer than nine countries, and many of these presidential candidates know they have no chance of beating the odds-on favorites, the few who stand any chance of leading Africa's third largest country.

The clear favorite, according to most polls, is the country's current president, Joseph Kabila, who has, among other things, the edge that comes with incumbency in a very crowded field.

JOSEPH KABILA, PRESIDENT, DEM. REP. OF CONGO: I'm that person. I believe and I hope, and I'm going to try to convince my people, that I'm that man who will definitely lead the Congo out of the misery of the last 40 years, the last four decades to better pastures.

KOINANGE: Bookmakers say this man, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is running a close second. But if you ask the millionaire businessman, he'll be the first to tell you, he's leading the pack and putting his country's interests ahead of his own.

JEAN-PIERRE BEMBA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not fighting for the title, I'm fighting for the tool to enable Congo to be transformed. And the tool, one of the tools, important tool is to be president.

KOINANGE: Olivier Kamitatu used to be Bemba's best friend until the two fell out over ideology and the best way to move the Congo forward.

OLIVIER KAMITATU, ARC ALLIANCE OF CONGO: It was difficult at the time to convince my good friend, Jean-Pierre Bemba, to promote a real coalition to change Congo, to go straight for elections and to be the main political forces to bring a real change in our country.

KOINANGE: For some here, though, the more things change, the more they remain the same. And these die-hards supporters of presidential candidate Nzanga Mobutu, son of the country's former long-serving president Mobutu Sese Seko, seem to be reliving the past in their campaign, complete with a Mobutu look-alike, in both dress code and mannerisms.

NZANGA MOBUTU, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can tell you one thing, if father Mobutu was alive today, no question he would be elected, because I told you, Congo needs - Congo needs leadership. It needs a strong (inaudible). Congo needs leadership. And today, we don't have a leadership.

KOINANGE: Congo is made up of more than 200 ethnic groups, and belonging to an ethnic minority is what analysts say has prevented some candidates like Azarias Ruberwa from gaining much ground on the incumbent. He is a Tutsi from the country's east, but insists that shouldn't be held against him on election day.

"There is no doubt that I come from a minority ethnic group," he says, "even though there is considerable Tutsi population in the country's east. But the problem of the Congo is that it's a country full of tribes, and while there are other majorities tribes spread across the country, we're confident we can make a difference because we bring something different to the table."

Some here say the fact that someone like Ruberwa is being allowed to contest at all is proof the Congolese are ready to turn the corner.

KAMITATU: That's just (inaudible) the measure of the Congolese. We don't want to fight anymore against other Congolese. I think that's a real statement of all the politicians in Congo. This new democracy means that we don't want a war anymore.

KOINANGE: No more war. Maybe the country is now ready to fulfill the promise of its real name: The Democratic Republic of Congo.


KOINANGE: Still to come, the frontrunners. We take a closer look at two men who could become president of Africa's third largest country. Stay with us. You're watching the special edition of INSIDE AFRICA.


KOINANGE: Welcome back to a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA. This week, we're bringing the show to you from Kinshasa, where CNN is covering the Congo's first democratic elections in more than 40 years.

Now, one of the front runners for the presidency is not surprisingly, the country's current president, Joseph Kabila. The young man who stepped into power after his father was assassinated more than five years ago.


KOINANGE (voice-over): He is the man many here used to refer to as the reluctant president. The former army chief of staff was thrust into power after his father's assassination more than five years ago, and selected rather than elected president of Africa's third largest nation. He was then just 29 years old.

Five years on, and with his country facing its democratic election in more than 40 years, 34-year old Joseph Kabila has not only consolidated his position on power, he's proved many of his critics wrong, especially those who didn't think he'd last this long.

KABILA: I'm more than confident. Not overconfident, but yes, I'm confident.

KOINANGE: He may be confident and looking presidential, but some here still wonder whether he's the right man to lead the Congo out of decades of misrule and mismanagement. He has a simple message for those doubters:

KABILA: I'm the man who's led the Congo to elections. So there you have the answer. I am that person. I believe and I hope, and I'm going to try to convince my people that I'm that man who will definitely lead the Congo out of the misery of the last 40 years, the last four decades, to better pastures.

KOINANGE: The former soldier seems as much at home with the tools of war as he is with his pet guinea fowl in his palatial weekend retreat. But he admits the most important thing to him right now is the country's first democratic election in his lifetime.

KABILA: It will be an historic event, of course, and it will pave the way for, I hope, long-term peace and stability in the Congo and the set of the reconstruction process across the board. That's why these elections are of paramount importance.

KOINANGE: But he's also aware that whoever wins, the post-election period might bring some unwanted hiccups.

KABILA: After the results, or after the elections, then, of course, complications might occur. But we're keeping our fingers crossed. We're working in such a way that after the elections, there will be peace and stability in order for us to move forward.

KOINANGE: Moving forward, but at what pace? And will the Congo this time around finally get it right?

KABILA: The Congo will get it right this time. I said everything is in place. This time around, we'll get it right, in the sense that we've come a very long way. This isn't a story that started one, two years back - no, this is a very long story.

KOINANGE: A very long story that many here are hoping will have a happy ending. None more so than Africa's youngest sitting president.

KABILA: What happens after the elections is a big question mark, and I believe that the country needs a direction, and I'd like to show a better direction.

KOINANGE: Any direction, experts say, just as long as it's forward. The Congo, it seems, can't afford to slide back into its dark and dreadful past.


KOINANGE: As you can see, campaigning is in full swing in Kinshasa. Now, one of the four vice presidents and former rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is challenging Joseph Kabila. But many here say that Bemba's biggest challenge is to try to convince voters that he is the right man for the job.


KOINANGE (voice-over): Jean-Pierre Bemba is used to working in confined spaces. He is one of four vice presidents in the Democratic Republic of Congo's crowded cabinet, and he's among a crammed field of 33 aspiring presidential candidates in the upcoming elections.

But there is one small space where this two-meter, 160-kilogram millionaire feels comfortable: In the cockpit of his very own Boeing 727.

Like many of the leading players in Congo, Bemba has a controversial past. His father is said to have grown rich funneling arms to Angolan rebels. Bemba says his own wealth comes from agriculture. His critics say it was smuggling minerals, everything from gold to coltan that made him a rich man.

Seven years ago, when Congo's civil war broke out, the younger Bemba used his cash to build a militia: The Movement for the Liberation of Congo. Allegedly backed by Uganda, it was widely accused of human rights atrocities and massacres in eastern Congo. One human rights group tried to bring him before the International Criminal Court, claiming his militia was responsible for war crimes in the neighboring Central African Republic.

But when Congo's war ended, Bemba joined the transitional government and was appointed vice president, as well as minister of finance and economics.

In what might be a metaphor for surviving in Congolese politics, Bemba says if you want anything done, you've got to do it yourself.

BEMBA: I have to go, to be able to get control of the plane. Anything (inaudible).

KOINANGE: Now, he is crisscrossing the skies of a country the size of all of Western Europe, for the first democratic elections since Congo's independence. He sounds relaxed about his future.

BEMBA: If I am not busy, I'm going to become myself as a professional pilot in the company, eh? Never know. Why not?

KOINANGE: But there is no doubt in his will to win. On this day, he's flying to the town of Bujimai, deep in the interior and the bedrock of the country's rich diamond deposits. It's not a stronghold of his, but he is confident he can make a dent here.

A large crowd has gathered in Bujimai to see the high-flying presidential candidate. And he doesn't disappoint. It's all about pressing the flesh, which Bemba seems to relish.

He takes a drive through the crowded streets. Security is tight wherever he goes -- after all, this is a country where traditionally bullets settle more than ballots.

Bemba is keeping up a crowded schedule. Now he is headed to a remote village, this time at the controls of his own helicopter.

Villages like this don't see too many helicopters or presidential candidates, so there is an enthusiastic turnout for Bemba. But whether that will turn into votes, and whether those votes will be accurately counted - these are the unknowns.

After his whistle-stop tour, Bemba is back in the capital Kinshasa. Politics in Congo is often seen as a ticket to making money. Bemba promises he has a higher motive.

BEMBA: I'm not fighting for the title. I'm fighting for the tool to enable Congo to be transformed. And the tool, one of the tools, important tools is to be president.

KOINANGE: He says he'll be the first to concede defeat on certain conditions.

BEMBA: As far as the elections is transparent, is fair, is democratic - I believe so. We need absolutely to be transparent.

KOINANGE: Demanding conditions in a country where the rule of law is so alien and where the power of the state has so often been used to personal advantage. Bemba's own democratic credentials are hardly glistening, but he's certainly embraced the art of campaigning.


KOINANGE: When we come back, one of the issues driving this election. It's the economy. How one industry is trying to revive itself.

Stay with us. We're back in a moment.


KOINANGE: Welcome back. Now, this election is crucial for the comeback of Congo's economy. The country no doubt has vast potential for wealth. It is awash with gold, diamond, zinc and copper mines. But digging the mineral industry out of debt will be no small task.


KOINANGE (voice-over): This is the result of decades of misrule and mismanagement: A graveyard of excavators and digging equipment left to rust in the tropical heat, the leftovers of a once-lucrative copper mine.

But after a couple of relatively peaceful years and a sharp rise in copper prices to more than $7,000 a ton, there is a change in the landscape. The government is ready to cash in, and is trying to jumpstart Congo's minds. No easy task. State-owned Gecamines carries a debt of more than half a billion dollars. In 2002, it produced less than 1 percent of the 1989 amount.

So, the government has agreed to joint ventures with investors from all over the world, from China to Belgium, Australia and Canada, auctioning off majority shares in some of Congo's richest scenes of copper. And it's hired a Canadian to run a restructured Gecamines.

PAUL PORTYN, MANAGER, GECAMINES: I think here we have to do it step by step, and we have to use what we have to improve. We have the labor force, we have the technology, the know-how.

KOINANGE: But clearly not the tools. These broken-down conveyer belts and equipment are a legacy of the Mobutu era. Right now, nearly everything has to be done manually.

(on camera): Officials here are quick to point out that annual copper production is far below market expectations. And that factories like this are performing way under par, about 50,000 metric tons of copper every year. But they're confident they can raise that level to about half a million metric tons in five years, and up to a million at the end of 10 years.

(voice-over): At Gecamines headquarters in Lubumbashi, the management believes that with a peaceful election, they can turn decades of disrepair into dividends.

"If projections are on course and we stick to our production deadlines," he says, "the state of the Congo and its joint partners could be earning as much as $5.4 billion in copper revenues a year."

KOINANGE: Not everyone is optimistic. A group of NGOs has alleged that Gecamines assets are being sold off to foreigners in a secretive fire sale of Congo's most precious resources, and have called on the World Bank to reexamine its role in the privatization of the company.

These are critical times for Congo. Its bountiful natural resources could provide its people with an escape route from poverty, or fuel corruption and conflict in a country that's known too much of both.


KOINANGE: The Democratic Republic of Congo. Will these elections be the signal that will finally see the country to turn the corner? Only time will tell.

Now, that's our special edition of INSIDE AFRICA for this week, coming to you from Kinshasa. I'm Jeff Koinange. We leave you now with some of the sights and sounds of the country's first democratic elections in more than 40 years.



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