Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) went back to the polls, on 29 October, for the run-off presidential election. The contest is between Joseph Kabila, the incumbent, who was installed, in 2001, after his father Laurent was murdered by a presidential security aid, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and one of four vice presidents in a power-sharing government, set up to end a 5-year war. The 30 July election could not produce a clear winner out of 33 presidential candidates. Kabila got 45%, while Bemba got 20% of the votes, on a 70% turn-out.
‘The Economist’ magazine (London, October 26, 2006), described the choice the Congo’s voters had to make in the run-off election as the lesser of the two evils, between “cholera and the plague”.
The provisional results for the second round elections, released on 15 November, suggest Kabila will win. Kabila won 58% and Bemba got 42%. Although all the votes were counted, the final results were expected to be published on 19 November, after the electoral commission examines polling complaints from rival camps. Bemba alleged there was fraud, with more than one million fake votes for Kabila.
The results, like those in the first round, reflect the sharp division along ethnic lines, between the East of the country, where Kabila has the upper hand, and the West, including the capital, Kinshasa, where Bemba has a big following. This is ominous for the post-election situation.
Many Bemba supporters believe the UN and Western powers financed and organised the elections, to establish Kabila as president and to have a ‘legitimate government’. The powers hope this will allow the giant corporations to fully exploit the Congo’s natural wealth, as well as allowing EU states a pretext to stop refugees fleeing the Congo from entering Europe.
After the first round of elections, in August, 30 people were killed in gun battles. For the second round, UN and EU troops tried to gather weapons in Kinshasa, and used armoured vehicles and helicopters to patrol the city’s streets.
The original Kleptocracy
However, the people of the Congo apparently expect the electoral process, the first in more than four decades, to provide relief for a country whose history is only that of rapacious and ruthless colonialism, parasitic dictatorship, official corruption and brutal war. The country, which is two-thirds the size of Western Europe, has only 300 miles of paved roads! Yet, the Congo is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, due to its enormous natural resources and mineral wealth.
For 32 years (1965 - 1997) the country (formerly known as Zaire) was ruled and ruined by a staunch ally of the West in the Cold War era, Mobutu Sese Seko, who plundered the economy and repressed the people.
Mobutu so personified corruption that it was for his government the term ‘kleptocracy’ – a combination of kleptomaniac (compulsive thief) and autocracy - was originally coined. Mobutu was installed with the support of the US and Western European powers, which earlier supervised the overthrow and killing of Patrice Lumumba, the left-leaning first prime minister of post-colonial Congo after winning independence from Belgium in 1960. As was the practice in the Cold War-era, the Western imperialist powers enthroned Mobutu, to secure Congo for continued imperialist exploitation and to act as a launching site against “communism” in the region, particularly Angola. But the West also pandered to the corrupt and repressive Mobutu regime to gain access to the rich resources of the Congo. The US provided more than $300 million in arms and $100 million in military training for the dictatorship. Western imperialism also provided Mobutu with loans that plunged the country into serious a debt burden, even when they knew that Mobutu accumulated money for self-enrichment. The dictator amassed a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion and ran up a $12 billion external debt.
“Africa’s world war”
The removal of Mobutu from power, in 1997, by Laurent Kabila, did not only fail to provide a solution to the terrible poverty facing most people in the Congo, but, in reality, set the stage for worse disaster. The 1998 insurrection by rebels linked to Rwanda and Uganda triggered a war involving six other nations. Between 1998 and 2003, the Congo was plunged into, what was described as, the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. Over 4 million people were killed in the conflict, which was termed “Africa’s world war” because it involved six other African countries; Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Kabila has his own army since the 1990s, while Bemba has had an armed force since the early 2000s, when he ruled parts of northeast Congo.
The war led to the United Nations’ (UN) biggest and most expensive mission, involving an 18,000-strong peace-keeping force and expenditure of $1.1 billion, a year. However, a journalist, Aidan Hartley, described ‘Monuc’ (as the UN force in Congo is known), as an ill-equipped ‘Third World’ army, which has to make do with Vietnam–era American and Soviet aircraft. He also queried the morality of the UN using contingents from a military dictatorship (Pakistan) and from monarchies (Nepal and Morroco) to ‘help’ Congo become democratic. Hartley wrote that the UN’s approach in the Congo was similar to the disastrous US-led mission in Somalia, in 1993. During that conflict, the imperialist powers sub-contracted the task of stabilising the crises and ensuring their continued exploitation of Africa, to their allies in African and other developing nations.
The Congo war was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides, including multinational corporations from the West, taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder the natural resources. The resources were also used to finance the conflict. The country is rich in diamonds, water, coltan, copper, timber and other natural resources. A report of on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Congo, released by the UN Security Council, on 12 April, 2001, estimated that Rwanda, alone, may have gained at least $250 million from the pillage of coltan. This was said to be substantive enough to finance the war. Burundi and Uganda were also seriously indicted by the report. Coltan is used in high-tech industry as a key component in mobile phones, computers, stereos and VCRs. Its price soared substantially in 1999 and 2000, when the world supply was decreasing and demand was increasing, thereby leading to a large increase in production of coltan in the Congo.
The US, Belgium, Britain and France are also implicated in the Congo conflict. They manipulated the conflict for their economic interests and supplied millions of dollars of weapons to different sides in the conflict. Large quantities of arms were transferred by US and Britain to the Congo, via Eastern European countries.
“Most blighted nation”
Perhaps more than any other country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) deserves peace, having known only exploitation and crisis - economic, social or political – since its inception as a state. The ‘Independent’ newspaper (London, 28 July 2006) described the country as “the most blighted nation on the earth”. But the November election will not bring the peace so yearned for by working people in the Congo, if events since the first election round are anything to go by. The first round election results, in August, was greeted by three days of fighting between the armies of Kabila and Bemba. Less than a week before the 29 October election, violent clashes took place daily. Between August and late October over 30 people were killed in street battles. Fighting, which left two people dead, broke out on 13 November, after the second round provisional results put Kabila ahead.
To avoid a serious post run-off election crisis, foreign diplomats were reportedly trying to persuade both presidential contestants to agree to grant a measure of personal, financial and legal protection to whoever loses. This is to assure the would-be loser and perhaps, his backers, that their share of the looted mineral wealth of the Congo will not be lost.
The long suffering masses of the Congo desperately yearn for an end to war. But ‘peace’ established under the auspices of former warlords and imperialist powers will not end poverty, joblessness and all the other abundant social ills facing working people. Only a policy of transforming the devastated economy, including building adequate infrastructure, and fundamentally improving living standards, could allow the poor masses to expect to see light at the end of the tunnel. But this will not happen as long as the Congo is run on the basis of anti-poor, neo-liberal policies, as dictated by the IMF/World Bank, and for as long as the Congo’s huge mineral wealth is plundered by the multinationals.
To free up resources to guarantee basic needs, like education, health, water, electricity and proper roads, the huge natural resources of the Congo have to be taken into public ownership, under the democratic management and control of working people. Disastrous neo-liberal economic policies have to end. Transforming the lives of the mass of people in the Congo is impossible under capitalism, which sees it remaining a neo-colonial country under the stranglehold of imperialism.
Whether the presidential elections end conflict or not, under capitalism workers and the poor of the Congo will discover their living standards cannot be meaningfully improved, despite the enormous resources of the country. This can open up possibilities for the ideas of mass struggle in opposition to the local rulers and imperialism, and the growing support for a socialist alternative. Of course, workers’ organisations are weak, due to years of dictatorship and devastating war, but only by building independent organisations of workers and the poor can the grip of the local looters and imperialists be broken.