July 31, 2006

Congolese vote in historic peace poll

David Lewis in Kinshasa
July 30, 2006

MILLIONS of Congolese will vote today in historic elections aimed at ending years of war and chaos in the heart of Africa and protected by the world's biggest UN peacekeeping force.

From the crumbling capital Kinshasa through the thick jungles of the Congo river basin and the mist-shrouded peaks of the east, Congolese will participate in their first free elections in more than 40 years.

Schools, churches and tents in Democratic Republic of Congo will be transformed into 50,000 polling stations for more than 25 million voters.

Over 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers, backed by 1,000 European soldiers recently dispatched to the country, will try to ensure voting can take place across the former Belgian colony the size of Western Europe.

Those voting in Congo's lawless east will do so amid continued fears of attack by rebels while complaints over irregularities and an opposition boycott have already raised the spectre of violence and a rejection of the results.

"Everyone wants to go and vote to finish this for once for all," Godefrod Shimatsu, a 47 year-old secretary, told Reuters in Kinshasa.

Sunday's elections are the culmination of a three-year peace process which ended Congo's last war, a 1998-2003 conflict that sucked in six neighbouring countries and killed 4 million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

The vote is being billed as a test of democracy in Africa, in a country blessed with enormous mineral wealth that has known little but war and dictatorship since independence in 1960.

After decades of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's rule, attempts at introducing democracy began in the early 1990s. However, two wars during the last decade have torn Congo apart.

"We (will) elect the president and he will be there for five years. Our fathers did not live long enough to see this. As their children, we have a chance to witness this," Mr Shimatsu said.

Incumbent President Joseph Kabila heads a list of 32 people, including former rebel chiefs, sons and a daughter of previous presidents and a Harvard-trained doctor, in the race for Congo's top job.

With more than 9700 others bidding for the 500 seats in the post-war parliament, many first-time voters will face ballot papers as thick as phone books.

Officials scrambled overnight to deliver voting materials to the furthest corners of the vast nation, using planes and helicopters, canoes, porters and even donkeys.

World leaders urged the people of Congo to vote peacefully.

"The (African Union) congratulates the Congolese people for their patience, courage and faith in the future, which they have shown during long periods of war and the three years of transition," the AU said in a statement issued Saturday.

The 53-nation group called on the Congolese to turn out in large numbers and vote peacefully.

However, the led-up to the polls has been marred by violence with riots erupting earlier this week in the capital while six people were killed during campaigning on Thursday.


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