NAIROBI, 24 Jul 2006 (IRIN) via VOGP - The general elections due on Sunday in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are billed as the first fully democratic vote to be held in the country since Patrice Lumumba became prime minister in 1960. Beginning with his murder a year later, and the coup in 1965 staged by Mobutu Sese Seko, who introduced a one-party system, the past 40 years have witnessed the systematic impoverishment of one of the potentially wealthiest countries on the African continent.
Turning the country around is vital for the continent as a whole, not just because of its sheer size - 2.5 million square kilometres, bordering nine countries - but because of its mineral wealth; it holds one-third of the world's cobalt reserves; two-thirds of its coltan, used in mobile phones; and one-tenth of its copper; as well as diamonds, gold, oil, silver, timber, uranium and zinc. Its river system could power the entire continent and the country contains 50 percent of Africa's forests. And yet, the DRC is one of the world's poorest countries, ranked 167 out of 177 in the 2005 United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) human development index.
The potential rewards of peace and stability are high. But so are the risks. While human rights groups have accused some foreign companies mining in the DRC of exploitation and corruption, encouraging investment is not straightforward in a country whose physical infrastructure is virtually non-existent - of 145,000 km of roads, only 2,500 km are asphalt - and poor governance is endemic.
Indeed, the weakness of state institutions, in particular the security forces, courts and parliament, and the fact that the Congolese state has suffered from corruption before and after independence in 1960, means that restructuring the economy and addressing issues of capacity-building are of particular importance if the new government is to effect meaningful change for its population.
Poor governance is of particular concern to aid agencies as the impact is severe in humanitarian terms: corruption means revenue losses, so state employees, such as soldiers, go unpaid and intimidate and harangue civilians, often brutally; continued fighting over mineral rights and cross-border raids result in displaced civilians. UN agencies and NGOs estimate that at least 1,000 people continue to die every day in the DRC as a result of non-existent health services and preventable diseases.
The legacy of Mobutu's 32-year Western-backed rule extends beyond endemic corruption; to offset potential political opposition his rule was absolute, with the 1974 constitution granting him authority over the executive, legislature and judiciary branches of government. Furthermore, he maintained a system of patronage while maintaining the loyalty of the police and army, all of which required money. By 1990, the country was US $14 billion in debt. With the end of the cold war, Mobutu was no longer of any use to the US in its fight against Soviet influence in Africa, and his lines of credit were cut off.
The first war was prompted by an invasion of Rwandan and Ugandan troops in a bid to flush out Hutu militia - at the same time capitalising on popular discontent to oust Mobutu. However Laurent-Desire Kabila's coup in 1997 did little to change the prevailing political and economic climate. He banned political activity, issuing laws by presidential decree. By 2000, inflation was 511 percent and GDP $100 per capita, compared with a rate of $259 at independence. When Kabila attempted to limit the influence of Rwanda and Uganda on the economy, a second war opened up in what has been called Africa's first world war. This involved Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Kabila's side against Uganda and Rwanda. A study by the International Rescue Committee in December 2004 estimates that 3.8 million people died, nearly half of them children, from disease, famine and violence, mainly in the east. An additional three million are in acute need of assistance, according to the UN.
The first peace accord was signed in 1999 and foreign armies agreed to withdraw troops but a power-sharing agreement between the rebel factions was not implemented until 2003. The resulting transitional government comprised three main factions: the DRC government (PPRD supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia), the RCD-Goma (Rwanda) and the MLC (Uganda). Fighting, however, continues in eastern DRC.
The present incumbent, Joseph Kabila, 35, who took over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in January 2001, is the favourite to win the presidential vote, which is being contested by 33 candidates. Another 9,000 politicians are vying for 500 parliamentary seats. However, security remains a problem, despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, comprising 17,000 troops, which will be backed up by 2,000 EU forces over the election period. In addition, 5,000 national and 500 international observers will oversee the polls.
Etienne Tshisekedi, 73, the veteran opposition leader, originally boycotted the polls only to change his mind - but too late to be included in the electoral process. His withdrawal means millions of his traditional supporters will be effectively disenfranchised.
Campaigning is a logistical nightmare in a country with poor transport facilities; most of the 50,000 voting stations are deep in the forest or along the river and accessible to officials only by air. The budget for the elections is put at $500 million, most of it donated by the UN, EU and others. While the results will not be known until September, analysts are concerned that international interest will wane once the immediate goal of successful elections is achieved. Programmes in support of good governance and strengthening state institutions and helping to repair the country's infrastructure need to be backed up by increased aid if a return to conflict is to be avoided.