‘Things must change’: DRC hopes for fresh start as election looms

16Dec 2018
By Guardian Reporter
Guardian On Sunday
‘Things must change’: DRC hopes for fresh start as election looms
  • Crowds rally to support opposition candidate Félix Tshisekedi in next week’s vote MBUJI-MAYI

THE Avenue Salongo is the Champs Elysée of Mbuji-Mayi, residents say. The comparison is an optimistic one.

Opposition figure Félix Tshisekedi, right, and his running mate Vital Kamerhe wave to supporters in Kinshasa. Photo: John Wessels/AFP

There is little that unites this strip of pitted tarmac, with its pair of faltering streetlights and sweltering central African humidity, with the famously beautiful Parisian boulevard other than the French language spoken on both.

The Avenue Salongo’s only hotel is the Metropole, where paunchy political fixers drink strong beer in a “salon bar” furnished with much smoked glass and heavy fake leather furniture.

Opposite is a row of diamond dealers, where local artisanal “diggers” sell stones scrabbled from red earth in makeshift mines among the verdant hills around the city.

An understocked pharmacy, a restaurant selling grilled offal and the Couture de la Paix dress shop completes the scene.
Last week however the DRC’s third largest city enjoyed a day that was one of the most exciting anyone could remember for a long time.

This vast resource-rich country with its population of 80 million spread over an area the size of western Europe will go to the polls in seven days to elect a new president.

The DRC has never known a peaceful transition of power since its hasty independence from Belgium in 1960. The fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 triggered a civil war in which four million died.

Joseph Kabila, the president, has been in power since his father, the victor of that conflict, was shot dead in 2001.

The forthcoming polls have inspired both great trepidation and great hope. “We need a change, a big change. We live so badly,” said Angela, 21, a student.

Angela, who did not want to give her family name for fear of attracting ennuis or troubles, had walked across the city to the Avenue Salongo very early in the morning to greet Félix Tshisekedi, one of the main opposition candidates.

She had first tried to reach the airport on the outskirts of Mbuji-Mayi, but had turned back when police clashed with stone-throwing youths and a teenager was shot dead. “I am best here. I will wait for him. He is our president. He is worth it,” Angela said.

Mbuji-Mayi is the capital of the province of Kasai-Oriental. Tshisekedi is from the region, and this is his stronghold.

His father, Etienne Tshisekedi, was a famous opposition leader under Mobutu. He died last year and his son has inherited his party, and with it a slim chance of winning power.

No one doubts the problems any president of the DRC will face. The country is one of the poorest in the world, racked by war and disease.

Inequality is off the charts with wealthy grosses legumes or fat cats driving Jaguars over the potholes of streets in the capital Kinshasa. Huge sums earned from mining contracts disappearing into the pockets of those close to le pouvoir, or power elite.

In the east, scores of militia commanders battle for control of mines and an outbreak of Ebola has killed more than 300.

In the Kasais the name given to the provinces around Mbuji-Mayi the grass is yet to grow over the mass graves left by a conflict between rebels and government forces in which thousands died between 2016 and last summer.

Across the country, aid agencies estimate that 4.3 million people are displaced. In the rolling valleys around Mbuji-Maya, half the children may be malnourished. Cholera has killed hundreds since 2016.

The country’s manifold problems have been exacerbated by the refusal of Kabila to leave power after the end of his second mandate two years ago.

Only under fierce pressure from neighbouring and nearby powers, particularly Angola and South Africa, did he agree not to stand in the coming polls, even if he is constitutionally barred from serving three consecutive terms.

“He was very unhappy, very angry and resentful,” said one diplomat close to the negotiations with Kabila. Instead the ruling coalition picked the little-known interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, as its candidate.

In Kinshasa, aides insisted Shadary was his own man. “Our candidate was chosen by a broad cross section of Congolese society. He has his own programme and personality,” said a spokesperson.

The opposition has been weakened by internal arguments and the exclusion by the electoral commission of two political heavyweights: Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and Moïse Katumbi, a popular tycoon.

Critics say Tshisekedi is unproven, inexperienced and lacks the charisma of his father. “His father was a man of the country. The son is very limited,” said Valentin Mubake, a former secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress.

If the campaign has been largely peaceful so far, the opposition and some observers fear massive fraud. In Mbuji-Mayi few have much faith in the system.

“Here they are going to vote 100 per cent for Tshisekedi but we know that if he got 100 per cent in the elections, they would never let us win. Any time we raise our heads, they force us back down again,” said Dr Marie-Albert Tshizemba, a senior health official.

Many are worried about new electronic voting machines. Not only are these impractical in the harsh conditions of the DRC, where electricity is unreliable or non-existent, but they could be vulnerable to manipulation, opposition leaders claim.

Last week 7,000 voting machines in Kinshasa were destroyed in a suspected arson attack, stoking fears of interference.

A result seen as illegitimate by much of the population might lead to protests, violence and even war.

“Imagine what would happen if there was chaos here. Imagine Libya but on the scale of the Congo. Imagine what that would do to the region, to the continent,” said Mubake. Yet such fears did not dampen the enthusiasm for Tshisekedi in Mbuji-Mayi.

Through the morning, despite the continuing reports of further delays to the candidate’s arrival, crowds continued to gather on the Avenue Salongo, singing in praise of their “hero”.

By early afternoon, hundreds of young people were running and singing in rhythm along the road. Some carried palm fronds. Armed police watched nonchalantly. “Something has to change. Life is too hard.

There’s no clean water, power. Most of us here don’t have enough to eat. The prices are double what they were a year ago.
We struggle,” said Joseph Kabula, a trader who supports his wife and two small children by selling mobile phones he fetches from Kinshasa, 800 miles away.

Finally, in the early evening, with the crowds now thick all along the Avenue Salongo, sirens are heard, music and cheering. The candidate is on his way. Sitting on the cab of an SUV, Tshisekedi is smiling, bespectacled, rotund, sweating.

He waves and then is swept away among supporters surging down the road. “He is going to save us. I know it. He is our saviour.

He will bring light into our darkness,” Angela says, when the noise and crowds have subsided. The Guardian