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Congo vote could help Africa turn a corner

Nation looks to move past wars, misrule

NDAKU YA PEMBE, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Election banners festoon the rutted main road that divides the village, but no candidates have come to press for votes from these cassava farmers whose lives seem locked in another century. Three stopped clocks adorn a wall of the chief's home.

Children draw polluted water by hand from shallow wells. Women walk miles to collect firewood. They're only 60 miles south of Kinshasa, the capital, but have no electricity. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world's biggest source of coltan, a mineral on which cellphones depend, but there's no cellphone service in this village.

Yet the political chatter is lively and savvy in Ndaku ya Pembe as villagers prepare to join some 25 million of Congo's 58 million people in their first free elections of a president and parliament in 46 years.

The vote next Sunday puts this vast heart of Africa among the continent's growing array of countries that have embraced democracy, however fitfully. If multiparty politics can take hold in the country, after decades of dictatorship, misrule, and two multinational conflicts that came to be called an African world war, all of Africa will have turned a critical corner.

``We need a really credible head of state, one that will take his duties seriously, that will help provide a good quality of life to alleviate the misery, and that means creating jobs that pay a livable wage, not such a pittance that it's hardly worth waking up in the morning," said Guylain Kasongo, a 25-year-old farmer.

He said his small farm plot makes him only about $100 a year -- half the cost of school fees, books, and uniform for his 8-year-old daughter. He also works loading trucks and carrying giant bundles of produce and still doesn't make enough to send his younger girl to school.

He also has to help out his father, an army captain. ``He only makes $30 a month, but in the past three months he's received only one payment of $20," Kasongo said.

In a country of jungles and huge rivers with only 300 miles of paved road, the UN effort to pull off this election is a logistical nightmare.

Delivering ballot slips requires a daily airlift by hundreds of aircraft, with armies of Congolese to deliver them by boat, bicycle, or on foot to the farthest village in this Western Europe-sized country. It's the largest, most expensive election the United Nations has overseen.

Further complicating matters, soldiers and rebels left over from the wars of 1996-2002 continue to terrorize eastern Congo, forcing some 360,000 people from their homes this year despite the presence of some 17,500 UN peacekeepers.

It is bound to be an imperfect poll, but Congolese have seized the moment. Despite a prohibitive $50,000 registration fee, 33 Congolese are running for president and 9,500 for 500 legislative seats. In some districts, so many candidates are running that the ballot slips are six pages.

The candidates are a mixed and not entirely promising bag: former rebels accused of killing, looting, and pillaging resources; former allies of Mobutu Sese Seko, the late and little-lamented dictator of 32 years; Mobutu opponents who served in his government and fell out with him; and the front-runner, Joseph Kabila, who has headed a transitional government for four years.

UN officials have chastised government officials for refusing to allow political rallies and for encouraging soldiers and police to break up opposition rallies. Politicians have received death threats and at least one has fled the country. Scores have died in election-related violence.

Congo last elected a leader in 1960 when it won independence from Belgium, which had done little to prepare it for self-government. The man elected prime minister was Patrice Lumumba, a left-winger who planned to kick out white colonizers and their exploitative mining companies. He escaped a CIA plot to poison him, only to be assassinated by Congolese troops as Belgian officers looked on.

Mobutu, an army officer, managed to control the country and win international support by projecting an aura of pro-Western reliability while amassing a huge personal fortune. But in 1996 an alliance of rebels invaded the country and overthrew him. Laurent Kabila, father of the present interim president, took power.

Then neighboring Rwanda's genocidal war spilled over its borders and a regional battle began over control of Congo's vast resources, which include 30 percent of the world's cobalt and 10 percent of its copper.

Country after country plunged into the war -- Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola. All sent troops to support Kabila in return for mining concessions. Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, called it ``Africa's first world war."

Four million people died, mainly from strife-driven hunger and disease, and left the country in such disarray that even now, the UN estimates 1,200 people die each day either in fighting or of diseases ranging from AIDS to bubonic plague and malaria.

Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001, and his son, now 35, took over. It was he who pressed for the peace deal that set the stage for the vote, and he has managed to persuade Western governments he is fit to govern.

Mining companies from Australia, China, India, the United States, Britain, and Canada are all hoping to do business in the country. But large-scale investment will depend on Congo producing a reliable leadership.

After a history of brutal colonialization and an independence era riddled with foreign interference, Congolese tend to be wary of outsiders, mindful that the weapons used in wars in Congo and elsewhere in Africa come from the West, enriching private entrepreneurs or tying dictators to government military suppliers.

But with so much at stake, the biggest question on many Congolese minds is what happens after the votes are counted -- a process likely to take weeks. In that time, Congolese worry whether losers will accept defeat gracefully, whether the winner will serve all of Congo and not just his allies.

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