The Congo river slithers through central Africa’s sleepy tropical bush with a collective lethargy. It twists through The Congo Rainforest, the planet’s second lung behind the Amazon, where the climate is too hot and humid to do anything more than gently float by African teak trees housing Okapis, Bonobos and West Lowland Gorillas.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation the size of Western Europe, over half of its 85 million residents live rurally, often in mud huts fenced by imposing wenge trees within jungle clearings throughout the damp Congo basin.
It has recently had an election. The surprising nature of its results are subject to international curiosity. Tempestuous scenes have already been reported in the city of Kikwit, where at least two policemen and two civilians are said to have been killed. There is also news of several hundred students protesters being dispersed with tear gas in the town of Mbandaka. This reaction is normal for a nation which has never had a peaceful transition of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960.
Rioting is not yet pandemic and so the DR Congo, with the rest of the world behind it, breathes a sigh of relief. It is a constrained place that already harnesses its fair share of brutality — any more would just be a drop within its great river.
Its treachery and peril are most prevalent in its plundered north-east. There, towards the very heart of Africa, a power vacuum emerges and politicians are replaced with an infamous list of militias and rebel groups. There they have no time for this election; from the city of Beni to the town of Dungu, a distance of 635 KM (395 miles) the Ugandan Islamist militia group, the Allied Democratic Forces, the M23, the interahamwe, the Mai Mai and the Congolese army all besiege and prey upon the area’s remote, unprotected inhabitants.
These constantly simmering conflicts are taken out on a tormented civilian population. No military group is strong enough to hold ground for long, so they rule through projecting terror and inflicting an inflation of creative humiliation. This is officially the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. There is an epidemic of rape, often the most hellish and lamentable type, the proxy-forced rape, where captured boys are forced to abuse or kill their neighbours to crush any sense of community and give them nowhere to escape.
No military group is strong enough to hold ground for long, so they rule through projecting terror and inflicting an inflation of creative humiliation.
In The DR Congo’s forgotten far corner, there are continuous kidnappings of children to be taken as soldiers and slaves. In areas that are traumatised and permanently terrified, the true figures can only be guessed at, but they are without parallel. This is a nation that isn’t just sliding, it’s free falling beyond comparison.
As if the region was not battered and bruised enough, in August last year the Kivu district was subject to an Ebola outbreak which took the lives of 385 people. The disease’s spreading was only hampered by The DR Congo’s lack of infrastructure. There are no major roads linking the west to the east — the country’s only super-highway is the Congo River, but when everyone is too impoverished to upkeep a boat this counts for very little. Dense jungles crowd in ancient footpaths, tapping on ramblers shoulders and dousing their light. You can’t physically get anywhere. The lack of access makes everything else — government, security, health, news, trade — virtually impossible.
The DR Congo is thought to have more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt — an essential ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles and mobile phones. In theory, the reserves of cobalt and other minerals like diamonds, copper, and gold, should make the country one of the richest in Africa, but a historic stem of corruption and mismanagement has belittled its GDP.
Ever since the first Europeans arrived in the 15th Century, exploitation has prevailed. In the 19th Century, King Leopold II of Belgium ran the country as his own personal colony, forcing people to collect wild rubber for tyres, feeding Europe’s hunger for bicycles and, in the next century, cars. Later, copper became a major export for the colonisers while in the post-independence era, the nation saw its elite blossom as its deprived were left to rot.
The city is stirring, like a coiled spring being pinned down by a heavy forefinger, waiting impatiently, burdened with reservoirs of potential energy.
For the last 18 years, current President Joseph Kabila of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy led the nation but, bound by limits within the constitution, was ineligible to run for another term. And so a new leader, and hopefully a new corner in The DR Congo’s mottled history was set to be elected last December. Currently, in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital in the southwest where hastily constructed towers paint long, blocky shadows upon thick expanding slums, the city is stirring, like a coiled spring being pinned down by a heavy forefinger, waiting impatiently, burdened with reservoirs of potential energy.
On Wednesday, the results from the country’s general election were revealed, though they remain unconfirmed. Kabila’s party, now led by Emmanuel Shadary, finished third in the election with 4.4 million votes, behind Martin Fayulu of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party with 6.4 million votes and Felix Tshisekedi, of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, with 7 million.
Tshisekedi is The DR Congo’s first victor from the opposition, but, after the results were questioned internationally by France and Belgium, runner up Martin Fayulu on Thursday declared the election a “voting coup”, accusing his rival of enacting a power-sharing deal with the outgoing president Kabila.
There is no victory parade, no patriotism. Instead, an aggrieved hum now smudges the nation’s pastoral land. As distrust simmers across a patronised population, the highly influential Catholic Church, the de facto leaders of 40 million Congolese, issued a statement saying the result given by the electoral commission did not correspond with its own findings garnered by 40,000 observers monitoring polling stations.
If nothing is changed, we are not too far away from witnessing the start of incessant fighting across the heart of Africa.
However, Shadary, former President Kabila’s handpicked replacement, conceded defeat, stating: “The Congolese people have chosen and democracy has triumphed,” while in return Tshisekedi said he would, “Pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila and today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country.”
Tshisekedi is seen as the least objectionable choice of leader for the outgoing government. Whether he has the intention or the capacity to challenge the powerful hold Kabila enjoys over the army, security services and key ministries will determine whether politics has really entered a new era.
As yet, there has been an absence of major, widespread, nationwide, seditious clashes. Instead, a delicate equilibrium grips the country as Fayulu on Friday vowed to challenge the result in court, thus delaying divisions at least temporarily.
But, with every day that passes without a clear result, the population’s trust in the government wanes and the polarisation between supporters creates a chasm as wide as the valleys of the East African Rift.
A final, true result needs to be announced quickly. Without this, the possibility of these horrific militant groups in the east marching downstream and feeding off the insecurity becomes ever the more likely. If nothing is changed, we are not too far away from witnessing the start of incessant fighting across the heart of Africa.