Elections Offer Little Alternative

Congolese electoral officers from the Independent Electoral Commission explain the voting process in Kinshasa's central district on July 30. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP-Getty Images)

The July 30 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo were the first national elections in the country for more than four decades. In the first round, the sitting president Joseph Kabila took a 45 percent share of the vote, while his nearest rival Jean-Pierre Bemba won 20 percent. As Kabila did not win an absolute majority, the pair now face a second-round run-off on Oct. 29.

Some of the striking images from the elections showed overjoyed people queuing to vote for the first time in their lives. Sadly, the elections offered little in the way of a real alternative for most Congolese; rather, the run-up to the elections has been marked by a further phase of plunder.

A deal signed at the end of 2003 in South Africa between the D.R.C.'s Kinshasa government, rebel groups, and the political opposition agreed to the formation of a Transitional National Government (T.N.G.). Fighting, however, continued. The International Rescue Committee estimated that from the beginning of the war in 1998 to the end of April 2004, approximately 3.8 million people died.

The peace signaled by the transitional government triggered the return of some multinational companies to regions that they had previously watched from a distance. There were attempts to reintroduce gold mining and to start oil exploration, particularly in the northeast of the country.

One of the companies heavily implicated in the war was AngloGold Ashanti, a subsidiary of the mining giant Anglo American. AngloGold Ashanti was connected to rebel group the Front Nationaliste and Intergrationniste (F.N.I.), which assisted the company's access to gold reserves situated around the town of Mongbwalu in the northeast. The company provided monetary and logistical support to the F.N.I.

Although AngloGold Ashanti initially won mining rights to a gold concession in 1996, it was not until 2003 that it could start serious exploration. Once the transitional government had been installed in Kinshasa, the area was regarded as accessible.

According to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, AngloGold Ashanti's Charles Carter explained: "While this is obviously a tough environment right now, we are looking forward to the opportunity to fully explore the properties we have in the Congo, believing that we now have access to potentially exciting growth prospects in Central Africa."

With the signing of the peace agreement, the central government attempted to reclaim control over the country's resources. The government signed oil exploration licenses with the Canadian-British Heritage Oil Company for the Congolese side of the Semliki Valley. The company exclaimed that the area had the potential of being a world-class oil basin. In March 2003, it promised to commence exploration on the Congolese side of the border, but mindful of the region's political turbulence, it made contacts with local chiefs in an eastern province in 2002. One of these, Chief Kahwe of Mandro — who was fighting to take control of the region's capital Bunia from rival rebel group the Union des Patriots Congolais (U.P.C.) — explained in a February 2003 interview: "I have been contacted by the Canadian Oil people who came to see me. I told them they could only start work in Ituri once I had taken Bunia from the U.P.C."

The other key process tied to the 2003 peace deal was just as predictable. Rebel commanders, responsible for much of the killing and slaughter in the war, were incorporated into the Congolese army.

For example, Bemba — a mobile phone entrepreneur — is an important contender in the elections and a product of the global forces that were at work during the war. His rebel group, Mouvement de Liberation Congolais (M.L.C.), emerged in the first two years of the war. Bemba was not forged organically out of a guerrilla struggle, but promoted in early 2001 by a regional player in the war — Uganda — for his business connections and organizational skills. One commentator explained that "due to his growing reputation for getting results, Uganda selected him to head the umbrella organization."

Groups such as the M.L.C. clashed as they fought for control and access to minerals. These minerals were then exported through Rwanda or Uganda, and bought by Western multinationals. The relative calm of the transition to the elections has led to the further direct involvement of multinational corporations.

The West's recent interest in Congolese democracy has been determined only by a desire to secure access to the country's wealth. In March, the European Union decided to send a multinational force to help oversee the elections. The publicized aim was to ensure the smooth running of the elections, but the German defense minister made the real intentions clear: European industry "would benefit from the stability of a region rich in raw materials."

However, the EU forgot to consult the African Union and the D.R.C. The Congolese media accused the West of interference, stating that without an invitation the EU force would be seen as an occupation. Western intervention in one form or another was a cornerstone of the war from 1998.

The U.N. Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of Congo in 2002 was devastating in its conclusions. The report showed how the exploitation of minerals was funding rebel groups and feeding into global networks of international business. One conclusion stated that foreign companies "were ready to do business regardless of elements of unlawfulness … Companies trading minerals which the Panel considered to be the engine of the conflict in the Congo, have prepared the field for illegal mining activities in the country."

The effect of generations of plunder is reflected in the political choice that was on offer in the elections. As Ludo de Wittes, author of "The Assassination of Lumumba"explained: "The political class today reflects the degeneration and the exhaustion of decades of Mobutu dictatorship under the orders of imperialism. What do we have? Some clients, some neo-colonialist politicians, all who are living out of the hands of the West. You have a small clique of warlords who have been brought together in the capital, and receive funds from the international community. The proof is that there is not one Congolese politician who has been vilified in the Western media. A true test of credibility in Congolese politics."

The only hope for real change rests with the Congolese people themselves, who have a magnificent history of resistance to both the degenerated political class in the Congo and the international plunderers.

From Green Left Weekly.