At the old Catholic mission on a steep hill just outside the gold-mining town of Kilo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of people gathered outside the school, built by Belgian missionaries at the end of the 19th century and now crumbling. The priest, Abbé Jean Pierre, stood at the top of the church steps. ‘This is a historic day for Congo,’ he said. ‘This is the day we vote for peace.’ Barely a hundred yards from the polling station, there is a mass grave. Three years ago, dozens of people were killed here in a single day: the victims, mostly civilians, were stripped, thrown face down on the ground and attacked with spears.

This summer’s elections were Congo’s first for more than forty years. No presidential candidate won an outright majority, so the people will go to the polls again on 29 October. In July, voter turnout was a remarkable 70 per cent. An elderly blind man at a polling station just south of Kilo told me he had walked thirty miles through the forest to vote, led by his granddaughter. ‘I am tired of war,’ he said.

For five years between 1998 and 2003, armies from six African nations fought in Congo, backing a host of local rebel groups. When the foreign armies withdrew, a transitional government was installed in Kinshasa. In this vast country with few roads and almost no electricity, elections were to be organised within just three years with the planning and logistical support of the UN. The fractious government, composed of former enemies, spent much of its time squabbling while local warlords continued to devastate the east of the country. It took international investment of more than £200 million and much arm-twisting by diplomats to enable the July poll to take place.

Three weeks after election day, on the night the first-round results were to be announced, gun battles broke out in Kinshasa between the Republican Guard of President Joseph Kabila and the troops of his main challenger, Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba. United Nations peacekeeping troops had to evacuate the president of the Independent Electoral Commission when the fighting got too close to his office. There were 33 candidates, and Kabila emerged as the front-runner; two days of street battles followed. At one point, 14 ambassadors were trapped in Bemba’s residence, where they had gone to urge calm, while presidential guards exchanged fire with Bemba’s troops in the streets outside. Dozens of people died in these skirmishes.

Congo’s problems are never going to be fixed by elections alone. The July election simply legitimated those who had previously gained power through force. Kabila and Bemba, together with Azarias Ruberwa, another vice-president and the former leader of a Rwandan-backed rebel group, were the only three candidates who, thanks to their access to government funds and their control of private armed forces, were able to conduct a national campaign. But the campaign was dominated by Bemba and Kabila, who had media outlets and airplanes at their disposal. Kabila took credit for the peace agreement that ended Congo’s war. Bemba made much of his Congolese roots, claiming he was more of a ‘man of the soil’ than Kabila, who grew up in Tanzania.

Ambassadors from 15 governments devised a structure to help guide Congo’s transition to democracy. But they dismissed concerns about corruption and private militias: it would be unproductive, they said, to push too hard for change at such a delicate time. Congo’s only well-established opposition party didn’t even take part in the election. A non-violent party, Etienne Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress had refrained from playing any part in Congo’s war. Because Tshisekedi wasn’t a signatory to the final peace accords, he was excluded from a ministerial position in the carve-up that followed, and lacked the access to government resources that allowed other contenders to influence the election process. Efforts by the international community to include him came too late. By then the UDSP had already urged its supporters not to register to vote.

Patrice Lumumba, who came to power in 1960 when the Congo gained its independence from Belgium, is so far Congo’s only democratically elected leader. He held power for three months before being deposed in a coup and then assassinated. After four years of extreme instability, Mobutu Sese Seko, Lumumba’s former secretary, engineered another coup, and renamed the country Zaire. His 32 years of dictatorship were characterised by corruption on such a massive scale that it led to the coining of the term ‘kleptocrat’. He took the country into a long economic decline. Mobutu’s end came about as a result of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which had a cataclysmic effect on the politics of the entire region. Finally, the Rwandan army marched on Kinshasa and ousted Mobutu, who had provided support to Rwanda’s genocidal leaders. Laurent Kabila, the leader of a rebel alliance backed by Rwanda (and Joseph Kabila’s father), was installed as president – and declared that Zaire would now be called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The new regime differed little from the old. Kabila quickly adopted the practices which Mobutu had perfected: corruption, economic mismanagement and favouritism towards the family clan. Seeking to free himself from the Rwandan support that had helped him to victory, he launched new campaigns of ethnic hatred against anyone linked to Rwanda, including the Congolese Tutsi who shared some cultural characteristics with the Tutsis across the border. Unwilling to lose their new influence in mineral-rich Congo, and concerned about the targeting of Congolese Tutsi, Rwanda and Uganda launched a new Congo war in 1998, which eventually drew in other African countries. When, in January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in the presidential palace in Kinshasa, his 29-year-old son Joseph succeeded him as president. Joseph Kabila and the main rebel leaders signed a power-sharing agreement in Sun City, which led to the establishment of a transitional government with four vice-presidents, one from each of the main rebel groups that had fought in the war.

In King Leopold’s day men fought over rubber and ivory in Congo; today it is gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan (columbite-tantalite, used in laptops and mobile phones). Rwandan, Ugandan and Zimbabwean army officers, as well as the Congolese elite, have grown rich from the war. In Mongbwalu, a gold-mining town in north-eastern Congo, warlords battled for two years for control of the town and its mines. More than two thousand civilians died in the battles. Tens of thousands of others were forced to flee into the forests; many did not survive.

The UN found that dozens of European and North American corporations had violated international business norms in their operations in Congo. So far not a single one has been penalised, although several have altered their practices as a result of bad publicity. Swiss gold refineries, for example, agreed to stop purchasing gold from Uganda that had been mined in Congo when Human Rights Watch convinced them that the international gold trade provided a revenue stream to armed groups responsible for mass murder.

The exploitation of Congo’s resources has accelerated with the end of war and the advent of the transitional government. World Bank officials told me privately that the number of grants for exploration rights in important mineral-rich areas increased fourfold in 2005. Many of the deals involved dubious provisions that will do little for the development of the country. The competition for mineral resources hits the Congolese people hard. Last year, in the mines of Bavi, also in the north-east, government soldiers used villagers as slave labour, forcing them to do the digging and threatening to kill anyone who refused to comply. One local chief was arrested, beaten and put in a hole used as an underground prison.

One of the largest threats to Congolese civilians is the new Congolese army itself, which is comprised of soldiers from disbanded rebel groups and the old national army. Ten days after the July elections, I saw two soldiers marching a small group of civilians along the road from Gethy, another town in north-eastern Congo. They were carrying chairs, benches and corrugated metal roofing on their heads. My companion – a Congolese human rights activist – and I stopped to ask questions. One of the women, carrying a child on her back and a church bench on her head, said nothing but as she looked at us, her hands trembled. ‘There is no problem,’ one of the soldiers laughed. ‘We are escorting these people for their own safety.’ It turned out that they were all members of the same family, who had been forced to flee their home two months earlier when soldiers had burned down their village. On the day we came across them, they had been searching for food in the fields when the soldiers arrived and took them to the church at gunpoint. The men were instructed to remove the metal sheeting from the roof and the women ordered to carry the chairs and benches. The soldiers threatened to kill them all if they failed to obey. My companion pointed out to the soldiers that their actions were illegal, and on this occasion, the soldiers backed down.

Congolese civilians fear the new national army, just as they feared Leopold’s Force Publique – whose policy was to sever the hands of those who refused to collect rubber – and Mobutu’s security forces, which were known for their wide-scale looting and violence. Mobutu’s forces twice pillaged Kinshasa, in 1991 and 1993. Earlier this year, a group of twenty people fleeing a battle between the army and a rebel militia hoped they had found safety in a church in the village of Nyata. They were wrong. Dozens of soldiers opened fire from the door and through the windows. Seven people were killed, including two babies. When the firing stopped, a local leader asked the soldiers why they’d done it. ‘This is not our problem. It’s your problem,’ the soldiers replied.

The army is riddled with corruption. Every month the top brass steals an estimated £1.5 million from funds set aside for soldiers’ salaries. It’s easy: they inflate the numbers of soldiers in the ranks with an army of ‘ghost soldiers’ and pocket the extra cash. International donors have taken to babysitting the cash as it makes its way down to the foot soldiers. This has helped, but even those privates who receive the full salary of £13 a month have barely enough to live on, and the incentive to loot and extort remains strong.

Two years ago, the International Criminal Court announced its investigation into crimes committed in eastern Congo, and in March this year it made its first arrest, seizing Thomas Lubanga, a warlord responsible for torture, rape and ethnic massacres, in Ituri district in the north-east. No action has yet been taken against other militia groups or against soldiers from the Rwandan and Ugandan armies. ‘This is selective justice,’ one community leader said to me. ‘It will not help us uncover the truth of what happened and why we have suffered so much.’

American and European diplomats grumble that the cost of UN peacekeeping in Congo comes to more than $1 billion a year. They would like to reduce the number of blue helmets soon after the elections and declare Congo’s transition successful. But too hasty a reduction will make the establishment of an effective civilian administration more difficult. ‘We were here when it was a mess forty years ago,’ one senior UN official told me, ‘and if we don’t help to fix it now we will be here again in forty years’ time.’

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