KINSHASA, 12 Jun 2006 (IRIN) - The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is to hold its first elections in 45 years on 30 July. Donors are providing almost half a billion dollars to fund the polls, and the United Nations peacekeeping mission there, known as MONUC, is responsible for transporting the electoral personnel and voting material to 53,000 polling sites around the country. MONUC's 17,000 troops are mandated to keep the peace in a vast country where various armed groups still control some territory, three years after the signing of a peace agreement.
The head of MONUC, William Swing, is also the head of the country's International Committee to Support the Transition, which is made up of ambassadors from Angola, Belgium, China, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as representatives from the African Union and the European Union. The following are excerpts from an interview on 17 May:
QUESTION: Why do you think that with four million people dead, the DRC has not been able to garner as much international attention as, say, Sudan's Darfur?
ANSWER: It is not a story that is easily presentable. It's a country that has had a reputation of instability and dictatorship over many, many years. And now that we are moving to towards elections here - which is a good news story - that's seen as less newsworthy than a story of great suffering.
I think there certainly are reasons that the story [of the DRC] should be getting more attention. First of all, I think we can argue that it is one of the great human tragedies since the Second World War. You've lost all these people, but it was a war that happened largely in silence. Most of the people died not through bullets, but from the destruction of health centres and other institutions on which they depended.
Secondly, it's the only part of Africa that lacks a centre of political stability. You can point to stability in West Africa: Senegal, Mali, Ghana and lots of other countries. East Africa: Tanzania, Kenya and lots of other places. And in much of southern Africa you have a large number of those states that are democracies and doing well. But in Central Africa, there is no centre of political gravity - and there won't be one until this country can come right. Of all the crises in Africa, the successful solution of this crisis would do more for Africa than any other. This is the one situation that has the chance to change the face of Africa.
Unlike a lot of other countries that have recently gone through this kind of a transition, this country has an enormous economy waiting to be developed. The Congo River system has 10 percent to 12 percent of the world's hydroelectric capacity. More than 50 percent of all the tropical hardwoods in Africa are inside the Congo. It has been in the top 10 in terms of production of five or six major minerals: gold, industrial diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan - the material from which cellular telephones are made.
All of that's waiting to be developed. So if you can get the political stability and institutions that are legitimate, it won't always be asking for foreign aid - in fact, that's not what people want. People want a job. They want to earn for themselves.
Q: As a veteran diplomat in this region, do you really think the situation in the Congo is going to change?
A: Look at where the country was even three years ago, at the time the [peace] agreements were signed, and look now, with most of the country pacified and the [armed groups in the] east increasingly being put under pressure.
The great hope here is the determination of the Congolese people. There are an estimated 28 million voters here. [Of them,] 25.6 million went out and registered. That's not like driving up to the shopping centre and going to register. These people have had to walk 20km or 30km, stand in line for seven or eight hours, perhaps come back the next day in order to get that voting card.
Then these same people went out - two-thirds of them, 15 million - in December to vote for a constitution that most had never seen and very few had ever read, because they saw this as the next ticket to be punched on the way to elect their own leaders.
The other thing that makes one encouraged is that the international support of the Congo and for the transition is greater than at any time since independence in 1960. There are five major peace agreements, 35 Security Council resolutions, the largest peacekeeping mission in the world and $422 million to do these elections. The largest elections that the UN has ever supported are about to take place. With the people's determination and the international support, there is reason for encouragement that it will go well.
Q: What do you mean by the largest elections the UN has ever held?
A: The UN has done something it has never done before. This country is larger than Afghanistan, Cambodia, Liberia, Haiti, Cote d'Ivoire all put together. And there is still room in there for a country as large as France or Spain. It's huge! So first of all, it's the largest country we have ever done elections in - much larger than South Africa. Secondly, it has the largest electorate: 25.6 million compared to the 20 million in South Africa. And it is the largest election in terms of the physical challenges. It's going to be enormously complicated: 53,000 voting sites, 170 different ballots that are going to weigh probably 200 tonnes - taking them all over this vast country, securing them and making sure counting takes place properly and all that. There will be many observers here. That makes it by far the largest election we have supported and probably the largest electoral challenge the UN has had and, in a certain sense, it is a test case.
The United Nations is trying something in the Congo and Sudan it has never done since it started doing peacekeeping in 1948. We are trying to do peacekeeping and transition in a major-sized country without roads that [in the case of the DRC] is as large as the eastern United States east of the Mississippi or as large as Western Europe. With a large population of about 58 million, which makes it the second largest French-speaking country in the world.
Q: But is the Congo really ripe for elections?
A: We have to realise that the Congolese people are now in the fifteenth year of a transition. It started with the national conference, which went on for seven years. Then you had two wars over a period of five to six years. Now you have just about completed three years of another transition, and people are now, frankly, tiring. They are really fatigued from the transition. They want to move on. It is time for elections. They should be held now. They will be held on schedule with the new date. Everyone is convinced that is going to happen. Looking at it technically and financially, there is no reason it shouldn't happen. The international community is supporting what people are telling them they want to happen. I think the timing is right.
Q: How much of a panacea are these elections going to be given that one major opposition party [the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), headed by Etienne Tshisekedi] has decided not to participate and substantial parts of the east are still very unsettled and any elected government would be hard pressed to assert itself in that region?
A: You raise a really key question. Clearly the position of the United Nations and the international community in general has been from the beginning that these elections need to be politically inclusive. I think everyone regrets that the major political opposition party - one of the oldest parties here, 26 years old - that had been a great opponent of [late President] Mobutu [Sese Seko] decided in the end not to participate. The Security Council mission that came here a few months ago made it very clear that no one should be excluded from this process and no one should exclude himself and herself. And it happened. It's very unfortunate, and I think we now have to deal with this situation as we find it.
In terms of the security in the east, there were about 24,000 foreign elements in the east, largely the forces that were involved in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, mostly Rwandan. We have managed under our voluntary programme to repatriate in excess of the 13,000 of these. Which means there are about 10,000 left, and they are still there. But we do not conclude that they are going to be a major factor in the elections. I say that because they did not significantly disturb the voter registration, which was a five-month process, or the referendum that took place on 18 and 19 December . There is no reason to see it in their interest to disturb the elections. Also, we are putting them under great pressure - politically, legally and militarily - doing joint military actions that keep them out of the population centres. So we think that we will get through the elections without great disturbance on their part. There may be pockets, isolated pockets, where a precinct is disturbed, but we do not think it will be significant in any way. And we will continue to work to support the Congolese forces to repatriate these people.
Q: Etienne Tshisekedi was one of the only people to stand up to Mobutu and call for democracy. He never advocated violence, even though he was often jailed. How do you reconcile Congo now, finally having elections but without Tshisekedi?
A: It is very much regrettable his decision not to come into this. Everyone worked hard to make a compelling case that his participation and the participation of the UDPS is important to the process. It needs to be politically inclusive, and everyone needs to be inside the process and not outside. The [UN] Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] was here in March. Other leaders of the world have come here with the same message. But he and the party chose not to participate - very much regrettable, but the process now has to go ahead because the time has elapsed and people expect the process to go ahead.
Q: Wouldn't a little more time allow for coaxing the opposition to come on board? Is there any thought to waiting a little longer?
A: Not at all. Now is the time to do it because this kind of a coalition or alliance doesn't come about overnight and one needs to keep it together. [The electoral commission] has used the entire three years foreseen under the transitional constitution, and they have asked for one month more. And I think for the credibility of the process and for the stability of the country and the satisfaction of everyone who has been waiting for these elections, it's time to move forward.
I think everyone is committed to that. The Congolese people seem committed to it. The international community is concerned to keep this thing in the new deadline of 30 July. And we are satisfied that that is going to happen. From a technical and financial point of view, everything is in order. The political campaign will start soon. People are working on things like codes of conduct and access to the media. Things that are very important for a fair election. And that is where our concentration is right now.
Q: We talked with a UDPS leader, and he said the party is willing to participate if everyone sits down and negotiates. We have also heard that church leaders are calling for negotiation because the deadline for the transition has already expired. Should they not be listened to?
A: Well, it's a decision that lies squarely in the hands of the Independent Electoral Commission. To those of us that are observers from the outside, they have taken that decision.
Q: Do you support that?
A: We have welcomed the publication of an election calendar, partly so that we can do our own planning in terms of our financing and also our technical preparations, because we have to have the aircraft on the ground and the people on the ground in order to do the elections. I think it really is a question for the electoral commission to address and decide. But I think their decision up to now is that they will stick with the date as announced of 30 July.
Q: The opinion of the opposition and a lot of church leaders is that there is a lot of pressure from the donors to get this over and done with whether it includes all parties or not. How would you react to that?
A: I think that the international community is trying to support the structures in place - the electoral commission, which has the authority to make these decisions. It's not a question of pressuring. This is simply a question of supporting the institutions that were created by the Sun City Accords in South Africa.
Q: Is your feeling that the Kasai provinces, which are Tshisekedi strongholds, will be disenfranchised by the process?
A: They will all have the same chance to vote that everybody else has. I don't want to speculate on what [Tshisekedi's supporters] are likely to do. If you look at the registration process in the Kasais, they are about on average with the other provinces, so we will have to see on that. We will continue to encourage participation. We will continue to encourage all the parties to participate in the provincial assemblies, because while one always focuses on the national scene we must bear in mind that all the offices of governor and of senators for the national assembly come out of provincial assemblies. So it's a very important election and I've encouraged all the parties, including the UDPS, to take part [and enter] candidates for those lists.
Q: So hopefully the election proceeds - but then what?
A: That is a key question. Clearly, elections need to usher in a new era for the population whereby the vast resources of the country will finally be used in the interest of the people. It's a large country that's effectively underpopulated: 58 million for such a vast territory. And there are plenty of resources that will enable the government to provide good services. So it's going to mean a new start.
A lot will depend on what the international community is going to do. Will we stay the course? That, it seems, is the major objective now. Not to make a confusion between the end of the transition - which that will clearly be - and the end of the transitional tasks. What do I mean by that? First of all, there will not be a fully integrated army; there will not be a new police force. You will still have these foreign, armed elements there. You will still have armed local militia forces that will need to be disarmed, and you will still have a need for the state authority to be extended to all parts of the country, which hasn't happened yet. So there is a major amount of work to be done. Institution building: Most of the institutions are in a fairly weak state and need support. So there is a lot of work to be done. It will depend on what the new government is prepared to do and what we will do to help that new government.
Now the question is sustainability: How long will the member states of the United Nations and the Security Council be willing to sustain the effort here? It's going to take a sustained effort in order to succeed.
Q: Is it your worry that the election will send a signal that Congo is over the hump and they needn't be as engaged with it?
A: I know from past experiences that there is a tendency for elections to be seen as an exit strategy. I think we have to be more focused on what I call a sustainment strategy. Because in a way the elections are the beginning. Up to now we have been in a transition, trying to achieve a modicum of reconciliation that would allow the people to close ranks and say we're all Congolese. Let's go forward together. But the real problem now will be how to achieve a real peace dividend. So my concern is that you will possibly have a widening gap. You will have an exponentially expanding set of expectations. You've had a good election, and you'll have pressure for the international community to look elsewhere because there is always going to be another crisis. And, I should say, we are in the largest expansion of peacekeeping in modern times. We now have 18 peacekeeping missions in the world. The budget for peacekeeping has doubled in the last five years. So we're in competition for scarce resources.
We have to maintain what we have [in the Congo]. We have 17,000 troops on the ground, but that is the same number that we had in several other countries like Sierra Leone. And this country is 24 times the size of Sierra Leone. We have 13 of our 15 battalions in the east of the country, which gives us two battalions to cover the rest of the country. This is why we are very pleased that the European force is coming in. We've gotten very strong support from the Security Council. They have been very, very diligent coming out every year. They've passed these resolutions to keep this as a constant effort, and we are very grateful for that. If we can continue as we are with the numbers that we have, we think that will be necessary for the new army to keep security.
Q: What is the incentive for the former rebel leaders and people with vested interests to come on board, because they have a lot to lose, right?
A: One of the problems of the country, quite frankly, has been its large resource base. There is a cruel sort of irony that one of Africa's potentially richest countries has now become one of Africa's poorest. That's a paradigm that needs to be changed. They've begun to make some efforts in that regard: there is a new mining code; there is a new forestry code. I think a lot now depends on leadership, leadership here and support from abroad to make sure that these contracts are properly carried out, that the vast riches in this country - amazing riches - come right in the interest of the people so that services are provided and, above all, getting them jobs. Those are the two things that are most lacking right now.
It's critical to everything that happens, that following the elections there is a new attitude and new approach. That one recognise that people now want to see these resources used for their benefit. I think it's going to take a lot of leadership. It's going to take a lot of encouragement and a lot of support from the international community, and that's why I think it's important that we all remain engaged. It would be unfortunate to have a good election and things wouldn't change with regard to the socioeconomic conditions. I think people here recognise that that is the next challenge. You are going to go from a political transition to one that is more focused on socioeconomic conditions, institution building, because so much is weak or broken here.