Every couple of years or so those of us on the "new democracies circuit" used to be asked if we were interested in a project in Zaire and, if so, would we please stand by. We have indeed been standing by for years but now it might just happen. Elections in the now re-named Congo are scheduled for 2005 and all the international machinery is creaking into place. If the elections do take place on time they will be the first multiparty elections in the country for exactly forty years.
The fraught history of this country is a classic example of the malign experience of colonialism, the nonsense of national boundaries and the unsustainability of the concept of the nation state. In purely narrative terms the history is simple enough. Towards the back end of the nineteenth century King Leopold of Belgium wanted an empire. The British had one, the French had one, the Portuguese had one, and even the Spanish had a bit of one. So why shouldn't Belgium? Leopold commissioned the English explorer Henry Stanley to find him a tract of Africa for his own colony. Stanley did just that and in due course the Belgian Congo appeared on the maps. It is huge area of central Africa - equivalent to a quarter of the USA - with two typical appendages: an eastern piece, Katanga, where the copper deposits were divided with the Brits of Zambia, and a south-western bit designed to give the country a tiny outlet to the Atlantic ocean.
The Belgians ran the place with the usual colonial mixture of stick and carrot but with rather more of the former than their colonial neighbours with the result that, by the time the end of colonial rule became inevitable, there were even fewer educated and trained administrators than elsewhere in Africa. In 1960 the Belgians, under pressure from the charismatic left wing leader, Patrice Lumumba, upped sticks and left. Lumumba was certainly no gradualist, but the lack of an African leadership ready to step into key posts ensured an increasingly chaotic administration. Lumumba was murdered in suspicious circumstances, possibly with the connivance if not the assistance of Belgian mercenaries, and after a few hopeful but false starts, Mobutu became President and lasted in office for almost forty years.
The Congo basin itself is divided between the Republic of Congo, capital Brazzaville - named after an Italian born but passionate French colonialist - and the rather euphemistically named, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Paradoxically, it is the Congo's misfortune to be potentially rich. It contains a lot of extremely valuable minerals, some of which are unique to the country. And it has diamonds. If it had neither there would not be quite the same incentive for the get-rich-quick merchants to recruit private armies and to install themselves into power by force of arms, or even to get into power more or less democratically and then to abolish elections. Its long-term dictator, Mobutu Sesi Seko, famously did the latter and salted billions away in foreign bank accounts. His successor, Laurent DÃ©sir Kabila, had been a prominent dissident and a longtime exile. He arrived in Kinshasa with an army and with a new broom with which he immediately began to lay about him, not necessarily for the better. In January 2002 he was assassinated by a bodyguard (sic) and his young son Joseph replaced him. Joseph has proved both progressive and resilient and is the somewhat unlikely military leader and catalyst of the present political process.
There is a transitional government with a transitional Senate and a transitional lower House - all of whose members are appointed from the ranks of the various main parties. The process of negotiating the key laws to take the country into democratic elections is painfully slow, and the reliability and the discipline of the army and the police are somewhat precarious. The country's Vice-President is currently in Bukuvu and Goma, embroiled in trying to broker an agreement with dissident members of the security forces in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu where the instability is great and where militias regularly infiltrate across the border from Rwanda. We recently held a workshop in Goma on the electoral process and early on our very first morning a young man was shot dead by the army in the grounds of our hotel. In the east of the country the UN has a substantial military mission endeavouring to keep the peace. On my first week in Kinshasa I had to cope with a serious attempt by four men who claimed to be plain clothes police - fake or freelance it was not quite clear - to kidnap me on the main street in broad daylight. Unlike other African cities in which I have worked, people seem nervous or subdued and only a minority catch one's eye and smile. It is a tough city.
The interparty agreements provide for Presidential, parliamentary and local elections to be held by August 2005, with the possibility of two agreed extensions of six months each. Frankly, it will be touch and go if even the latest possible deadline can be met. The logistical problems are immense. There has been no census for twenty years and no-one is quite sure how many Congolese there are. It is thought that there are around 54 million, half of whom will be eligible to vote. But how does one define nationality? The borders are artificial and the people have the same languages, and often the same tribal background on either side of most of the inevitably porous borders. The term "Congolese" is itself artificial, simply denoting those living within the boundaries of that particular colony. In addition, as a result of decades of civil war, there are some four million internal refugees, or "displaced persons".
There is hardly any infrastructure left, with few roads and no fixed line telephone network. Even without the political problems, the logistics of electoral registration and of polling are, to put it mildly, rather challenging. On the plus side is the fact that there is no dominant tribe, with the largest only forming around 17% of the population, so that the possibility of tribally based political parties being able to legitimise power through the ballot box is highly unlikely. Most difficult of all is the lack of an institutional memory of elections. There is no-one around who has ever run an election. Even in one party states there was an electoral process, but in the Congo the electoral commission has the massive task of starting from scratch. It is difficult to conceptualise what is involved, quite apart from the problem of drawing up a detailed diary of operations, and keeping to it. It is, perhaps, no wonder that the timetable is falling seriously behind.
The role of the international community is often criticised, sometimes rightly so, but when it comes to a situation such as in the Congo, when a long awaited opportunity to help an oppressed people arrives, it can act swiftly and expensively. The current budget for the whole electoral processes comes to $300 million, almost all of which will come from the EU and from individual countries. It is a considerable sum, but it will be well worth spending if the people of this vast country, who have been exploited for over forty years, at last have the opportunity to live their lives in security and can reap the benefits of the wealth that has gone into the pockets of the selfish few for far too long.