Election Season in the Congo

Campaigning in a war zone.

Employees of a night club march, Turbo King beers in hand

BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 30—Before this year’s Independence Day parade begins, a marshal warns the participants, “Please behave yourselves in front of your leaders.” To someone like me, used to the musty parades of the Midwest and New England, this seems like a strange request. Except for the predictable antics of the Shriners, an Independence Day parade is hardly the place to get rambunctious. In Congo, it is.

A small contingent from the Tourism Service of Bunia

It seems that every group with more than two members is marching: Public School 1, the Association of Military Wives, the Provincial Tax Collection Bureau, the Tourism Service (tourism in Congo?). And they boogie as much as march, with a kind of forward-moving shimmy that everyone seems to know, even the youngest school kids.

Although Congo is one of the most failed states on the planet, and Bunia was the site of horrible interethnic violence just three years ago, the parade presents a mosaic of diverse civic, professional, and religious groups that seems quite healthy. Even a Muslim women’s group is marching. (Although, it must be noted, they were they only group that didn’t boogie.)

Many carry items that represent their organizations. The car mechanics wave wrenches and radiators, the market women show off vegetables. The anti-AIDS organization waves packets of condoms, and the workers at the Building Permit Office brandish bricks, shovels, and an oversized permit.

When the marchers get to the reviewing stand, I see what the marshal was talking about when he demanded good behavior. Several of the groups have prepared little skits for the VIPs in the stands. The mechanics, marching along with a beat-up jalopy, stop, climb underneath the car, and pantomime working on it. The employees of a night club chug their Turbo King beers. One member of a karate school shows of his nunchuck skills, while another busts some moves that are equal parts Bruce Lee and Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

But whenever anyone stops in front of the reviewing stand for more than a couple of seconds, the police try to cut short the performance and move the marchers along. A soccer team files past and one showboat does a few tricks with a ball.One hapless policeman, after a lot of yelling, finally kicks the ball into a crowd. But the player gets it back and starts up the tricks again. The VIPs hoot with laughter, and it seems that part of the show is pretending that the bigwigs are in cahoots with the rabble.

A woman holds a poster for a legislative candidate from the PPRD, the party of President Kabila

The associations, clubs, and schools are followed by the new addition to this year’s Independence Day parade: the political parties. On July 30, Congo will hold its first free elections in 40 years, and all the major parties and a lot of the minor ones are out in force.

People here in the Ituri district are enthusiastic about the elections, despite the lack of distinction of most of the candidates. The main opposition group is boycotting, and most of the big parties are headed by men who just a few years ago led militia groups responsible for the war that killed an estimated 50,000 people in Ituri alone.

One group of marchers is singing a song whose only lyrics are “Votez Mobutu.” They’re members of the Union of Mobutuist Democrats, and they’re referring not to Mobutu Sese Seko, who led Congo until 1997 and was possibly the most corrupt head of state in history, but his son, Francois Joseph Nzanga Ngbangawe Mobutu, who is running for president this time around.

Most analysts think young Mobutu will get only a paltry number of votes, but it’s a measure of how much Congo has suffered over the last decade that the parade-goers don’t jeer the Mobutuists off the street, or worse. Just as some Iraqis do with Saddam Hussein, many eastern Congolese look back at the Mobutu era as one in which there was peace, if not much else. Or maybe they just have short memories. When I asked someone to explain Mobutu’s revived reputation, he answered with a proverb: “A dead man is a friend to everyone.”

The biggest group of marchers, and the one that receives the most cheers, is the PPRD, the party of current President Joseph Kabila. The great majority of people I talk to here say they plan to vote for Kabila, crediting him with bringing peace to eastern Congo. Many believe he’ll receive a good chunk of votes in the west as well, and with the main opposition party boycotting, Kabila appears on his way to an easy victory.

Supporters of a political party

After four hours of this raucous fun, the parade ends and the crowd is brought back to reality with a somber speech by Petronille Vwaweka, a tough human rights activist who is now Ituri district commissioner. She announces that this morning, not far away from Bunia, dead-ender militias who are refusing to give up the fight have clashed with the fledgling Congolese armed forces, and that several government soldiers were wounded. “Our brothers are dying, for what?” she asks, implicitly blaming the silent crowd.

She then draws cheers from the women in the crowd with a jab at their local men’s preference for fighting over working. She also refers to several Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers whom rebels had taken hostage nearby: “You wait for the foreigners to feed you, and then you kidnap them.” (They were released a week later.)

“After the elections we have to work hard. … We are tired of war, tired of fighting. Enough is enough,” she finishes, and the sobered crowd disperses.

But some Congolese have not had enough. The rebels continue to advance, pushing the government forces with heavy mortar fire. Just a few days after Independence Day, they reached within 12 miles of Bunia, prompting the U.N. peacekeepers to cordon off the city and police to institute a curfew. The irrepressible spirit of the Congolese and their bloody civil war keep shimmying along, side by side.