Violence, Fraud Fears In D. R. Congo Elections

After dictatorship and civil war, the Democratic Republic of Congo held presidential and parliamentary elections on Monday. Host Michel Martin speaks with DRC-based correspondent Jonny Hogg, and Arizona Senator John McCain's wife Cindy McCain, who is working to draw global attention to the polls and future of Africa's second largest country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My thanks to Tony Cox for sitting in for me while I was away. Later, I'll tell you what I was doing. It involves my first-ever ambulance ride, and we'll hear from the last surviving Navajo code talker. That's all coming up. But first, to the Democratic Republic of Congo. That country is voting in presidential and parliamentary elections today. It's only the second election in four decades in the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its turbulent history covers the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and a civil war that drew in at least six African armies. Needless to say, the path to the polls has not been easy. The incumbent Joseph Kabila won the country's first elections in 2006, but he's still widely viewed as an autocrat, to put it mildly. It isn't clear whether these elections are the bridge from dictatorship to full Democracy that many had hoped. Jonny Hogg is with us to tell us more.

He's a Reuter's correspondent in Kinshasa. Also with us, Cindy McCain. She's a founding member of the Eastern Congo Initiative. That's a U.S.-based advocacy and funding initiative focused on the people of Eastern Congo. I welcome you both. I'm thankful to have you both with us.

CINDY MCCAIN: Thank you.

JONNY HOGG: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Jonny, just set the table for us, if you would. As I mentioned that Joseph Kabila is the incumbent who, in some ways, we could say inherited the post from his father, even though he did win the first election in 2006. Does he have a credible opponent, and what are the main issues?

HOGG: He certainly does have one clear opponent in these elections, a candidate who, in fact, really only started campaigning two-and-a-half weeks into the month-long pre-electoral campaign, and this is Etienne Tshisekedi. Now, he's a character that is long-known and loved by many people in Democratic Republic of Congo, not least because he set up the country's first-ever opposition. He fought against the dictatorship of Mobutu for a long time. So in that sense, he's had real political currency that he's developed as the sort of leading opposition figure over the last 30 or so years.

Now, in 2006 Etienne Tshisekedi boycotted the process. This time, clearly, he hasn't done so. And he's picked up an enormous amount of support here in Kinshasa, a population of nine million, with three-and-a-half million people registered to vote. He's also very popular in the Kasai provinces right in the very heart of Democratic Republic of Congo. So, he's very much seen as the clear, closest rival to Joseph Kabila.

MARTIN: And Jonny, I'm going to turn to Mrs. McCain in a moment, but one of the things that many Americans will know about the Democratic Republic of Congo - if they are not familiar with any of the other issues - is the widespread sexual abuse of women that has been part of this conflict for many, many years now. Is that an issue in this campaign at all?

HOGG: It is, and it is an issue in the sense that I think, certainly, from - for a lot of people, it plays into a wider problem of a lack of security in the country. Now, obviously, Cindy McCain will be able to talk about the situation in the east of the country, where much of that insecurity is focused. But it exists here in Kinshasa, as well. Indeed, it exists in Lubumbashi in the south of the country, where we've seen violence on Election Day.

And sexual violence for the Congo is - clearly, is a particularly unpleasant form of violence, but it's just one of many that they've had to put up with and still put up with, given that the country itself is from extremely high criminality and particularly worrying the police and security forces who really, quite often, are the perpetrators rather than the protectors of the population.

MARTIN: Cindy McCain, how did you get involved in this area of the world?

MCCAIN: Well, I became involved in 1994. I was actually here during the Rwandan genocide and was working with a humanitarian group that was doing medical care in Goma as the refugees were coming over the border. And so that was my first entry into this area, and I've been back working ever since. The answer to your question, in my opinion, with regards to the effect of the sexual violence, is that the women in this part of the region are voting en masse. They - not only do they want to be participants in this change, but they believe that the only way they're going to be able to be active and get their way is through peace.

And they - and repeatedly, when you come into the voting sessions and talk to them, they continue to say they want peace. They want their lives back. And so the sexual violence has had such a tragic effect on these women, children, their families in every way. Today, I've seen women trying to vote being turned away because their names weren't on the list, being told to come back, coming back not finding their names once again on the list, and being told either to wait or to go away.

I mean, these women are determined to not only cast their vote, but be participants in this today. And so I think you're going to see well a change here, in many ways.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Cindy McCain. She's a founding member of the Eastern Congo Initiative. She's in Goma today. Also with us, Reuter's correspondent Jonny Hogg, in Kinshasa. We're talking about elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We're getting a ground-level view from two people who are there. Cindy McCain, tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the environment. We're hearing some reports from observers in other parts of the country that they're - the kind of harassment that you're talking about is ongoing, but we're not sure how extensive it is. What are you seeing and hearing?

MCCAIN: We've seen a lot of things (technical difficulties) from the polling stations that were clearly organized, all the way down to the frustration, as I mentioned, to women being turned away. We've not seen any evidence of harass...

MARTIN: We seem to be losing Cindy McCain, so we're going to thank her for being willing to talk to us today and we thank her for her insights to this point. Cindy McCain is a founding member of the Eastern Congo Initiative. You also may know that she is the wife of Arizona Senator John McCain, and she was with us from Goma. Jonny Hogg, back to you. Tell us more about what you're seeing, if you would.

HOGG: Well, it's interesting that she - what Cindy McCain said there about seeing the whole range, from well-organized to much less well-organized. It's very much the pattern that we're seeing here in Kinshasa. One of the clear frustrations for people here is a number of people - and in some cases, it seems a very high number of people - are not finding themselves on the voter lists, and therefore being told they can't vote. That is creating frustrations, understandably. I think if we look at what's happened in Kinshasa, given the violence that we've seen in the run up to these elections - there were very, very violent clashes over the weekend in which at least eight people were killed when all political rallies were banned by the government because of security concerns.

But I think what we're seeing today in Kinshasa is actually better than perhaps some people expected. Having said that, from around the country, there are other concerning hot spots. In the Kasai provinces, there have been some problems. That's very much Etienne Tshisekedi's sort of heartland, political heartland. And then down in the south of the country, the richest part of Congo, where much of the mining that the country's famous for goes on, there have been problems there, including armed men attacking a voting station.

So it's a patchwork that we're seeing, and I think it is too early to say whether or not this election process is a success. I think the one thing we can be thankful for so far is that we haven't seen the extreme levels of violence - at least here in Kinshasa - that some did. The big question, of course, now will be: How will people react to the results as they start to come in? Will people accept the results? Will people see the process as credible, given that although it's going along at the moment, there are clearly a good number of question marks over the process as a whole?

MARTIN: Who is seen as wanting to use violence to influence the outcome of the elections? Is it widely assumed that it is those on the side of the incumbent, the security forces, those who are on the side of existing forces in power? Or is there a sense that there are, you know, others trying to influence the process through violent means?

HOGG: Well, I think the answer to that question rather depends on who you ask. If you talk to the opposition, they will talk about the government and the security forces effectively being murderers, killers who target civilians, unarmed civilians. If you talk to the government, they see the opposition as deliberately disruptive, violent thugs who target their political opponents.

I think the truth is probably that both sides are, to a degree, culpable. There are clearly huge weaknesses within the security forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo and, I mean, over the weekend, we saw members of the Republican Guard, effectively the soldiers closest to President Kabila, opening fire on unarmed protesters. Now, clearly, in any electoral process, that is not the sort of thing you want to see and it's not acceptable.

On the other hand, Etienne Tshisekedi in 30-odd years of opposition politics in Congo, he has developed a very effective strategy of mobilizing people on the street, creating this sort of tension, this sort of pressure on their security forces and, quite often, I think probably looking for the sort of violent reaction that they've got.

So the danger of this process is - are both or either side prepared to step back from the brink if these elections become contested and become tense in the aftermath? Or are people on both sides of the political divide prepared to take this to extremes of violence? And, clearly, I think everybody who's watching this process hopes that that wouldn't be the case.

MARTIN: So, Jonny, finally, I think many people will wonder why this matters. And the reason I'm asking that is we've mentioned that this is the second largest country in the region, on the continent, that it is mineral rich, but its people are desperately poor. But there is a sense that conflicts have a way of spreading to other countries in the region.

So the question really is - is there any sense in which this election will actually make a difference in the trajectory in which this country is going?

HOGG: I think anyone expecting a miracle after these elections, irrespective of whether the protest is not marred by any more real violence, I would be likely to be disappointed. The problems are vast and that is partly linked to the scare that the country, partly linked to what's gone on before, I mean, five million dead in wars over the last sort of 15 to 20 years. I mean, it's been an enormously damaging period for this country.

Some of the other issues that will mean this election probably won't change things dramatically are things that exist today, like the endemic corruption that this government has failed to tackle the government of Joseph Kabila. And I think the other thing is it's not so much whether or not okay elections will make an enormous difference to the country positively, but very bad elections could make a huge difference to this country negatively and really put it right back into a kind of footing of conflict and insecurity and many of the problems that the Congolese face today will simply continue.

MARTIN: Jonny Hogg is the correspondent for Reuters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was with us from Kinshasa. Previously, we had with us Cindy McCain. She's a founding member of the Eastern Congo Initiative and she was with us from Goma. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOGG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, during the Second World War, members of the Navajo Nation made a unique contribution to the war effort that may have been as powerful as any weapon.

JUDITH SCHIESS AVILA: They didn't just use Navajo. They had a code developed using English and Navajo that not even another Navajo could break unless he was a Code Talker.

MARTIN: I'll speak with the last surviving Navajo Code Talker and the woman who tells his story in a new book. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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