Congo Presidential Heavyweights Ready for Election

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The Congo's presidential run-off election takes place Sunday, with President Joseph Kabila facing Jean-Pierre Bemba. Both are relatively young, were educated abroad and owe their position largely to influential fathers. Both candidates also retain sizeable private armies.


There's renewed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo just days before Sunday's decisive round of presidential elections. At least a half dozen people were killed in a prison riot in Kinshasa. Four more died in clashes north of the capital between supporters of Congo's presidential challenger and those of a political ally of the president.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Election jingles on Okapi, the United Nations-funded radio station here, call on the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to vote massively and peacefully on Sunday to elect their new president.

In the past 10 years, this country has lived through the end of a long dictatorship as well as back-to-back civil wars, turbulence and continuing violence in the volatile East. And there's still tension between rival political supporters, as there was back in August here in the capital Kinshasa.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Kinshasa became a battleground then during clashes between rival armed militiamen of the two presidential candidates, one-time rebel commander turned president Joseph Kabila and erstwhile rebel leader Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The violence followed the results of the first round of the presidential poll at the end of July, giving Kabila the lead. United Nations peacekeepers, backed up by European troops and a freshly trained Congolese Police Force, have since beefed up security here in the capital, says Ambassador William Lacey Swing, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.

Ambassador WILLIAM LACEY SWING (Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General): The critical thing is that the candidates put the word out to their followers that violence will not be tolerated, that this is a campaign that cannot have any further violence. I think that's the key thing. Making that appeal is very important.

(Soundbite of people chanting slogans)

QUIST-ARCTON: Supporters of presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba chant slogans against his rival, President Kabila, in Sunday's runoff election. The presidential campaign this time has lacked the euphoria of the first round in July.

A face-to-face debate was cancelled because the presidential candidates couldn't agree on the format. This deprived the Congolese of a chance to witness some political sparring and to find out who is planning what for this potentially rich but desperately poor country the size of Western Europe.

President Kabila is selling himself as the candidate who brought peace and will reunify and rebuild Congo into a strong nation. And one-time warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba call himself the liberator.

Vice President JEAN-PIERRE BEMBA (Democratic Republic of Congo): You know, in this country, when I decided to fight and to liberate this country because there was no other solution, that was the only means to liberate my country, to fight a dictatorship system in Congo. I will be a better president because I left all my comfort to go and fight in the bush to liberate these people of Congo. I gave my life. I sacrificed my life for the people of Congo, for my brother of Congo.

QUIST-ARCTON: War-weary Congolese just want to put their past of dictatorship and conflict behind them.

Beginning her commute home during rush hour traffic last night, this 24-year-old woman, Mam Indeka(ph), summed up the general feeling among many in Congo.

Ms. MAM INDEKA (Congolese Citizen): (Through translator) All we want is peace. Peace. Peace. So that we can study and find work and rebuild our lives and our country, Congo, she said. How can we live without peace?

Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.

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