(KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo) In a drab, single-storey building in Kisangani, candidates for one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s many political parties are discussing the man who inspires them.
Mobutu Sese Seko led this vast central African state for 32 years, renaming it Zaire and ruling it savagely for his personal gain.
He would reward his friends, and himself, with proceeds siphoned off from the country’s enormous mineral wealth. He would have his enemies publicly hanged, if they were lucky. Otherwise they would be slowly mutilated, one body part severed after another, until they died.
Yet, nine years after the dictator was deposed, to the jubilation of many of his countrymen, and eight and a half years since he died of prostate cancer in exile in Rabat, Morocco, his memory is more than just alive – it is the driving force behind the Union des Democrates Mobutistes (Udemo).
One of his sons, Nzanga, 36, once his official spokesman, is its leader and hopes himself to become president in the country’s first free elections in July. “We would not pretend that Mobutu was perfect. He was a human being so he made mistakes,” said Udemo’s candidate for Kisangani, Christophe Enjimo-Ngado, immaculately dressed in a navy suit and tie despite the equatorial heat.
“But democracy means something different to Africans. What we crave here are strong leaders. Look at what happened to our country after we lost Mobutu – we have seen anarchy.”
Events since the elder Mobutu was forced from power have helped to obscure the memory of his crimes. In the power struggle that followed, the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted six years and led to the deaths of an estimated 3.2 million people.
The resurgence of the Mobutu clan is another bizarre twist in the country’s faltering progress towards its first democratic elections since winning independence from Belgium in 1960. The elections may yet be derailed by continuing instability in the east and an infrastructure almost non-existent in places, after years of war.
With campaigning officially under way last week, voters also face being overwhelmed by an excess of candidates.
In the rush to embrace democracy, 33 hopefuls have thrown their hats in to the ring for the presidential vote, including Nzanga Mobutu and the current president, Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – whose rebel army drove Mobutu from power in May 1997.
In Kisangani, the capital of the mineral-rich Province Orientale, where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the five parliamentary seats are being contested by no fewer than 157 candidates.
Located on the Congo river amid dense tropical rainforest, the city is also the centre of operations in the country for the United Nations, which is overseeing the elections and has been trying to raise voter awareness.
Tens of thousands of polling stations have been set up across this vast country – almost the size of Western Europe – with local people recruited to publicise the poll because large areas are cut off from radio and television. Some observers have accused the international community of forcing elections that have little chance of being truly democratic on a country beset by huge logistical and security problems. In last December’s referendum on a new constitution only 15 million, less than a quarter of the population, voted.
One UN election official, Ludovic Le Moing, said, however: “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic, but what they represent – a chance for this country to move forward, to create stability – is more important. There is a huge collective will here to see that happen.”
Although some rebel leaders have laid down their arms to contest the elections, 17,000 UN soldiers – the largest peacekeeping force in the world – remain ready for the possibility of post-election violence.
One senior UN commander said: “In the end there will be only one winner. What the losers decide to do is an unknown, so we are bracing ourselves for trouble.”
In the blazing afternoon heat, 64-year-old Lola Assani-Andre sat on the steps of his rundown hotel in central Kisangani. It provided refuge for families fleeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and was used as quarters for officers of the Congolese army, who stayed a year and left without paying their bill.
A parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming vote, he said: “We are sick of war here. If this election means a safe future then I want to be part of it.”
This was first published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 30 April, 2006