Body in Motion

Bean counting
July 31, 2006, 11:40 am
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The ballot counting began across the country last night by candle light and the reports I’m hearing from a few polling stations in Kinshasa –which are in no way representative- show that Bemba is in the lead. I’m a little surprised but wonder who will get support in the smaller urban and more remote rural areas. Most of us still believe Kabila will be the forerunner but that he won’t take enough of the vote (50%) to be able to skip a second round of polling.

The incident in Mbuji Mayi was a petrol bomb but voting continues today* at that polling station.

Word around here is that Kabila paid the $50,000 registration fee for several of the smaller presidential candidates so that when they fell out, they could pass him their support.

Sadly Congo’s big news continues to be overshadowed by the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict as the UN discusses sending 15-20,000 peacekeeping troops to the Lebanese-Israeli border. To contrast, Congo currently has the largest number of UN troops at just over 17,000 nationally. Comparing a border one could drive in a few hours to a country the size of Western Europe is an unfair one but one that should be made nevertheless.

Despite CNN’s blasé description of Bemba, a violent rebel leader currently accused of war crimes and threatening to take up arms one again if the votes do not go his way, as a businessman/entrepreneur in the maybe 30 seconds they devoted to Congo this morning, kudos go to the NY Times for having put Congo on the front page of the weekend paper twice in the last month.

And let’s not forget that the US State Department, however, has gone out of its way to point out that it has not supported any particular candidate in these elections.

Now, where are those results…

*I don’t know where the 4 million population figures for Mbuji Mayi came from but I’m having trouble putting any stock in them.


The passing of the day
July 30, 2006, 5:35 pm
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The polls are now closed after 11 hours of voting and the ballot counters are locked into the polling stations with the observers counting away.

Kinshasa’s been dead quiet all day with no major irregularities reported from the observers I know. Word from the provinces is that all has been quiet, with the exception of the Kasais, Tshisekedi territory. In Mbuji Mayi, there was some kind of rucus –I don’t have the details quite yet and in Kananga, one of the parliamentary candidates caused some trouble. The military got involved and it sounds like 5 people were killed.

There have been many human rights violations leading up to the elections, as there have been for the large part of Congo’s history. I’m sure there have been problems at the polling stations that we haven’t heard the first or last of.

But today was still something for Congo and the Congolese to be proud of.

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The calm
July 29, 2006, 11:36 pm
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With only 6 hours to go until polls open tomorrow across the country. Congo is surprisingly quiet. Despite Thursday’s commotion surrounding Bemba’s return to Kinshasa, Kabila’s return on Friday went without incident as did today.

That being said, a truck full of polling station materials was burned in Mbuji Mayi (Tshisekedi, the election boycotter’s region), which has caused a bit of a hiccup in the logistics planning. Word has it that Independent Electoral Commission will have the situation rectified before polling begins.

The fire I mentioned at Bemba’s house (apparently not his HQ) on Thursday has suffered through a new explanation each time it has passed across someone’s lips. The most popular theories are that it was a bomb (too conspiracy for me) or and electrical fire (too coincidental to buy). Apparently the UN fire brigade showed up (another Kinshasa surprise), only to be greeted by guards telling them to not to bother. My theory? There was a bid of evidence burning. Of what, I’m not entirely sure.

Unlike Bemba who’s threatened to take up arms once again if he loses this shot at the presidency, Ruberwa has vowed that any suspicions on the validity of election results will be followed through legal chanels.

Meanwhile, the election observers are getting ready to head out early tomorrow morning to check ballots and ballot boxes and to be certain that the military (who’ve been ordered to stay away) are not at the polls while the unarmed police (who’s been ordered to be there) show up.

We’ve got an interesting day ahead. Let’s hope it’ll be as quiet as the last two.

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Are we there yet?
July 27, 2006, 2:04 pm
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Bemba arrived in Kinshasa this morning, back from his campaigning around the country. Man of the people that he is, he’s decided to walk from the airport into town (about 25 kilometers away). Such a wily political move could win him votes as we come down to the last days. All the while, his supporters are attacking vehicles of the Independent Electoral Commission and generally wreaking havoc in la cité. We have yet to see what will happen when Bemba –still en route- reaches town.

Smoke can already been seen coming from his campaign office and curling up over the boulevard. Why? During his tour around the country, squatters –there’s always an overflow of people in a destitute city of 8 million- came to camp out at his office. His solution? Set a fire and watch their things burn. As I said, a real man of the people.

No doubt, some of you are now trying to remember who Bemba is*. Bemba is one of the four current vice-presidents who came in the position in 2003 after the Sun City Peace Accords. He’s being charged with war crimes in neighbouring CAR and has a reputation of having canibalised people in the east during the war. When asked how people taste in an interview, the MLC’s fearless leader declined to respond. Interestingly, he’s now telling people: if you don’t vote for me, don’t vote for a major candidate.

Whether the vote will actually truly be split among candidates has yet to be seen.

The other candidates are also trying their best to pull last minute punches. Ruberwa, the Congolese-born Tutsi vice president from South Kivu was recently in Mbuji Mayi, East Kasai Province. He told the crowd: We are brothers. As the Kasaians were persecuted in Katanga, my people were persecuted too.

I can’t imagine this won him too many votes as no one wants their internal politics to be compared to an invading army seen to have caused a 4-year long war.

In Ruberwa’s home territory of the East things are surprisingly quiet for the moment. Militias at long at root of Congo’s instability are laying down arms. Each time a combatant declares him or herself ready to integrate, a team from MONUC hikes out unarmed into the bush to bring them back to civil society. It’s certainly not a job I’ll be signing up for any time soon.

Back to Kinshasa again, Kabila’s return tomorrow from campaigning is awaited. Werrason, an immensely popular local musician who recently played with Shaggy on the Global Funds’ dime, has come out publicly in support of Kabila. Werrason has a huge following among street kids, who are generally opposed to Kabila (though they seem to be opposed to everything). Those who were Werrason’s biggest supporters are now openly threatening him.

Regardless of how the Congolese decide to vote, the question of how to count votes looms large. I recently learned that there is no stipulation for how to handle torn ballots (remember the hanging chads?). If the last page of a ballot is ripped off but a candidate still checked, is it valid?

No doubt these issues will take time to resolve, which is why the results of the first round of polling won’t be announced until the 14th of September. If no candidate comes out with more than 50% of the vote, the run off will take place on the 15th of October. I have trouble imagining the printing of new ballots and reorganisation of polling logistics will happen so quickly but I will hopefully be proven wrong. The final results will be announced Novermber 30th. We still have a ways to go.

*For those of you following along at home, here’s a list of the presidential candidates. Hope you’re feeling francophone today.

East Side Story
July 25, 2006, 9:59 pm
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Sometime earlier this morning, on the airport road on the east side of Kinshasa, PALU (Parti Lumumbiste Unifié, not the disease, for the francophones out there) was in the middle of their daily peaceful march, heading west. Meanwhile UDPS, the party of our friend Tshisekedi (the opposition who refused to register as a presidential candidate and now says the elections cannot continue without him), marched east on the same road. Somewhere near the middle of the road and the middle of the day, the two parties met in the middle. It was the Jets and the Sharks all over again, with UDPS hurling stones, tyres, and taking down everything in its paths, including the hundreds of campaign posters lining a two-mile stretch of highway.

A few hundred kilometers farther east, Kabila’s recent trip to Mbuji Mayi received an equally unwelcoming reception as the current president was run out of the UDPS stronghold town.

So what are people saying about Kabila these days? Despite recent Kinshasa sightings of Kabila’s PPRD campaigners paying $20 for voter registration cards, it seems his support in Kinshasa is waning. A friend tells me: Kabila is like a bird. Birds take treasures found on their journeys and bring them home, just as Kabila will take what he can from Congo and bring it home with him when he leaves. He is not Congolese*. The others? They are like chickens. When a chicken finds something to eat along the way, he will call to the other chickens to come and eat with him. He will share with his friends.

Interestingly, Oscar Kashala (remember the guy who’s American and South African security force was arrested a few months ago?) is considered Congolese, despite his having lived in the US since 1987. Kashala’s prediction on the elections is a bit grim: “Kabila is not going to be fairly and democratically elected. If he is elected president, this country is going to burn.” Apparently he was not on the airport road this morning or he would already know: the burning has begun.

5 days and counting.

*Kabila was raised in exile in Uganda and Tanzania as an anglo/swahiliphone as opposed to a franco/lingalaphone.

Photos of destroyed campaign posters.

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July 23, 2006, 11:10 am
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After Kinshasa, Beirut was more than a breath of fresh air. It was a touch of sophistication, a taste of fresh flavourful food and a whiff of minty smoke. It was exotic though familiar, like somewhere I felt I ought to have already known.

I went to visit a university friend who had been working there. After escaping to the mountains with a Lebanese friend for some days, she can now be found smoking cigarettes and looking for direction in Damascus. She had an apartment in Beirut close enough to the sea to hear the waves rough and tumble through the night. Her friends are left behind in the dark amid shelling.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia finds the roots of chaos theory in English gardens as easily as the play’s young heroine notes the universe’s tendency toward entropy: the jam mixed into the pudding cannot be unmixed.

Neither can Beirut. Caught amongst Christians and Muslims, Europeans and Arabs, sea and mountains. Mediterranean cruise ships dock into the ports of unemployment, trendy clothing boutiques a stone’s throw from religious bookstores covered in Arabic scripts, Saudi women covered head to foot, Beiruti women in jeans tight enough to bounce a quarter on. A city broken by war, a city rebuilt into a sandstone palace of hope.

As the sandstone crumbles, the cycle begins again.

It’s not just a Congo thing
July 23, 2006, 9:52 am
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Back in my not-much-younger days while living in Namibia, some friends and I decided to take a road trip to Victoria Falls. Due to a broken ferry and not-yet-constructed bridge, we ended up driving through Zimbabwe the day before the presidential elections in 2002 (to date, the only place where I have directly paid a bribe). The atmosphere was tense to say the very least and we were happy to get across to Zambia. It was expected that Mugabe and his party Zanu-PF would claim victory for themselves and that riots would erupt. The country had already been in trouble for a few years and there was hope that a quick coup following crooked elections might be able to put the country back on course.

But of course, Mugabe took the elections and the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai ended up in prison. In a Mail and Guardian article this past week, an insider explains just how the election was rigged using fraudulent postal ballots.

Considering the state of the Congolese postal system, I doubt anyone here would try such a wily tactic, but no doubt the powers that be will come up with something equally creative.

Politics in Kinshasa continue to simmer with exactly one week to go until the ominous 30th July. There were nasty rumours earlier in the week of a soldier getting burned for wearing the t-shirt of Kabila’s party at an opposition march but I’ve checked the pavement myself and there’s not a burn-mark in sight. The persuasive tactics of Kabila’s party are not as obvious as Mugabe’s strategy of giving food aid to Zanu-PF supporters but there is an underlying suppression of opposition voices, whether it’s by knocking off journalists or just tear-gassing demonstrators.

When I asked a friend the other day who he’d be voting for, he exclaimed “Personne!” (no one). But I will be voting, he said. I refuse to vote for any of the losers on the ballot but if I don’t come out of a polling station with a proof of voting card, I’m going get hauled off by someone.

Another Congolese I know, thanked me for the international presence here (I took full credit for each and every one of us whiteys, of course). With your presence, he said, the police and military have fear and must behave. You have enabled the elections to happen. We will have a fete (party) this time next week as the elections happen peacefully!

Of course, this is not everyone’s opinion. My buddy Chapula claimed in a televised debate that the whites should get out of Congo, as they’re the ones causing so many problems. While the man claims to be 50% African-Congolese and 50% Pakistani-Congolese, he appears not to have checked his own pallid complexion in the mirror recently. Poor choice of words, my friend, but way to elicit a good laugh.

Sadly all the international presence has done in Kinshasa is confine the military’s antics to la cité, where most residents live well out of the sight of us interlopers.

Meanwhile, I’m busy stocking up on booze (emergency supplies) and listening to the parades and marching bands that seem to go down the boulevard every 10 minutes. Hopefully, my Congolese bud is right and there will be a party to be had next weekend.

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