- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

KINSHASA, Congo — At markets and street corners across this decaying African capital, the accusations fly thick and fast: The transition government is a fraud, its vice presidents used to lead armies of rapists and cannibals, and the president himself isn’t even Congolese.

These rallies, reminiscent of the soapbox oratory in London’s Hyde Park, are what pass for democracy in a country that has never had any.

The reality the government faces is etched in schools jammed with 500 students to a classroom, and children who dig potholes in the streets by night hoping to cadge tips from motorists to refill them the next day.

The five-year civil war in Africa’s third-largest country — a conflict that drew in five African armies and became known as Africa’s World War — has wound down. But ethnic clashes continue in the gold- and diamond-rich northeast, and lasting peace depends on whether a disparate group of former enemies can function as a government.

Almost all Congolese welcome the peace brought on by a power-sharing deal among the combatants in the 1998-2003 war, but many wonder if the deal can work — or last.

A big question, in a country of 400 ethnic groups and as many political parties, is whether the new government can win the support of those who feel left out.

“It’s a fraud — a government of exclusion,” said Willy Mukala, 38, a regular at the free-form rallies that give ordinary Congolese one of their few outlets to be heard. “It’s an organization of cannibals, killers and liars.”

An unemployment rate estimated at up to 80 percent leaves plenty of people free to gather, day or night, to listen to speakers who seesaw between pleading for peace and threatening more war if their faction is ignored.

One of those feeling excluded is Mbwebwe Kabamba, 53, a surgeon who leads the Patriotic Front, a popular opposition party.

“There’s a silent pressure that is just waiting for the time to explode,” he said.

Dr. Kabamba sat in a tattered chair in his office at Kinshasa General Hospital, where staff members were unpaid, medicine cabinets were bare and shattered windows were not replaced.

“Many among the unarmed opposition have learned that not being armed is a waste of time,” he said. “You take up weapons, you become vice president.”

The power-sharing government that took office in July is led by President Joseph Kabila. He has four vice presidents — two of them rebel leaders who fought to overthrow him, one belonging to the political opposition, and one a Kabila loyalist.

Just seating the government took days. Opposition-allied ministers refused to swear allegiance to Mr. Kabila and their oath had to be rewritten.

The immediate task was to seal an end to a war that killed an estimated 3 million people.

Decades of despotic rule and neglect have brought one of the world’s most resource-rich countries to its knees, and the war has wrecked it thoroughly.

Roads collapsed long ago. Government services hardly exist. Kerosene lamps and charcoal fires light cities of hundreds of thousands of people who lack electricity.

Kinshasa, a city bursting with as many as 8 million people, is a jarring mix of broad tree-lined boulevards and labyrinthine rotted streets choked with exhaust fumes and the smoke of charcoal cooking fires.

The power-sharing deal gives the government two to three years to ready the population of more than 56 million for their first free national elections. But after so much conflict and mistrust, many wonder if election day will ever come.

After winning independence from Belgium in 1963, the country languished for 30 years under Cold War plutocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. When he fell to rebels in 1997, the hollow structure that was the Congo state fell with him.

Gen. Mobutu was succeeded by Laurent Kabila. But neighboring countries went to war against him for failing to stop militias from using Congo as a base.

When Mr. Kabila’s own bodyguards killed him in January 2001, his son Joseph stepped in. He pushed forward peace efforts that eventually led to the withdrawal of foreign armies and the power-sharing deal.

But many Congolese say they don’t trust Joseph Kabila, and rumors swirl that he is not even from Congo, but from Tanzania or Rwanda. The truth is difficult to determine, because little of Mr. Kabila’s background is known and he rarely talks to reporters.

The more serious accusation, leveled by the United Nations in a July report, is that rebels in northeastern Congo engaged in executions, cannibalism and rape.

The prosecutor of a newly formed international court at The Hague has promised that human rights violations in that region will be at the top of his agenda.

The two rebel leaders who are now vice presidents, and whose organizations were named in the U.N. report, deny the charges.

“There’s no proof,” Jean-Pierre Bemba, of the Uganda-backed Congolese Liberation Movement, told the Associated Press in the huge villa by the Congo River that houses his offices. “I’m the one who demanded an investigation. There will be no impunity for us.”

Azarias Ruberwa, the vice president representing the Rwanda-allied Congolese Rally for Democracy, says Congo must look ahead to elections.

“There is much to be done and it will not be resolved by magic,” Mr. Ruberwa told AP, adding that he intends to run for president in 2005. “Not long ago, seeing us all at a table together was only a dream.”

A sizable international presence has entrenched itself in Congo to help calm the country as it moves toward elections. The United Nations has a peacekeeping force of 8,100 in the northeast, and foreign-aid workers have poured into the capital.

“There are plenty of dangers, there are a million problems, lots of challenges,” said Aubrey Hooks, the American ambassador to the Congo.

“I’m optimistic in a careful sort of way,” he told AP. “To me, what’s important is the trend, and the trend is going in the right direction.”

Longtime Congolese politicians see an older Congo trend at play.

“Those in power will do all they can to prolong this situation and stay in power,” said Mulumba Mabi, a former prime minister who is now the government’s chief auditor. “In this country, optimism disappeared a long time ago.”

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