Yesterday, after weeks worth of rumour and speculation, petit Joseph – the first democratically elected President in the history of the DRC – arrived in Uvira. The seemingly endless Presidential convoy snaked its way through the long central stretch which makes up the heart of the town, with the Presidential family nucleus, including first Lady, greeting the Uvirois on foot.
They were welcomed amidst much fanfare and an effervescent crowd sporting Kabila’s signature blue and yellow colours. At no doubt colossal expense, a whole manner of paraphernalia has been creatively designed for his campaign – baseball caps, t-shirts, flags, and my personal favourite: headscarves for women (no gender discrimination here!) Over the past week these have been desperately handed out in Uvira to anyone and everyone who would take one, in preparation for the coming of the man who was enthusiastically ushered into the Presidency by Sud Kivutians in 2006. Following the dark times of the previous two decades, people genuinely believed that petit Joseph was what the Congo needed to a bring a peaceful and prosperous future, particularly for the conflict-ridden east.
Today, the mood was somewhat more sombre. Kabila arrived on the podium to speak before a relatively small crowd gathered at the Cathedral – perhaps 2-3,000 (Uvira and environs have a total population of 200,000). Although greeted enthusiastically, as his speech unfolded, the crowd visibly deflated. He spoke much of development, of the grand plan for Congo– Les 5 Chantiers – improving the key areas of infrastructure, health and education, electricity and water, employment, and housing.
His speech included much ado about roads – improving the main road in Uvira (a potholed affair which is only concreted for perhaps two thirds of it’s several mile stretch), his work to re-construct the road leading to Bukavu (which since its completion has been so plagued by armed group attacks that all aid agencies, and most Congolese, take the road through Rwanda instead), the road to Baraka (which involves crossing at least three rivers, and several kilometre stretches of 4 foot-deep mud in the rainy seasons). Schools were next on the agenda – the minister for education is being sent to Uvira to ensure that all primary education is free, apparently.
As for electricity and water – Kabila’s people are working around the clock to ensure that Uvirois have a constant supply of both. For the moment, even with the SNEL “ligne speciale” in my own house, electricity is available for at most 2-3 hours during the day. For the past 3, we have had none. On the water front, when there is no electricity, there is no water, as REGIDESO does not have the capacity to run the high energy-consuming pumps. In September, my entire quartier was without water for over a week, with people being forced to draw water from the hugely polluted (brown) Kalimabenge river.
However – people were pleased to hear that Kabila is bringing investment to the region. Yesterday he officially re-launched activities at the rusty sugar refinery in Kiliba (17km north of Uvira), a huge income generator for the area which was abandoned due to financial mis-management and conflict in the mid-1990s. However, not all are convinced by the pomp and circumstance. As one Uvirois confided to me yesterday – “this is all for the campaign, after the elections, it will all be forgotten – the sucrérie is not going to be producing again any time soon”.
On the conflict and instability that continues to plague the east – in large part due to the under-funded, under-trained, under-resourced and divided national army – the President was brief. “You have seen that since 2006, we have been working to eradicate the instability – and we are getting there, pole pole” (a much-used and most pertinent Kiswahili term meaning slowly slowly).
The lukewarm greeting from the Uvirois was met with an interesting tone from the President himself – which one couldn’t help but feel verged on begging. “In 2009, you told me that if I re-opened the sucrérie and improved the roads, you would repay me by voting for me again in 2011 – the time has come to repay the debt!”
Many present, however, remained unconvinced by the somewhat uninspiring discourse: “I don’t agree with what Kabila says” noted one observer: “He continues to lie to the population about what he is going to achieve”. Another exclaimed:” In 2006, he promised us his ‘5 chantiers’ – that was 5 years ago! Now he comes and tells us that he is beginning to improve a road, that he has re-launched the sucrérie yesterday! It is too late.” On the issue of stability, one member of the audience lamented “he talks about peace – is there peace here? No, not total peace.”
The tepid sentiments of the Uvira constituency were clear for all to see. Following the end of his disappointingly brief 15 minute speech, not even the infuriatingly catchy Kabila theme song could rouse a response. “Votez! Votez! Votez! KA!BI!LA!”, was greeted with indifference, and a slowly disintegrating crowd. Monsieur le President left the building not to cries of ecstatic applause, but to the sighs of hundreds of weary Uvirois.
Despite the cool reception of Petit Joseph however, it seems that the odds for election victory remain in the incumbent President’s favour. His election strategy so far is quite brilliant in its deviousness. Several months before the elections, he pushed a law through parliament to amend the constitution in favour of a one-round Presidential vote (allegedly through paying each parliamentarian off with a cash ‘gift’ running into the tens of thousands). This means that the candidate with the most votes wins outright -previously the Presidential election was a two-round process, the two candidates with the most votes competing against each other in a final deciding vote. Given the divided state of the opposition, it seems unlikely that another candidate could muster enough support to beat Kabila outright. Moreover, Kabila’s campaign has been beyond lavish, not only in terms of handing out free paraphernalia, but also in terms of advertising – Kabila has bought all of the front-lit billboards in the capitalKinshasafor his campaign, for example.
If all this wasn’t enough to guarantee success, Kabila has also succeeded in restricting the movements of the top opposition candidates Tshisekedi and Kamerhe. Tshisekedi is currently inSouth Africaand has allegedly been denied landing permission to re-enter the country, and a lack of domestic flights (all filled by Kabila supporters), mean that Kamerhe is also having problems travelling the campaign trail.
Despite all of the sly strategising, there are deeper reasons too which help to explain why Kabila may win – despite the disappointment of many Sud-Kivutians at his most recent term. People are well-aware of the clientelism and corruption which plagues Congolese politics. Many people recognise that a change of face does not necessarily mean a similar change in the twisted system. Many see Tshisekedi – at 79 – as too old to take the helm. Kamerhe, whilst commanding significant support in his home region, does not enjoy likewise support elsewhere (Read Walter James’ excellent election analysis for details on opposition candidates here).
Perhaps above all, Kabila for many presents the best chance for peace. Whilst he has promised to step down in the case that he does not win the coming election, the astute Congolese population unanimously expresses it’s disbelief at this prospect. The threat of Kabila using the military to stay in power by force is for many a good enough strategic reason to simply vote him in. After all – who is to say that anyone else will be better anyway? On a positive note, Congo has also seen a much greater level of stability recently than in the past 15 years. Despite continuing insecurity, and a proliferation of armed groups throughout South Kivu, this limited stability has not gone unnoticed. When prompted, many Sud Kivutians will explain that they are voting for Kabila, since, if nothing else, “he has brought us peace”.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Nov 8th, 2011