Congo election shows worrying East-West divide

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) – Far from unifying the war-ravaged
Democratic Republic of Congo, Sunday’s historic elections have
highlighted the deep division between the east and west of the
vast former Belgian colony.

The July 30th polls were meant to heal wounds after a
brutal 1998-2003 war which tore apart Congo’s aging
infrastructure and killed four million people, mostly from
hunger and disease.

Results are still weeks away but indicators point to a
landslide victory for President Joseph Kabila in his native
Swahili-speaking east while former rebel and Vice-President
Jean-Pierre Bemba is ahead in the west, where Lingala is

“The DR Congo Cut In Two” read a headline in Le Phare, a
Kinshasa daily.

Diplomats and analysts warned the trend could encourage
politicians to exploit ethnic differences and make the central
African state ungovernable for whoever wins the presidency.

“There is nothing that new in this phenomenon. What has
happened is that the election has crystallized and quantified
this divide,” said Bob Kabamba, a Congolese politics professor.

“The fear I have is that it could undermine the legitimacy
of whoever wins. People will either say ‘he is a president for
the East’ or ‘he is a president for the West’.”

Power shifts in the turbulent mineral-rich country’s
history can be charted along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Belgian colonial administrators ensured Lingala, from the
west, became the language of power and the army. The trend
continued under the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who came
from the northwestern province of Equateur.

But the tables were turned when Laurent Kabila, Joseph’s
father, marched across the former Zaire from the east,
accompanied by a band of Swahili-speaking child soldiers who
helped him overthrow Mobutu in 1997.


The current Kabila — who came to power when his father was
shot dead in 2001 — remains favorite to win the elections even
though he has struggled to win the support of the
Lingala-speaking capital, where many see him is a foreigner.

During his final campaign rally, Kabila spoke through an
interpreter. Bemba, on the other hand, has campaigned strongly
on nationalistic lines, calling himself the “son of the

If neither candidate wins more than fifty percent of the
vote, there will be a run-off on October 29.

With so much at stake, analysts warn of problems ahead if
that occurs. Already in the first round, debates often centered
on ethnic and nationalist issues rather than policies.

“A second round, if it is fought along these lines, would
be even dirtier and more divisive for the country,” said Jason
Stearns, analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Diplomats, meanwhile, express hope parliamentary elections,
also held on Sunday, will help provide a balance of powers
between the east and the west.

Despite threats of violence in the east and riots in the
capital, polling day went relatively well. The days following
the polls, however, have been marked by complaints and
embittered threats of challenges to the results.

Ahead of the ballot, the EU deployed some 1,000 soldiers to
support the U.N.’s 17,000 blue helmets already in the country.

But many have seen this as an attempt to ensure the
international community gets the result it wants from an
election that has cost it over $450 million. Two of Kabila’s
closest rivals have accused foreign powers of being partial.

“If Kabila wins, I see a lot of noise and a lot of people
will try and weaken his power, but that is part of the
process,” one Western diplomat told Reuters.