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Democratic Republic of Congo prepares for historic elections
The Washington Diplomat / May 2006

By Larry Luxner

Free, multiparty elections are finally coming to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which despite its name has never been much of a democracy.

Faida Mitifu, the DRC's ambassador in Washington, couldn't be more excited.

"These are our first free elections since independence in 1960," she told the Diplomat in mid-April. "This is extremely important for us. We organized a voter registration drive last July, and even though in some parts of the country there are still isolated pockets of violence, the process went well. We were able to register more than 85% of eligible voters. These people have not had the chance to vote freely in more than 40 years."

That's because for most of its history, the impoverished country known as Zaire until 1997 was ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the world's most corrupt despots.

Mobutu seized power in a 1965 coup and remained firmly in control for 32 years, enriching himself and his cronies with profits from the country's vast mineral wealth. As a result, Zaire gradually sank into economic ruin and, eventually, civil war.

By the time Mobutu was forced from office in 1997, the dictator had amassed a $5 billion fortune and his people were among the poorest on Earth.

"We don't miss Mobutu, but of course his ghost is still there especially when you see how much destruction was done to the country," said Mitifu, "because if he had not mismanaged things, the country would be very strong today."

Mitifu, who was still a child when Mobutu came to power, was born and raised in the Congolese town of Kavu. A specialist in French literature, she earned a master's degree at Alabama's Auburn University, as well as a doctorate from the University of Georgia at Athens. Her career includes teaching stints at both the University of Georgia and Columbus State University.

Among the 16 or so female ambassadors in the Washington diplomatic corps, Mitifu has served the longest: seven years and counting. She directs a staff of nine at the DRC's modest mission on the sixth floor of an office at 17th and M Street.

"Our largest embassy overseas is in Brussels, for historical reasons, but this is the most important one," said the ambassador, whose office shelves are lined with framed photos of herself with President Bush, President Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and other dignitaries. "Our relationship with the United States is good right now. The U.S. has been supportive of the negotiations that took place which led to our transitional government, and is part of the committee overseeing the transition to democracy."

Because of their similar names, it's easy to confuse the Democratic Republic of Congo with the much smaller Republic of Congo, an oil-producing, French-speaking nation to the west. To eliminate mix-ups, the DRC is frequently referred to as Congo-Kinshasa (after its capital city), while the Republic of Congo is known as Congo-Brazzaville.

Regardless of what it's called, the DRC is pretty hard to ignore.

Bordering nine countries, it measures 905,000 square miles and is the same size as the United States east of the Mississippi River, making it Africa's third-largest nation after Algeria and Sudan. And its 58 million people make it Africa's fourth-largest country in population after Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia.

It would have an even higher population if not for the war that began in 1998 and ended up costing an estimated 3.8 million lives excluding those who died from natural causes. Mitifu calls it "Africa's first world war" because, at its height, it involved six countries.

The bloodletting began back in 1994, when 1.3 million ethnic Hutus fled the genocide of Rwanda's civil war and settled in refugee camps in eastern Zaire. Two years later, Laurent Kabila, rebel leader of the ADFL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire), invaded his own country with help from Uganda and Rwanda. Kabila quickly defeated Mobutu's demoralized forces, took power in Kinshasa and renamed the country the DRC.

Initially welcomed as a hero, Kabila banned all opposition parties and rapidly lost international support. In August 1998, Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese rebels tried to overthrow the regime; they were stopped only because Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe came to Kabila's rescue. Eventually a peace accord was signed and hostile forces retreated, moving to their respective zones of occupation in the northern and eastern areas of the country.

"The main issue was that Congo was invaded by three neighboring countries under the pretense that they were coming after the military regime," said Mitifu. "They invaded the country and used disaffected Congolese to make it look as if it was a civil war, an uprising of Congolese against the government. But according to a UN report, they wanted to overthrow the government in order to plunder Congo's natural resources. These countries began exporting minerals such as diamonds and coltan [used in aircraft and mobile phones] that they themselves don't have in their soil. This is true, whether they deny it or not."

Mitifu said the war's impact on the Congolese economy was horrendous. Fighting virtually paralyzed the country's export industries, and with inflation running at 300% a year, the national currency was soon worthless.

"Normally as an ambassador, you're supposed to promote your country's economy, culture and lots of other things," she said. "You're supposed to attract investors to your country. But when you're in a war and you have multinational companies involved in plundering your resources, those are no longer the priorities. You then have to develop other skills. You have to be more creative. Your main objective becomes putting an end to the war."

The DRC did manage to stop most of the fighting, through a complex series of negotiations involving many different parties.

"We have the Pretoria agreement we signed with Rwanda, the Luanda agreement we signed with the Ugandans, and the Lusaka ceasefire agreement, which led to negotiations with all the parties involved in the war," she said. "Then we had the Sun City all-inclusive agreement which led to the government in transition, to last a maximum of three years."

In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. Ten days later, his 29-year-old son, Joseph Kabila, was sworn in as the new head of state. The younger Kabila immediately distanced himself from his father's policies by legalizing opposition parties, liberalizing the mining sector and allowing the presence of UN peacekeeping troops.

No specific date has been set for the upcoming presidential elections which are being financed by the United Nations and the European Union though Mitifu says they'll likely take place at the end of June or the beginning of July. She also says no less than 32 candidates are running for president, and that all indications are that Kabila will win.

"It's too early to say, because the official campaign hasn't even started yet," the ambassador noted, adding that "I'm not going to endorse any candidate."

Meanwhile, Mitifu hopes her country's people will finally begin to benefit from the DRC's vast mineral wealth. Until recently, it was the world's largest producer of industrial diamonds. The DRC is also a major source of copper, cobalt and other precious minerals.

"Trade with the United States is mainly timber and cobalt," she ssaid. "Oil companies are now very much interested in doing feasibility studies in the Congo Basin, and also the eastern part of the country. We also have the mighty Congo River, which has enormous hydroelectric potential."

Mitifu said tourism is also a potential source of income, though at present fewer than 10,000 Americans are visiting per year.

"I want to be involved in the reconstruction and rebuilding of my country. I've already started by being ambassador," she concluded. "I want to continue to be a bridge between the United States and Congo. It's a big challenge, but I don't bow in the face of challenges."

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