IT`S increasingly fashionable to see Africa as a glass half full. Economies are growing, middle classes expanding. But for ardent Afro-optimists, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is more testing than most. This bruised nation sits rock-bottom of the UN human development index.
Despite $24tr of known mineral deposits, most people live on less than $1.25 a day. Its war-torn east is notoriously the rape capital of the world. The Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa is one of countless symbols of decay. Millions live in cramped shacks among mounds of rubbish. Railways lines have been reclaimed by long grass. Only two per cent of the country`s roads are paved.
But working in Kinshasa last month I saw something else. Splashes of colour. Placards and posters urging citizens to vote. It was election time and, to a jaded westerner, this felt like democracy in the early days — novel, vibrant, thrilling because your vote might really change things, and because change is desperately needed.
The HQ of the national election commission had the same frontier spirit. It was only the second election in Congo`s history where the whole population was entitled to vote. There were plenty of candidates too — some 18,855 running for just 500 parliamentary seats.
Democracy can be a beautiful child, as witnessed when millions queued to make their mark in South Africa in 1994. It can also be a tempestuous brat. Arriving at an inner-city polling station, I was mobbed by a crowd. The enthusiasm for voting had quickly turned to fury at perceived cheating by the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila.
Since the predictable declaration of Kabila`s victory, independent election observers have been queuing up to point out irregularities. NGO the Carter Centre noted that in some constituencies “impossibly high rates of 99 to 100 per cent voter turnout with all, or nearly all” votes going to Kabila. The European Union said it “deplores the lack of transparency and irregularities” in the results.
This has left a mood of tension on the streets. At least 20 people have already been killed in election-related violence. Runner-up Etienne Tshisekedi has declared himself the real president and threatened to call for mass protests. Kinshasa now resembles a tinderbox. But the rest of the world has little appetite to intervene.
This is the caveat in the new narrative of African hope. The continent holds more elections than ever, which is good PR, but not all are free and fair. Some of its fastest growing economies are run by some of its most inimical regimes, for example Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia.
Just 17 years after genocide, Congo`s tiny neighbour Rwanda is now a poster nation for cleanliness, clipped lawns and clever economic development — but the autocrat alarm bells sounded last week when president Paul Kagame, accused of brutally crushing opposition, hinted that he would run for a third term.
Africa, like the world, is riddled with doubt. The search for answers must include Congo, one of the continent`s true heavyweights. Here democracy and despotism stand toe to toe, pounding each other in search of the decisive blow. Right now, with Kabila already 10 years in power and looking immovable, despotism seems to have democracy on the ropes. — The Guardian, London