Election Season in the Congo
Campaigning in a war zone.
BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 30—Before this year's Independence Day parade begins, a marshal warns the participants, "Please behave yourselves in front of your leaders." To someone like me, used to the musty parades of the Midwest and New England, this seems like a strange request. Except for the predictable antics of the Shriners, an Independence Day parade is hardly the place to get rambunctious. In Congo, it is.
It seems that every group with more than two members is marching: Public School 1, the Association of Military Wives, the Provincial Tax Collection Bureau, the Tourism Service (tourism in Congo?). And they boogie as much as march, with a kind of forward-moving shimmy that everyone seems to know, even the youngest school kids.
Although Congo is one of the most failed states on the planet, and Bunia was the site of horrible interethnic violence just three years ago, the parade presents a mosaic of diverse civic, professional, and religious groups that seems quite healthy. Even a Muslim women's group is marching. (Although, it must be noted, they were they only group that didn't boogie.)
Many carry items that represent their organizations. The car mechanics wave wrenches and radiators, the market women show off vegetables. The anti-AIDS organization waves packets of condoms, and the workers at the Building Permit Office brandish bricks, shovels, and an oversized permit.
When the marchers get to the reviewing stand, I see what the marshal was talking about when he demanded good behavior. Several of the groups have prepared little skits for the VIPs in the stands. The mechanics, marching along with a beat-up jalopy, stop, climb underneath the car, and pantomime working on it. The employees of a night club chug their Turbo King beers. One member of a karate school shows of his nunchuck skills, while another busts some moves that are equal parts Bruce Lee and Thriller-era Michael Jackson.
But whenever anyone stops in front of the reviewing stand for more than a couple of seconds, the police try to cut short the performance and move the marchers along. A soccer team files past and one showboat does a few tricks with a ball.One hapless policeman, after a lot of yelling, finally kicks the ball into a crowd. But the player gets it back and starts up the tricks again. The VIPs hoot with laughter, and it seems that part of the show is pretending that the bigwigs are in cahoots with the rabble.
The associations, clubs, and schools are followed by the new addition to this year's Independence Day parade: the political parties. On July 30, Congo will hold its first free elections in 40 years, and all the major parties and a lot of the minor ones are out in force.
People here in the Ituri district are enthusiastic about the elections, despite the lack of distinction of most of the candidates. The main opposition group is boycotting, and most of the big parties are headed by men who just a few years ago led militia groups responsible for the war that killed an estimated 50,000 people in Ituri alone.
One group of marchers is singing a song whose only lyrics are "Votez Mobutu." They're members of the Union of Mobutuist Democrats, and they're referring not to Mobutu Sese Seko, who led Congo until 1997 and was possibly the most corrupt head of state in history, but his son, Francois Joseph Nzanga Ngbangawe Mobutu, who is running for president this time around.
Most analysts think young Mobutu will get only a paltry number of votes, but it's a measure of how much Congo has suffered over the last decade that the parade-goers don't jeer the Mobutuists off the street, or worse. Just as some Iraqis do with Saddam Hussein, many eastern Congolese look back at the Mobutu era as one in which there was peace, if not much else. Or maybe they just have short memories. When I asked someone to explain Mobutu's revived reputation, he answered with a proverb: "A dead man is a friend to everyone."
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.