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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 11:24 GMT
DR Congo - Is it a miracle?
By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

A boy celebrates next to banner depicting President Joseph Kabila
Mr Kabila has ruled DR Congo since his father's assassination in 2001
When I heard that the losing candidate in the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean Pierre Bemba, had accepted defeat, I realised I would have to eat some words.

"It would be a miracle," I reported several times for the BBC on visits to DR Congo during the first and second rounds of voting, "if these polls are pulled off successfully".

Well, that miracle appears to have taken place.

My scepticism reflected the gloomy view of almost every Congolese I spoke to.

They recalled that last time DR Congo held free elections, at independence almost five decades ago, the country was within days plunged into long wars of succession.

There was simply no tradition of democracy.

It was broadly the same this time round.

DR Congo was emerging from new wars based on ethnicity and economic plunder, and the two main candidates in the polls, the incumbent President Joseph Kabila and Mr Bemba, were both men who came to positions of power through force of arms.

Both had armies at the ready - as insurance, it seemed, in case things didn't go their way.

My scepticism was reflected in almost all of the interviews I conducted.

On the spot

When I slipped past security and managed to grab an interview with the then-candidate Joseph Kabila, while he was receiving guests at Kinshasa's Grand Hotel, my first question to him was the obvious one on every Congolese mind:

RUN-OFF RESULT
Map
Kabila: 58.05%
Bemba: 41.95%
Votes counted: 100%

"Mr President, if you lose this election, will you accept defeat?"

There was a long, pregnant pause.

It was as if the 35-year-old Congolese leader was not quite "on message", as the spin doctors would say.

He glanced at my microphone. Then his brooding eyes - almost as black as his perfectly cut lounge suit - stared back at me, as if to say he hated me for asking such a direct, on-the-record question.

But then he seemed to decide to banish whatever dark thoughts were on his mind.

He managed a tight smile.

And eventually, after the painfully long delay, the appropriate answer came:

"Yes, of course", he said. "I am a democrat."

As for Mr Bemba, he perhaps invited a certain amount of scepticism by calling journalists to a meeting with him in full view of the burnt-out remains of his private helicopter.

Through the windows of his riverside offices we could see the black carcass of the chopper which was destroyed when the results of the first round of voting led to fighting between his forces and Mr Kabila's presidential guard.

So I had to ask the question:

"If you lose, Sir, will you accept defeat?"

Mr Bemba hedged a little more than the president in his answer (who wouldn't, in his position, knowing the huge advantages of incumbency his opponent had?).

But he also knew his lines:

"Yes - If it is free and fair, of course I will accept defeat at the hands of the people".

Troops

The United Nations peacekeepers bore the brunt of some scepticism too.

In an interview at United Nations peacekeeping headquarters, I asked the UN's Number two in DR Congo, Ross Mountain, why he was persisting in playing the "professional optimist" in the face of so many potential - and bloody - pitfalls.

A soldier walks past a burnt building in the Supreme Court compound (22 Nov)
Incidents after the second round were brought under control
The genial New Zealander grimaced slightly (truth be told, the strain of running an election in a country like DR Congo was beginning to show), but he then proceeded to explain to me how he thought everything was in place for a decent poll.

"It won't be perfect," he said, in summary;

"No election ever is; but we have tried to put everything in place and we think we are on track".

I asked the spokesman of the European military mission in Congo, Lt-Col Thierry Fusalba, about the role of his men and women under arms. And I'm afraid I was rather sceptical about that too.

My colleague, camerawoman Firle Davies, and I were filming an interview with Colonel Fusalba in the back of a French military jeep, cruising along Kinshasa's June 30 Avenue, with posters for the Kabila and Bemba campaigns flashing by in the background.

"A lot of Congolese seem to think, Colonel, that you guys are here to evacuate expatriates and help the UN run away if it all goes wrong and the violence is overwhelming."

"Is that true?"

The military spokesman adjusted his green beret (the colour of the cap being the sign of his being a French Foreign Legionnaire), and shifted his position on the steel bench of the jeep.

"Ah yes," the Colonel said in a French accent which seemed to match his uniform perfectly.

"I've heard this analysis before, but it's not true, of course".

Vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo of MLC party (Movement for the Liberation of Congo)
Mr Bemba still believes he was cheated of victory
I could swear I saw the outline of a knowing smile being suppressed on the edges of the Legionnaire's mouth.

But the soldier then straightened his bat:

"We are here to protect the voters, to help them express their choice. This is what we intend to do."

And that is what they did.

The overwhelming firepower of United Nations peacekeepers, backed up by the separate European military force, was obviously a key factor in pulling off what may turn out to have been the miracle.

Mr Bemba also came under intense diplomatic pressure from powerful players in DR Congo, like the United States and South Africa, to accept what was, at around 20%, a large and perhaps undeniable margin of defeat.

Money and patronage also played their part.

Mr Kabila and Mr Bemba both have extensive business interests which they would not want to see destroyed by more war.

Any or all of these factors could still unravel.

Miracles can be undone.

But for now, the peacekeepers, and most ordinary Congolese, are breathing a huge sigh of relief.

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