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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 July 2006, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Cross your fingers for DR Congo
By Mark Doyle
BBC News, Democratic Republic of Congo

One of the largest countries of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is due to hold what should be its first free presidential election.

A molotov cocktail is thrown at a poster of President Joseph Kabila
There has been violence in the lead-up to the elections
The country has known mostly dictatorship or war for more than a century, first under colonial rule and then under African rule.

This is a tale of two cities.

I have divided the past week between the Congolese capital Kinshasa and the country's southern second city, Lubumbashi. They're like chalk and cheese. It is as if I have been in two countries.

Kinshasa, the capital, is in the west, near the Atlantic Ocean. And it feels like a real West African city.

It is hot and humid, vegetation sprouts from every fertile metre, and the delicate strains of Congolese music waft from every doorway.

International city

The wars in Congo have given the whole country a disastrous image in the outside world and, in a way, rightly so.

I suspect most people imagine the average Congolese is carrying a Kalashnikov rifle or, if they cannot afford that, a spear. Well some are.

The wars and the corrupt mismanagement of the country have taken their toll

But most people would also be surprised to know that Kinshasa is a major international trading centre.

There are broad tree-lined boulevards here, towering skyscrapers and designer shops or supermarkets stocking anything you could find in Paris or New York.

Although Congo is a French-speaking country, many of the huge billboards advertising mobile phones or cars in Kinshasa are in English.

The traders are mostly African, of course, but also American, Chinese or Indian. It is an international city.

It is impressive. But the wars and the corrupt mismanagement of the country have taken their toll.

Seamier side

In its heyday, Kinshasa's nickname, in French, was "Kin La Belle" - Kinshasa the Beautiful.

Now, the seamier side is also on show. Rubbish uncollected, children begging on the street, dreadful slums alongside the elite housing estates.

For some, the nickname of Kinshasa is no longer "Kin la Belle", but "Kin la Poubelle" - Kinshasa the Garbage Bin.

As I left the steamy capital by plane for the south, the verdant West African rainforest below gradually gave way to a drier landscape.

map

What South Africans call the Veldt was taking over. And when, seven hours and two stops later, I arrived in the southern Congolese city of Lubumbashi, I felt like I was in another country.

I was now in the winter of the southern hemisphere. It was cold. One of my first stops was in a clothes shop to buy a sweater.

The architecture of the town was also different from Kinshasa. Here it was a mix of old Belgian colonial and roof arches typical of South African Boer houses.

Dramatic years

Lubumbashi is a mining town. It lives on the fabulously rich mineral deposits which stretch up from South Africa through Botswana and Zambia, and in to Congo.

This southernmost part of the country is the province of Katanga. Katanga boasts not only copper and gold and diamonds but also most of the world's deposits of a mineral called Coltan which is used in mobile phones.

A protester holds a gun
Back in the 1960s, this country was a major international news story - on a par with Iraq or Israel today

If you have a mobile phone you probably have a tiny bit of Congo sitting right next to you.

Back in the 1960s, shortly after independence from Belgium, Katanga tried to break away from the rest of the country.

Congolese politicians and foreign businessmen mounted a rebellion against Kinshasa in the hope of hanging on to their money-making mines.

The secession failed partly because the United Nations mounted one of its first peacekeeping operations in Katanga.

They were dramatic years. Congolese governments came and went like spring flowers.

They were also dangerous years. One of the early secretary generals of the United Nations, Dag Hammerskold, was killed in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash.

Back in the 1960s, this country was a major international news story - on a par with Iraq or Israel today.

The UN operation in the 1960s finally helped Congo become more stable.

UN needs luck

But in the 1990s a new war broke out. It involved the armies of numerous neighbouring countries, sucked into the power vacuum that the corrupt and rotting state structures in Congo had left.

A trainee holds a mock ballot sheet
On election day in Congo, the UN will be trying to bring peace and democracy

Today the UN has stepped in again, policing a fragile peace agreement signed in 2000 and next weekend ushering in elections.

The UN has its largest peacekeeping force in this vast country.

Next weekend, it will be running its biggest and most complex election-support operation.

There will be 50,000 polling stations, many in the remote and almost impenetrable bush I flew over when I ventured from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi.

The most recent Congolese war split the country into warlords' ethnic and political fiefdoms. Four million people died in direct or indirect consequences of the conflict.

The UN, which is trying to resolve all this, has its faults. It is the sum of its disparate parts, an unwieldy, often inefficient body.

But, for all its faults, next weekend, on election day in Congo, the UN will be trying to bring peace and democracy.

It will be trying to glue Kinshasa and Lubumbashi together, not to mention the other points on the compass that Congo stretches to. Wish the UN luck. It will need it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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