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Questions Arise About Congo's Readiness to Vote

Two trainees guard the entrance to a voting office during a July 12 election simulation in Kisangani.
Lionel Healing
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AFP/Getty Images
Two trainees guard the entrance to a voting office during a July 12 election simulation in Kisangani.
Marie Josephine Kanamay says her vote Sunday would be for peace and for the future of Congo's children, including her 7-year-old daughter Nyclette.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR /
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Marie Josephine Kanamay says her vote Sunday would be for peace and for the future of Congo's children, including her 7-year-old daughter Nyclette.
The U.N. has deployed its largest peacekeeping mission, more than 17,000 troops, to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Enlargement shows the small village of Dubie, where the population has almost tripled due to the inflow of displaced civilians.
Melody Kokoszka, NPR /
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The United Nations has its largest peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, site of a five-year civil war.
Supporters of incumbent Joseph Kabila, one of 33 presidential candidates on Sunday's ballot, attend a campaign rally in Kinshasa.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR /
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Supporters of incumbent Joseph Kabila, one of 33 presidential candidates on Sunday's ballot, attend a campaign rally in Kinshasa.
A billboard for presidential candidate Oscar Kashala, whose campaign slogan is "Clean Hands." He says he had nothing to do with the previous dictatorial and corrupt regime or the warlords who took over.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR /
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A billboard for presidential candidate Oscar Kashala, whose campaign slogan is "Clean Hands." He says he had nothing to do with the previous dictatorial and corrupt regime or the warlords who took over.

As it prepares to hold its first direct elections in 46 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo faces steep hurdles, including how to get election material to 50,000 polling stations. The vast and impoverished central African nation has an appalling infrastructure and only 300 miles of paved roads. Some observers say Congo isn't ready for Sunday's balloting.

The poster-sized presidential ballot has 33 candidates, including the incumbent leader, Joseph Kabila. He was appointed president in 2001, after the death of his father, Laurent Kabila, who toppled the long-time ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

Twenty-five million Congolese are registered to vote. With no functioning road or rail network, it's been a feat ferrying election material to the polling stations.

Congo's Elections' Commission spokesman, Dieudonne Mirimo Mulongo, says voting equipment has been airlifted and delivered by road, by river, on canoes, bicycle and on foot all over Congo.

The Electoral Commission has the help of a massive U.N. peacekeeping operation. The historic polls are costing the international community more than $400 million.

But critics, including outspoken opposition politicians, say that after four decades of dictatorship, civil war and continuing unrest, Congo isn't yet ready for elections.

Outside the headquarters of the opposition Union for Democracy and Progress Party, chanting protestors claim the election process has been skewed, and they're threatening to boycott the vote.

"We do want elections, but what kind of elections?" says Valentin Mubake, the party's deputy leader. "Not such masquerade of elections. The problem is not the problem of elections on Sunday. The problem is, what about after Sunday?"

But the American head of the U.N. mission in Congo, William Swing, says it's time for the country to vote.

"I think 15 years of transition, it would be a strange definition to call that premature," Swing says. "The country has had a transition that risks not finishing at all, because you had seven years of the national sovereign conference, you had five years of war and you've had three years of this transition. That's 15 years. And I think people understandably want to get on with their lives. They want to have the elections and go forward."

Others point to continuing insecurity and unrest. Concerns include marauding militiamen in lawless parts of volatile eastern Congo, areas which are not under government control.

Influential church leaders have also expressed concern about the elections in Congo, where half the population of 63 million is Catholic.

A letter from the highest-ranking priest, Cardinal Frederick Etsou, was read out at Sunday masses in the capital. It urged churchgoers to boycott the July 30 poll, if the authorities did not address alleged electoral irregularities. The cardinal's letter followed a statement Friday by Catholic bishops, warning they might not be able to endorse the election results, unless these issues received urgent attention.

Despite these concerns, Congo's Independent Electoral Commission is confident that Sunday's much-delayed elections will go ahead as planned. And Congolese, like Marie-Josephine Kanamay in Kinshasa, seem determined to vote.

Kanamay said her vote Sunday would be for peace and for the future of her 7-year-old daughter Nyclette and all other children, in the hope of a better, safer and more prosperous Democratic Republic of Congo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.