As the election results were announced in Kinshasa on Sunday, August 20, and it became clear that President Joseph Kabila had won less than half the votes cast in Congo's first free election in 46 years, the shooting started.
Army troops loyal to Kabila showed up outside the compound of the main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba, his guards opened fire (or returned it, depending on whom you believe), and the United Nations had to send in 20 armoured personnel carriers to extract the American, French, Chinese and other foreign diplomats who'd been meeting with Bemba inside.
Not a happy omen for those who hope this election can end the long nightmare of the Democratic Republic of Congo by producing a president whom everybody will accept as legitimate.
Most people assumed that it would be Kabila, who has ruled the country without benefit of elections since his father, former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001. But he was only able to muster 45 per cent of the votes in the first round of voting.
The runner-up, Bemba, who garnered 20 per cent, will now face Kabila alone in the second round of voting (probably on October 29). Bemba will pick up votes from some of the other presidential candidates who were eliminated in the first round, but it's almost inconceivable that he can catch Kabila. So the question is, will Kabila's victory be the starting gun for another civil war in the Congo?
The Congo, with 60 million people, is one of Africa's biggest and certainly worst-governed countries. It has only recently emerged from a civil war that also involved six other African armies and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of 4 million Congolese. If your dream is a future of peace and prosperity, you definitely wouldn't want to start from here.
Yet fully 70 per cent of the population turned out to vote. Despite their poverty and all the disappointments of the past, ordinary Congolese still see some hope for a better future. So do the countries that provided 17,500 troops, the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world, to ensure that the election happened at all. Are they all wrong?
The Congo got its independence in 1960, but its former Belgian rulers were determined to hang onto the rich mines of Katanga province even if they had to leave the rest of the country, so they sponsored a separatist movement there. When that didn't work, they and the U.S. (which feared that the Congo was going Communist) conspired to overthrow the new president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and subsequently had him murdered.
The man who ruled the Congo for the next 32 years, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), was a former sergeant in the colonial army, rapidly promoted to general by Lumumba and then chosen by the CIA to replace him. He stayed in power for a generation by taking over the state's revenues for himself and his supporters, and nothing got spent on maintaining the Congo's existing infrastructure, let alone improving it. So the country went back to the bush.
Lumumba's surviving allies fought back, including Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who spent 20 years leading a futile guerrilla struggle in eastern Congo. (At one point in 1965, he even had Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a hundred Cubans helping him, but to no avail.)
Kabila ended up in exile in Tanzania, and his son Joseph grew up there, so Joseph ended up speaking Swahili, the lingua franca of Tanzania and the eastern Congo, but not a word of Lingala, the language that serves the same purpose in the western Congo, including Kinshasa. He speaks French, the Congo's official language, but with an English accent.
Laurent-Désiré Kabila led a revolt in the eastern Congo that drove Mobutu into exile in 1997. Mobutu's time ran out when the Cold War ended. Without the "Soviet threat," the U.S. lost interest in supporting him.
But the war turned into a free-for-all that wrecked what was left of the country, and when the elder Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph, aged 29, took over as unelected president. A truce in 2002 brought a kind of peace to the country, but at the expense of making the four biggest warlords vice-presidents.
The current election is an attempt to move past that corrupt but necessary bargain and provide the Congo with a properly elected parliament and president for the first time since 1960. It may not work, and even if it does, the Congo will be starting over again poorer, more divided and less developed than it was at independence 46 years ago.
But if the peace can be kept and the income from the mines can be invested in basic services and infrastructure, the Congo could be transformed in a decade. What's required is not a miracle, but the political stability that comes from democratic legitimacy. The effort is worth making, and it hasn't failed yet.