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The Congo: Bumpy Road to Democracy

3 minute read

It was to have been a milestone in Congolese history—the day when the nation erased the memories of nearly five years of chaos and proved that it too was a democratic nation capable of running its own affairs. In the first nationwide elections since independence, it was Leopoldville’s turn to vote.

At 4 a.m. the first voters began to line up in front of the city’s polling stations. A few hours later, when President Joseph Kasavubu was due to cast his ballot, observers from eleven African nations were on hand to applaud, television crews had set up their cameras, and journalists from all over the world were scurrying from precinct to precinct to record the phenomenon of an orderly Congo. The whole thing seemed almost too good to be true.

Seeking the Scapegoat. It was. For as morning became afternoon, and afternoon became evening, there was no Kasavubu—and in fact no voting. Throughout the city, not a single polling place opened its doors. At some there were no ballot boxes, at others no pencils. Almost none had received the voting sheets for all 43 contending parties. Frantic district poll officials swarmed to the headquarters of the electoral commission on the Avenue des Victimes de la Rébellion to find out what was wrong. They blanched at the scene: small boys toting huge piles of ballots dumped their loads into waiting trucks as guards gesticulated wildly. On the street, bundles of ballots burst open, and the faces of candidates which decorated each ballot stared up from the dusty asphalt before being wiped out by the constantly passing wheels.

The government had been utterly unable to print and deliver the 10.5 million separate ballots required to enable Leopoldville’s 160,000 registered voters to elect six national Assemblymen and seven Senators. At last Interior Minister Godefroid Munongo admitted defeat, announced the election would be held the following day instead. Seeking a scapegoat, he ordered Electoral Commission President Joseph Nsiku arrested on charges of sabotage.

Tactful Observers. The second try was hardly more successful than the first. President Kasavubu and some 2,000 other citizens succeeded in marking their ballots, but no one else made the grade. The government had to dispatch squads of paracommandos to keep frustrated voters from breaking into the polls, and Premier Moise Tshombe called an emergency Cabinet meeting to reschedule the elections.

Embarrassing as it was, the election breakdown looked far more serious to Western eyes than it did to the Congolese or the African observers. “We have had such difficulties in my country too,” said a tactful Nigerian representative, and Zambia’s Ambassador Timothy Kankassa allowed that it could have happened anywhere. Even Tshombe seemed unperturbed, and for good reason: after a two-week offensive in the northeast, his mercenary-led army was doing better than ever in the struggle against the Communist-backed rebels.

The force of 270 whites and 750 Congolese commandos had cut the last remaining rebel supply routes from Uganda and the Sudan, were moving on to storm the rebel capital of Watsa itself. Though reconnaissance reports suggested that the rebels had massed thousands of Simbas for a last-ditch stand, Lieut. Colonel Mike Hoare and his men took Watsa without firing a shot. Leaving their weapons behind them, the Simbas vanished into the rain forest, presumably demoralized by the warning of the jungle telegraph: “The white giants are coming.”

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