Elections in Two Acts

What separates Congolese Elections from ours are two things:  Music and Machetes!   The first marks the enthusiastic opening of the electoral campaign and the other, well… that’s in case anything goes wrong.

Act I — Music: The first week of campaigning went off with an explosion of song and dance, hundreds of multi colored flags and more party acronyms than I or anyone else can keep track of. Posters were hung up daily by hopeful candidates only to be torn down by their adversaries the following day. The campaign strategy of choice is small and large motorized caravans blasting music twenty-four-seven on boom box mounted trucks filled with young, exuberant, often unemployed men.

The mayor was clearly exasperated when he received us. “What’s the matter with these people.  No coordination, no nothing …. on fait juste comme ca!  boooo baaaa boooo baaaa.”    

The candidates basically come in two varieties – those with Polos and those without Polos – that’s a T-shirt to us Anglophones.  The first group plasters the streets and media with cinemascope pictures and round the clock advertising.  They also pay their finest pop stars to sing their praise on their privately owned TV channels. The second group mostly peddles toilette paper size ads door to door, hauling their own party flag on a radio mounted motorcycle, screaming into a megaphone from town square to rally.  

The UDPS opposition party has the iconic Etienne Tshisekedi as their candidate — a 30 year veteran politician and career adversary of power since the time of Mobutu — and he apparently has the scars to prove it.  The bulk of his followers are the large population of Kassaians in various provinces, although he hopes to capitalize on Jean Pierre Bemba’s untimely detention at The Hague for crimes against humanity. JP came in second in 2006 Elections.  But that is a whole other story.

Within minutes of our arrival, the doorways, front yard and gate entrance of UDPS headquarters are jammed with members and partisans, spilling out into the pavement and the street, each brandishing a rectangular red card — chanting and singing.

  “What’s that?”  I ask a young man who shoves his card in my face.

“Carton Rouge! Carton Rouge!”   

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Madame!  Don’t you watch football?”


“Bon!  It’s a red card! It means he is out of the game. Kabila must go!”

“Ah! You see….us women – we don’t know anything about soccer.”

Of the hundred and forty plus parties, most are aligned with the President and are only campaigning for legislative seats. To increase chances at representation, many have nominated additional candidates through parallel parties which will probably crash and burn after the elections are over. Meanwhile it’s the true Katangan identity that is hanging in the balance.  Who is real and who is fake – the topic which one week later brings us to Act II – Machetes:

We are walking in one of the poorer neighborhoods where the campaign caravan of UDPS clashed with knife and machete wielding youth of UNAFEC who claim to be guardians of the true Katangan identity.   One person is dead, another in coma and forty others injured.  The burnt and vandalized carcasses of three minibuses are still blocking the neighborhood.  The head of UNAFEC who calls himself the BABA – or “Father” of Katanga has said there are too many “mosquitoes” in his living room… Oh, to be so close to the Rwandan border and still take the names of insects in vain.

Today Lubakat men with grass skirts and painted faces are dancing in the streets. Our hotel is filling up with armed guards and the square is packing with polo wearing groups holding up flags and banners. President Kabila is coming to town and people are climbing walls and hanging from trees to see him.  Meanwhile Tshisekedi has not started campaigning. He has proclaimed himself President.  From South Africa.  His followers say he is just kidding but I wonder if his plane will even be cleared to land. 

On CNN, another Republican candidate in the U.S. is squirming out of a sexual scandal. <yawn> …. sounds like a rerun to me.


  1. Excellent images and cometary as I feel I am in the place with you.

    • jacqueline laffite bloch says:

      Yes, it is indeed a vivid reading on the Congolese election scene. Keep safe Firouzeh joon, there are too many machete wielding people and the emotions run high…not a good combination.

  2. Highly descriptive explanation of the campaigning process but I can’t help but wonder how effective any of it is. Great photos that enhance the frenetic scene.

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