Diamond in the Rough

Thirteen-year-old kamwala Bijicka wants to be a doctor when he grows up. But right now he's a school dropout digging for diamonds with the rest of his family, working by hand and hoping their pit doesn't collapse. On election day last week in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his parents took a couple of hours off to vote for a president in the country's first free polls in four decades. Whoever wins, however, isn't likely to lift the Bijickas out of poverty.

The Congo has almost unparalleled mineral riches, including gold, uranium, the world's biggest industrial diamond deposits, and 80 percent of world reserves in a mineral called coltan, which is crucial to the manufacture of mobile telephones. Yet decades of vicious warfare, breathtaking corruption and public neglect have reduced its people to among the world's poorest. The Bijicka family will be lucky to make a dollar a day in their little mine, digging up tiny, low-quality diamonds; if they find a good-sized stone, says the mother, Marie, Kamwala and his brothers will be able to go back to school.

Hope is about all most Congolese have left, and they've invested much of it in the elections. Current President Joseph Kabila, son of former dictator Laurent Kabila, won the first round of voting with 45 percent of the vote, compared with 20 percent for his opponent, a warlord named Jean Pierre Bemba who has been vice president in the interim national-unity government. The runoff between the two men was concluded on Oct. 29. The results aren't in and probably won't be until later this week. But thousands of international observers who fanned out throughout the country generally found the elections free and fair, despite scattered problems. What remains to be seen is if the loser will accept the results.

If history is any guide, the answer may be no. The first round of voting was marred by violence that left 31 people dead in the capital. The presidential guard, with tanks and heavy weaponry, squared off against Bemba loyalists after first-round results were announced. Bemba's personal doctor was killed, allegedly by Kabila supporters. During a protest, Bemba supporters overran the High Media Authority, which tries to rein in inflammatory campaign press on both sides. They gang-raped one of its female employees, set two policemen on fire and burned the place down.

In the runoff, turnout was much lighter than the first round, which is likely to favor Kabila. He is popul-ar in the eastern part of the DRC, where a civil war raged for years; residents give the president credit for stopping the fighting. Bemba is far stronger in the western part of the country, especially in the capital of Kinshasa. Bemba says he'll accept the results if there's no fraud--which he'll only know was the case if he wins. A return to large-scale warfare "is everybody's worst nightmare," says Colin Stewart, an election observer with the Carter Center, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter's foundation.

For now most observers are trying to concentrate on the success of having pulled off the election at all. In a nation the size of Western Europe, with only 500 kilometers of paved roads, distributing materials to 50,000 polling places--twice--was a logistical miracle financed by $500 million in aid money from European donors. "It's a tribute to the enthusiasm of the population to go ahead with elections," says Ross Mountain, the second highest official of the U.N. Mission to the Congo (MONUC), the largest peacekeeping operation anywhere. "And [the country is] still in the midst of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world."

Indeed, as failed states go, Congo is in a sad class of its own. Three quarters of the population goes to bed hungry; one in five children don't live to the age of 5. Public hospitals are practically nonfunctional; there isn't a working intensive-care unit in the country, other than field hospitals run by groups like Médecins Sans Frontières. Half of the kids get measles, 45 percent suffer from malaria.

The Congolese civil war, which ran from 1998 to 2003, claimed 4 million lives, more than any other conflict since World War II. It hasn't really ended. Rather, thanks to the presence of 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers, it's been in a pause mode for the past three years. Armed bandits still maraud through much of the eastern Congo, pillaging in rural areas and committing what amounts to an epidemic of rape, so much so that two hospitals specialize in surgical repair of fistulas from the worst rapes. The MONUC troops--from 100 countries-- have kept an uneasy peace. But their mandate expires at the end of this month, and the international community is wearying of the $1.2 billion annual U.N. price tag. Aid agencies pour in another $1.8 billion.

In nearly all of the country, in fact, the only services available to people are financed by international donors, from road-building to childbirth clinics. The only national media is the U.N.- and NGO-run Radio Okapi. What's more, the United Nations operates what in effect is the second-largest airline in sub-Saharan Africa, with 209 aircraft.

A peaceful transition to democracy is the only thing that could bring real prosperity to the nation. "The potential of the Congo is immense," says MikeMutombo of the state-controlled MIBA company, which has a monopoly on diamond mining in the Mbuji-Mayi area but is unable to meet its own payroll because nearly all of its profits are siphoned off by the government. The country's instability deters foreign investment in modern mining techniques that would boost productivity.

Mbuji-Mayi is a dramatic example of the country's woes: With a population of at least 3.3 million, it's probably the biggest city in the world with no running water. And despite the mineral wealth underground, the unemployment rate is 85 percent. Many of the residents are artisanal miners like the Bijicka family, digging by hand to scrape out a living. Smugglers and freelancers (miners of provisional legality whom the government has allowed to work on public lands) make off with nearly three times the amount of diamonds legally mined by MIBA. Foreign investors would insist on controlling the informal mining sector, and clamping down on smuggling.

Both Bemba and Kabila say they're committed to encouraging foreign investment, which wouldn't necessarily be good news for people like the Bijickas. But both the candidates have also promised to end corruption, fight poverty and share the mineral wealth with the people. Everyone has heard all that before, from a long line of bad leaders. At least this time, the people were able to choose which one they want to believe.