Mennonites see hope amid Congo struggle for democracy

By staff writers
August 10, 2006

Mennonites see hope amid Congo struggle for democracy

-10/08/06

Last month, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo voted freely in national elections for the first time in more than 40 years. The results are due at the end of August 2006, and in the meantime the results of the monitoring process are being scrutinized carefully.

The United Nations helped to conduct the elections in the wake of wars that devastated Congo from 1996 to 2002 ñ writes Tim Shenk for Mennonite Central Committee. The monumental effort involved 50,000 voting centres, hundreds of thousands of poll workers and tens of thousands of Congolese volunteers who observed the voting process to verify that it was conducted fairly.

Congo's national council of Protestant churches organized teams of election observers in the capital city and several other parts of the country.

For the first time, Congolese Mennonite churches took an active role in electoral politics, fielding candidates and encouraging church members to vote.

At the invitation of Congolese Mennonite churches, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) organized a group of 22 observers from Canada, England, Holland and the United States to assist in this effort.

The international observers worked with Congolese observers at voting centres throughout Kinshasa. Despite fears of political violence, the scene was mostly calm and orderly. Schools were converted into voting centres, and people formed lines in schoolyards before going into classrooms to vote.

The observers reported a few difficulties in the voting process, such as voting centres that opened late and six-page ballots with more than 800 parliamentary candidates to choose from. However, the observers' consensus was that the voting process appeared to run smoothly and without partisan interference.

"It was clear that a huge amount of planning and training of staff had gone into making sure that voting went ahead in an open and fair way," said Ian Harvey, an observer from Manchester, England.

It was the first multiparty election in Congo since Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965, ruling as a dictator for 32 years and renaming the country Zaire. When Congo's civil war officially ended in 2002, a transitional government was installed with former rebel leaders serving as vice presidents.

On the long-awaited Election Day, voters chose from among 33 presidential candidates and 9,650 parliamentary candidates. Organizers say they will announce the results in several weeks and hold a runoff election in October if no presidential candidate won a majority.

It was the first election for the vast majority of Congolese voters. Philomene Matondo, a 40-year-old Kinshasa woman, said she cast her first votes in the hope that Congo will become a more democratic country.

"I want elected officials who will try to accomplish every promise that they make," Matondo said.

Congo's problems are enormous. Although it has many valuable natural resources, misrule and civil war have left the Congolese people among the poorest in the world. Basic public services and infrastructure are severely lacking ó no paved roads connect Congo's vast rural regions and schoolteachers and medical workers are paid next to nothing. Most Congolese families cannot afford to send their children to school, and in Congo's troubled eastern region, disease and hunger kill one in four children before their fifth birthday.

Pascal Kulungu, a Mennonite Brethren candidate for parliament, said that his objective is to encourage the government to work for peace in eastern Congo, where militias continue to fight in the wake of the civil war.

But Kulungu said that he and other Mennonite candidates lacked the money to pay for big political campaigns. Wealthier candidates distributed food, clothing, cash and other gifts to people at rallies.

"People have that culture of getting something from parliamentary candidates," Kulungu said. "It's tough."

There are about 194,000 Mennonites in Congo in three denominations ó Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo, Evangelical Mennonite Community and Mennonite Community in Congo.

As July 30 approached, many churches held special services to pray for peace and wisdom on Election Day. Now, as the votes are counted, there is widespread concern that violence will erupt over the results.

Sidonie Swana Falanga, a Congolese Mennonite election observer, asked for prayer on behalf of the Congolese people during this uncertain transition period.

"I am asking you to pray for us, that we will have calm in our country and that we will have changes that people want to see," she said.

[Also on Ekklesia: British MP affirms Congo poll and church-backed monitoring 09/08/06; Churches keep watchful eye on Congo's historic poll; UK Anglican election observer invited to Congo by Mennonites; Mennonites to play mediating role in Congolese election; Churches work together for Great Lakes region of Africa; 'Never again' fund launched for genocide victims; Christian delegation meets with Rwandan President; Fairtrade and conflict-free diamonds]

Mennonites see hope amid Congo struggle for democracy

-10/08/06

Last month, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo voted freely in national elections for the first time in more than 40 years. The results are due at the end of August 2006, and in the meantime the results of the monitoring process are being scrutinized carefully.

The United Nations helped to conduct the elections in the wake of wars that devastated Congo from 1996 to 2002 ñ writes Tim Shenk for Mennonite Central Committee. The monumental effort involved 50,000 voting centres, hundreds of thousands of poll workers and tens of thousands of Congolese volunteers who observed the voting process to verify that it was conducted fairly.

Congo's national council of Protestant churches organized teams of election observers in the capital city and several other parts of the country.

For the first time, Congolese Mennonite churches took an active role in electoral politics, fielding candidates and encouraging church members to vote.

At the invitation of Congolese Mennonite churches, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) organized a group of 22 observers from Canada, England, Holland and the United States to assist in this effort.

The international observers worked with Congolese observers at voting centres throughout Kinshasa. Despite fears of political violence, the scene was mostly calm and orderly. Schools were converted into voting centres, and people formed lines in schoolyards before going into classrooms to vote.

The observers reported a few difficulties in the voting process, such as voting centres that opened late and six-page ballots with more than 800 parliamentary candidates to choose from. However, the observers' consensus was that the voting process appeared to run smoothly and without partisan interference.

"It was clear that a huge amount of planning and training of staff had gone into making sure that voting went ahead in an open and fair way," said Ian Harvey, an observer from Manchester, England.

It was the first multiparty election in Congo since Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965, ruling as a dictator for 32 years and renaming the country Zaire. When Congo's civil war officially ended in 2002, a transitional government was installed with former rebel leaders serving as vice presidents.

On the long-awaited Election Day, voters chose from among 33 presidential candidates and 9,650 parliamentary candidates. Organizers say they will announce the results in several weeks and hold a runoff election in October if no presidential candidate won a majority.

It was the first election for the vast majority of Congolese voters. Philomene Matondo, a 40-year-old Kinshasa woman, said she cast her first votes in the hope that Congo will become a more democratic country.

"I want elected officials who will try to accomplish every promise that they make," Matondo said.

Congo's problems are enormous. Although it has many valuable natural resources, misrule and civil war have left the Congolese people among the poorest in the world. Basic public services and infrastructure are severely lacking ó no paved roads connect Congo's vast rural regions and schoolteachers and medical workers are paid next to nothing. Most Congolese families cannot afford to send their children to school, and in Congo's troubled eastern region, disease and hunger kill one in four children before their fifth birthday.

Pascal Kulungu, a Mennonite Brethren candidate for parliament, said that his objective is to encourage the government to work for peace in eastern Congo, where militias continue to fight in the wake of the civil war.

But Kulungu said that he and other Mennonite candidates lacked the money to pay for big political campaigns. Wealthier candidates distributed food, clothing, cash and other gifts to people at rallies.

"People have that culture of getting something from parliamentary candidates," Kulungu said. "It's tough."

There are about 194,000 Mennonites in Congo in three denominations ó Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo, Evangelical Mennonite Community and Mennonite Community in Congo.

As July 30 approached, many churches held special services to pray for peace and wisdom on Election Day. Now, as the votes are counted, there is widespread concern that violence will erupt over the results.

Sidonie Swana Falanga, a Congolese Mennonite election observer, asked for prayer on behalf of the Congolese people during this uncertain transition period.

"I am asking you to pray for us, that we will have calm in our country and that we will have changes that people want to see," she said.

[Also on Ekklesia: British MP affirms Congo poll and church-backed monitoring 09/08/06; Churches keep watchful eye on Congo's historic poll; UK Anglican election observer invited to Congo by Mennonites; Mennonites to play mediating role in Congolese election; Churches work together for Great Lakes region of Africa; 'Never again' fund launched for genocide victims; Christian delegation meets with Rwandan President; Fairtrade and conflict-free diamonds]

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