This week, popular opposition to political and commercial fraud in Congo-Kinshasa could precipitate a new national crisis following disputed national elections on 28 November (AC Vol 52 No 23). Increasingly credible claims of widespread vote rigging against a backdrop of reports that some US$5 billion of the state's mining assets have been sold for a fraction of their market value to close associates of President Joseph Kabila could fire up divisions in the country almost a decade after its civil war formally ended (AC Vol 52 No 24, AC Vol 52 No 16 & passim).
Pressure will mount on the UN Security Council which is fearful of being drawn into another African election dispute; UN forces played a lead role in Côte d'Ivoire's imbroglio this year. It contented itself with calls for restraint to all sides in Congo after meeting on 2 December.
Insiders say the council is divided with South Africa, Russia and China sympathetic to incumbent President Kabila, while France and Britain are belatedly beginning to sound some alarms. UN peacekeepers would be expected to act in the event of widespread violence should the election crisis escalate but most council members are concentrating on Syria's crisis not Congo's.
For now, the African Union's observer team insists there is no evidence of systematic fraud and hasn't backed calls by Congolese civil society groups for greater transparency in the tabulation of votes. The AU's position and that of the regional Southern African Development Community could prove critical in the coming days.
In Congo, widespread scepticism greeted the release of early election results by Reverend Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, President of the Commission électorale nationale indépendante (CENI) showing a substantial lead for President Kabila.
According to CENI, Kabila had polled 51% with his nearest rival Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba on 35% and Vital Kamerhe had just 5% in results released on 3 December from about a third of the country's over 63,000 polling stations. The counting and selective publication of results raise serious questions about the credibility of the elections. Few results have been released so far from Tshisekedi's strongholds in the capital Kinshasa and in the diamond rich provinces of Kasai.
CENI's Mulunda, widely seen as an ally of President Kabila, claims to have the authority to annul packages of votes without offering reasons. So far CENI has ruled out votes from areas in the capital and the centre of the country known to be hostile to Kabila. Local observer groups and the Catholic church, which had widespread coverage on the ground, have been compiling a parallel vote counting by adding up the votes announced in each polling station.
The appearance of clusters of 'phantom' polling stations has made an accurate tabulation of votes much harder. The UN-backed Radio Okapi reported that CENI's list of polling stations included 107 phantom stations, opposition parties claim many more than this in Kinshasa and Kasai-Orientale. Mulunda insists there are no 'phantom' stations just those whose 'location is not well established'. A confidential European Union report lists widespread voter registration abuses.
More serious still are reports from diplomats and civic activists that three planeloads of election materials from South Africa landed at Kinshasa's Nd'jili airport on 29 and 30 November although voting had ended in most parts of the country. Foreign observers, especially the AU and SADC, are reluctant to conclude that all these incidents amount to a stolen election.
Opposition candidates such as Tshisekedi, who at 78 is making what is likely to be his last run for the presidency, and Kamhere harbour no such doubts and are preparing mass protests after the official declaration of results on 6 December.
Anger at electoral fraud in Congo will be compounded by outrage at the systematic theft of state assets over the past decade. In 2002, a UN investigation concluded that some $3billion of state assets had been sold at knock down prices to political and military allies of the Kabila regime. After the report was published, Kabila sacked several senior figures including minister in the presidency Katumba Mwanke.
Today Mwanke is back as a top advisor, skilfully juggling his political and commercial duties. And there has been a deafening silence from the UN, the World Bank and the IMF as the government has presided of the sale of key mining assets to opaque companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, several of which are linked to President Kabila's associate and Israeli magnate, Dan Gertler.
Detailed reports about these sales have been sent to the EU, the IMF and the World Bank by Congolese civic groups and British MP Eric Joyce (ericjoyce.co.uk) who chairs the All Party African Great Lakes Group (africangreatlakes.com). As well as this the Bank and the IMF have conducted their own probes into systematic corruption in Congo's mining sector, the results of which they have so far declined to publish.
The evidence suggests, as Eric Joyce argues, that the Congolese government has flouted most of the key provisions of its agreement with the IMF for a $550 million loan. The IMF's conditions included ensuring public and transparent competitive tenders for all sales of state assets, publication of the 2007-2010 national mining contract renegotiation, establishment of an independent anti-corruption authority and the implementation of procedures to properly account for state mining revenues under the auspices of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, now headed by former British Development Minister Clare Short.
For Congo's 70 million people the economic and the political stakes in the coming days could hardly be higher.