Secretary-General Kofi Annan led a chorus of United Nations voices today in congratulating the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the largely peaceful manner in which the vast African country has held its first free and fair elections in 45 years.
Millions of Congolese streamed into some 50,000 polling stations from 6 a.m. yesterday, waiting patiently to slip their votes into the ballot box as part of the largest and most complex electoral assistance effort ever undertaken by the UN.
The UN mission in the country, known as MONUC, reported that voting “passed in relative calm,” with only a few incidents across the country and relatively little trouble in the east, which has experienced some of the worst violence in Africa’s Great Lakes region in recent years.
Polling stations which did not open because of violence or other problems re-opened today to allow locals in those areas the opportunity to vote. MONUC reported that some stations were burned and electoral kits destroyed yesterday in the Kasai region, but there were no casualties in those attacks.
In a statement issued by his spokesman, Mr. Annan said “this historic event is a milestone in the country’s peace process,” although he noted the DRC still faces enormous political and economic challenges as it tries to rebuild after years of civil war.
Calling for calm while the Congolese Independent Electoral Commission tabulates the votes, the Secretary-General urged all parties and candidates to respect the results, which may not be known for three weeks.
Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York that the elections carry implications far beyond the DRC’s borders.
“This is a country that, if it really consolidates peace, that will make a difference not just for the whole central African region, [but] it will make a difference for the whole continent,” he said. “I’m deeply convinced of that. It will really change the perception of Africa if Congo really can put war behind.”
Some 25 million Congolese were registered to vote in the elections, most for the first time in their lives. Voters could choose from among 32 candidates for president and more than 9,000 candidates for the National Assembly.
“When you get the reports from the mission, when you see the emotions of the Congolese, saying, ‘Well, I voted. My mother never had the opportunity to vote’ – that is something meaningful,” Mr. Guéhenno said.
The Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the DRC, William Lacy Swing, praised the Congolese for their “discipline, wisdom and maturity” and also thanked the DRC police for maintaining public order throughout the day.
The UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Resident Representative Ross Mountain said he was “relieved and delighted because things went even better than we could have hoped.” But he warned that the new government faces numerous challenges, including curbing the illegal exploitation of its large store of natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, gold, silver and uranium.