Though it will probably not make it onto the network news programs, the Democratic Republic of Congo began polling for its first multiparty elections in nearly 50 years. This was no small feat: Congo is considered among the most hellish places on earth, where the pathologies of sub-Saharan Africa have combined with a uniquely bloody history to claim millions of lives.In 1999, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire, and since then the United Nations Organizing Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monuc) has evolved to become the largest and most complex peacekeeping operations in the world, with the provision of logistical support (pdf) for today’s election among its most complicated tasks.
There are some 25 million registered voters, 33 presidential candidates and 9,647 contesting for a 500 seat assembly. And throughout a country the size of Western Europe, there are only 2,500 kilometers of paved roads; among its other responsibilities, Monuc will transport election materials and personnel to and from some 53,000 polling stations.
Monuc is an excellent example of how a multifaceted peacekeeping operation can help stabilize a fragile country. In preparation for these elections, Monuc trained some 37,000 police officers. The mission also has a vanguard program aimed at disarming militias and reintegrating them into civilian life. Still, it is battling foreign militias who continue to ravage Congo’s eastern provinces. Of course, this has been costly: Monuc’s annual budget is over $1 billion. And since 1999, 92 blue helmets have lost their lives in Congo. But without the support of Monuc, these historic elections would not be taking place today.
Peace and stability in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be achieved without leading Congo away from the precipice it faces. The fact that these elections are taking place at all is a cause for celebration, and a reflection on the professionalism and competence of the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If these elections continue without major incident, the world will have witnessed a transformative moment in sub-Saharan Africa, all thanks to the United Nations.