Yesterday was quiet in Kinshasa, that is to say, an ordinary Sunday. Public taxis ran, and people walked in the streets holding their childrens’ hands. It was a relief from a different sort of quiet that descended for many days the past week, since the day before election results were first supposed to be released – an eerie, almost impossible kind of ghost-town absence of life.
Some people say yesterday was the start of a return to normalcy. Other people say it is the calm before the real storm. Rumors abound in Kinshasa at the moment, even more than usual. In the spirit of Christmas, nearly every day these past two weeks brings a new surprise.
I’m staying in a quiet residential neighborhood called blissfully “Ma Campagne” (Countryside) in a house across the street from the Marble Palace, an enormous compound that served as one of Mobutu’s official residences and today is still owned by the Presidency; the neighborhood is considered a “Presidential Quartier” where photographs are discouraged and soldiers patrol regularly even in normal times. I am here to make a television reality dance show for a mobile phone operator. I’ve been here two months so far on a three month stint. The electoral process has affected our program in bizarre ways from the beginning: we lost our sound stage at national TV after our first broadcast because the President needed to reserve the space; we lost our actual stage itself the week after to his campaign tour. Last week, we couldn’t have our SMS eliminations because the government abruptly cut off SMSes; the operator has found a way to allow voting to go through now – but only voting.
The Minister of Information subsequently announced that the disruption of SMS service was designed to prevent inflammatory rumors and false results, yet word-of-mouth rumors have proliferated, and it is the government who is accused of faking results. In this city with over forty newspapers, nothing is clear from one day to the next. It has been two weeks now since the election commission (CENI) surprised many observers by holding DR Congo’s first ever self-run election on the announced day. The polling stations I visited seemed designed to confuse even the people running them; my friend who was trying to vote was sent to four different rooms to get his ballot (based on his surname). Still, the people voted.
By the day after the election, new rumors were circulating – opposition leader Tshisikedi had defeated President Kabila. (In Kin itself, this has turned out to be officially true, and in a huge way.) People began to get tense. By the end of the first week, the city began to shut down.
It has been six days since the same CENI surprised observers again by announcing a delay in the publication of results. The fear that had begun to grip Kinshasa accelerated. People stopped coming to work. Every day on our project we wake not knowing if we will have personnel or transport or if it’s a security threat to move. For all of last week, the banks were closed, the operator we work for was closed, most Embassies were closed, even the renowned Kin nightclubs were closed, their owners, bartenders, Djs and even servers joining the exodus to Brazzaville across the river, safely in the “other Congo”. Two days later, CENI surprised us further with a second delay, followed by an EARLY announcement the next day that again circulated only in rumors – police walkie talkies, BBM, friend’s cellphones. And then, just like that, Kabila was President. Or was he? In our neighborhood the rush immediately after the 1 PM announcement was all people cheering, draped in colorful Kabila-face flags, but the murmurs on the streets the past couple of days has been the name Tshisikedi.
Most Congolese I talk to think people have had enough of fighting, that one week blocked from work is already more than anyone can afford. They point out that Tshisikedi doesn’t have an army that can stand up to the Congolese army, that ordinary people have lost too much in wars here already, that this country is in desperate need of development of the kind Kabila promises, even if his most of his promises are still unfulfilled, and besides, the Congolese love to argue, and nothing more.
But a few people who have their ears to the ground tell me that today is already planned as a day of grand manifestations, which inevitably will be met by brutal police reprisals, increasing the official total of post-election deaths. They say that pro-Kabila groups are wearing opposition t-shirts and stoning the police in pro-Kabila neighborhoods, that Tshisikedi visited Jean-Claude Bemba in prison awhile back, and Bemba’s party still has an army.
Right now in Kinshasa, truth is momentary and very difficult to pin down, even more so than usual. Is Congo hurtling toward war, or settling back into a tense peace? Depending who you listen to, today will deepen the normalcy, or else will be the day when all hell breaks loose. Or maybe that’s tomorrow.