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Before Election, State Department Orders Some U.S. Personnel To Leave Congo


We're going to turn our attention now to Democratic Republic of Congo, which could in six days achieve its first democratic transfer of power. There are much anticipated elections coming on December 23. It has been a largely peaceful campaign, but then last week violence was reported in some areas of the country. And the U.S. State Department has instructed nonemergency U.S. government personnel and their family to leave this Central African nation. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the capital Kinshasa and joins me on the line. Ofeibea, good morning.


GREENE: So can you remind us why this is such a meaningful moment in this country?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because after almost 18 years in power, President Joseph Kabila is poised to stand down. And these elections, especially the presidential vote, have been delayed for the past two years because Congo did not organize them. That set the opposition against the president. And opposition supporters were - went onto the streets, protested, said, Kabila, you have done your two constitutional term limit; it's time for you to go. So the stakes are so high in this country. Congo is so rich and so powerful and so mighty, but many Congolese feel that they are not benefiting from those riches. So the stakes are very high.

GREENE: Well, if the stakes are this high, is it a bad sign that the U.S. government is telling its personnel to leave the country? Does that mean that violence could really get in the way of this moment?

QUIST-ARCTON: David, that has become almost regular for elections that have the potential of turning violent. You have the U.S. that has asked nonemergency families and staff to leave. The British Embassy has said the same. I think because Congo's elections since 2006 have turned violent in the post-vote period, people don't want to have to evacuate foreigners as we have seen in the past here. So the U.S. is taking precautions. Congolese are also worried because the campaign turned violent in some areas last week. And now, at this crucial time, Congo must not get it wrong.

GREENE: Well, I mean, is it a safe enough environment that, you know, people are telling you they're going to come out and vote, or could that become a real problem if people don't actually come to the polls?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think the Congolese are determined to vote. Almost everyone you speak to says, these elections have been postponed for so long; we want to vote. But we're talking about a country here that logistically is a complete nightmare. Voting materials have had to be delivered by canoe on rivers, by bicycle to remote areas. And that is one of the huge problems. Last Thursday here in Kinshasa, the main depot of the election commission caught fire. We don't know in what circumstances. And now controversial voting machines that many people are suspicious of - because they say, will they be used to rig the vote? - went up in flames, as well as ballot boxes. Now the election commission has got to get everything in place for Sunday. The Congolese are asking, will these elections happen; we are desperate to vote; we want to vote on new president and on new lawmakers; will that happen on time?

GREENE: OK. And that election, again, is coming next weekend - next Sunday That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo. Ofeibea, thanks.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.