MBUJI-MAYI, Congo – For many people in the heart of the African nation of Congo, Sunday was no day to celebrate the country's first democratic vote in decades. Instead, they stayed away from the polls — either heeding an opposition leader's boycott call or afraid of young men armed with stones.
A rock thrown into an Mbuji-Mayi station sent a lone voter fleeing. Outside, boycotters pelted would-be voters with stones. Electoral officials and observers outnumbered voters at many polling stations, and the U.N. said that 11 were burned down by people opposed to the vote.
Veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, whose main base of support is in central Congo, has called for the boycott. If it's successful, he is likely to use that as proof of his influence as he pushes for a greater say in national politics.
Tshisekedi asked his supporters not to register as voters when rolls were opened in 2005, claiming the negotiations that led to the vote were flawed. He later backtracked and announced he would contest the presidency, but only if his voters could still register. Congo's electoral commission refused.
The failure of Tshisekedi's supporters to register has an effect beyond Sunday's vote.
The 500 seats in the National Assembly were allocated according to the number of registered voters. Mbuji-Mayi, Congo's second-largest city, with nearly 4 million people, will have only 11 seats, compared to 58 for the 8 million residents of Kinshasa, the capital.
That could mean more marginalization for the central region, known as Kasai, which seceded months after independence from Belgium in 1960.
Military strongman Mobutu Sese Seko took power and reunited the nation. He led the nation he called Zaire as a personal fiefdom for 32 years, using its mineral riches to fatten foreign bank accounts said to hold $4 billion when he died after being ousted by armed rebellions in 1997.
Ever since Kasai declared independence, "they have been punishing us, and now they are trying to exclude us from parliament," claimed Gabriel Kalombo Nzage, a national vice president of Tshisekedi's Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the country's biggest opposition party.
"It's not that Tshisekedi refused, as they keep saying, but that they barred the way for him," Kalombo insisted.
The wealth produced by the diamonds mined around Mbuji-Mayi is nowhere evident in this gritty south-central town, where the air is saturated with dirt and smoke from charcoal cooking fires. A region where diamonds are so plentiful — they're collected by simply panning river sand — has no electricity and no running water.
Independent miners get $10 for a $400 stone and workers of the state Bakwanga Mining company get about $50 a month in a country where it costs at least $1 a day to feed a family of five.
"All our wealth goes to thieving politicians in Kinshasa," Kalombo complained.
The boycott will help ensure it stays that way. Kasai will have little voice in the new Parliament.
Reports from 10 polling stations in Mbuji-Mayi late Sunday indicated turnout was between 5 percent and 15 percent. In the nearby village of Leamiela, only 30 of 565 registered voters had cast ballots. Officials reported no violence or intimidation there.
Emmanuel Mukadi ignored the boycott to vote for Tshisekedi, whose name remained on the ballot because he withdrew so late.
"I'm voting because our lives are so miserable," he said. "I have little hope that anything will change. It doesn't matter who wins, they (corrupt politicians) take everything for themselves and their families."