Over 24 million Congolese have registered for their constitutional referendum, but many are asking how they can endorse a charter they have not seen. That frustration born of a voter education campaign criticized as inadequate could lead to the charter's rejection, further setting back stumbling efforts to emerge from years of war and decades of dictatorship. With Sunday's referendum just days away, Congolese were crowding into electoral offices demanding copies of the proposed charter meant to consolidate peace and build a sense of nationhood after a five-year war that ended in 2002.
"Maybe the constitution says we should sell our country, who knows?" said Stella Ivinya, a 20-year-old student in Kinshasa who works part-time at an Internet cafe. "Our politicians are thieves. They don't want to show us the constitution."
Ivinya was nonetheless planning to vote: "It is my civic right. I will vote no." Abbe Malu Malu, head of the Electoral Commission, acknowledged voter education began too late, and said funding was one issue. Renzo Hettinger, a senior official with the U.N. Development Program office helping Congolese officials educate voters, noted he had only four people for "a country the size of a continent." But he said his budget of about US$3 million (Ђ2.5 million) was adequate, and added, "Congolese should learn to stop looking to the international community for help all the time" and help themselves. He said private groups hired to spread the word may not have done their job, and that Congolese were taking election material meant to be distributed for free and selling it on the streets.
Some 500,000 small books explaining the constitution were printed, along with 600,000 posters and a few hundred thousand leaflets. Little about the constitution has been broadcast on radio or television, though between 30 and 50 percent of Congolese adults cannot read or write.
Voter education groups, both Congolese and international, faced impassable roads and unreliable communications in a country devastated by the war and a rapacious dictatorship.
Congolese have not been to the polls since 1970, when the late Mobutu Sese Seko was the sole presidential candidate. Mobutu fled Congo as rebel armies advanced in 1997 and died later that year.
Congo's war sucked in armies from six neighboring nations and, according to aid groups, left nearly 4 million people dead. It also left Congolese deeply distrustful of their politicians, many of whom led rebel factions during the war, negotiated slices of power when it ended, and then helped write the draft charter, reports the AP. I.L.