The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is Africa's second largest country and covers an area equal to about 70 per cent of India's, is on the edge of another civil war. Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the defeated candidate in the presidential election, refuses to accept the result announced by the country's independent electoral commission. It has awarded victory to the incumbent Joseph Kabila, of the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), by 49 per cent to 32 per cent. The election, only the second democratic one in the country's history, was dogged by problems and lasted three days instead of one. The transport infrastructure is very poor, and bad weather also prevented United Nations aircraft from carrying ballot papers to remote regions. After the polls closed, the count was delayed by staff shortages; in addition, bags of ballot papers were often so overfilled that they split in transit. European Union and some international observers have also expressed doubts about the credibility of the poll process. The 30 million voters are also electing a 500-seat parliament, with more than 18,000 candidates standing in a multi-member plurality electoral system.

Above all, the political context is highly unstable. Mr. Tshisekedi has called for calm, but his intransigence over the result is awakening fears of another civil war. The 71 million-population remembers only too well the 1998-2003 war, in which over five million died and ethnic tensions were severely exacerbated as other countries and international corporations manipulated warring groups for access to mineral resources and tropical hardwoods. In addition to oil and diamonds, the DRC has 70 per cent of the world's coltan, an essential ore for electronic goods. Parts of the East are still controlled by brutal militias, and many regions are notorious for rape of women as a war weapon. The recent election also saw 18 people killed. As poll-related clashes spread, thousands fled across the river Congo to the Republic of the Congo. Meanwhile Mr. Kabila seems willing to use the army for party purposes, and in the campaign police tear-gassed opposition supporters. The external environment is very different from that which obtained at the time of the previous election, held in 2006. For that exercise, donor states gave $460 million and approved the dispatch of the largest-ever U.N. peacekeeping force. This time, major countries have only uttered hopeful injunctions, and the U.N. mandate allows intervention only at Kinshasa's request. If civil war breaks out again, it is unlikely that the international community will be able to do anything significant.

More In: Editorial | Opinion