Congo's war-beleaguered people voted in the first national ballot in over three decades yesterday, with voters banging on polling-booth doors to say yes or no to a draft constitution meant to put the country on the path to democracy and lasting peace.
Congolese lined up before dawn, with eager voters slamming their fists on the entryway of one polling center in the capital, Kinshasa, imploring election workers to let them in early to exercise their long-dormant franchise. The charter would grant greater autonomy to mineral-laden regions but is viewed by many as another attempt by corrupt politicians to enrich themselves.
"We are the small people. We don't eat for days sometimes. I have never voted before and now we are passing from one era to another," said Charles Begi, a 34-year-old teacher who was among the first to cast his vote. "Now the small people of the country are choosing its future."
Some 24 million people are registered to vote in the referendum.
On Saturday, rioters burned three polling stations in schools around the capital, Kinshasa, destroying the buildings with Molotov cocktails, officials said.
Congolese have not voted en masse since 1970, when then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko stood as the sole candidate. His reign ended in 1997 amid the first of two wars that wracked the country until 2002. Yesterday's referendum is viewed as a crucial step toward lasting peace.
But Congolese long accustomed to corrupt and violent rule are suspicious of the document, which relatively few have scrutinized in a vast nation largely lacking roads or access to a wide array of media.
"Our television channels only show people dancing, and nothing about the referendum," said Jose Munoki, a 40-year-old tax official in Kinshasa, the capital.
Many Western analysts say a rejection would represent bad news. Although they view the document as perhaps flawed in some ways, they consider it to be a crucial step toward ending a transitional government and laying the framework for the construction of a proper democratic government can be constructed. The first parliamentary and presidential elections in decades are due in March.
The charter was written by members of the transitional government, including many former rebel leaders and partisans of President Joseph Kabila. And many Congolese are suspicious, seeing manipulation that put politicians' interests ahead of their own.
For example, the draft lowers the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 -- allowing incumbent Kabila, a 33-year-old who inherited his father's rebel army that ousted Mobutu, to seek re-election.
Munoki, the civil servant, said he would vote against a constitution that is "undemocratic because unelected representatives of the people wrote it."
If the constitution is rejected, the transitional government will continue to govern Congo, at least until its mandate ends on June 30.
The constitution attempts to ensure female participation at all levels of government -- notable in a country where rapes and gender-based violence were common during the wars.
The draft constitution also aims to decentralize authority, dividing the vast nation into 25 semiautonomous provinces drawn along ethnic and cultural lines.