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Riot police chase opposition UDPS supporters caught in a cloud of tear gas outside N'Djili airport in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa November 26, 2011. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)
Riot police chase opposition UDPS supporters caught in a cloud of tear gas outside N'Djili airport in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa November 26, 2011. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Too early to tell if Congo violence has passed, Canadian soldier says Add to ...

The senior Canadian soldier serving in the restive Democratic Republic of Congo says it’s unclear whether the worst of the post-election violence in the country has passed.

But Col. Rick Fawcett said it is clear that Canada has a role to play in helping the Central Africa country develop.

Col. Fawcett, 51, is head of a contingent of nine Canadian soldiers serving with a decade-old, United Nations peacekeeping force in the Central African country.

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UN troops were instrumental in readying the country for its second-ever presidential and legislative elections in November.

But Col. Fawcett, who led the preparations, said the country itself wasn’t logistically prepared for the challenge.

The Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, with few roads, railways or other infrastructure available to move election materials from town to town.

“The panic we went through the whole month of November just was unbelievable, what we had to do to make this happen,” Col. Fawcett said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa.

“History will determine if it happened good enough.”

When the vote counts were released mid-December, incumbent President Joseph Kabila was declared re-elected but the credibility of the results are under scrutiny.

Thousands of ballots were lost and, in some places, voter turnout was registered as over 100 per cent, with all the votes going to Kabila.

Ballots for the country’s legislature are still being tallied.

Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has declared himself president and said last week he’s under house arrest.

Dozens of Mr. Tshisekedi’s supporters were arrested in the days around the election, including a young Canadian man who was released last week.

Human Rights Watch also reported at least 24 deaths.

Col. Fawcett said UN and local security forces were prepared time and again for the violence to escalate even further.

In the capital, electricity had been cut off and the food supply disrupted as residents feared the worst. Millions have been killed in prior conflicts in the country.

But Col. Fawcett said local security forces performed well above expectation.

“I think they actually stopped anything from really developing,” he said.

“You could argue they moved too quickly, but in the end it was easier to deal with a group of 50 people than wait until it was 5,000. And that was always my fear – the group would get too big and they wouldn’t be able to deal with it.”

Col. Fawcett said the situation was helped by a number of factors, including timing.

Eventually, people’s thoughts turned towards Christmas in the devoutly religious country and politics subsided.

But there’s no guarantee about what lies ahead.

“There’s still a lot of tension out there,” he said.

“There’s all these hurdles that we expected, we never really crossed any of them, they just keep pushing them to the right. It doesn’t feel like we’re through anything.”

Canada contributed $9-million to the UN over five years to help finance the election, while $50-million was contributed in direct aid in 2009-2010.

A further $300-million has been spent since 1999 on the UN peacekeeping mission, according to figures on the Foreign Affairs website.

Col. Fawcett says there are lessons Canada has learned in other overseas missions that could easily be applied in the Congo.

Given the country’s abundant natural resources, Canadian technical expertise could be valuable in promoting development, Fawcett said.

He pointed to Canada’s work refurbishing the Dahla Dam in Afghanistan as one example. Similar technical expertise could be applied to help the Congo’s hydroelectric sector.

It’s unclear what role the Congolese want international soldiers or aid workers to play, Col. Fawcett said.

But Canada needs to be in the country for other reasons as well, he said.

The rampant sexual violence, disregard for human life and poverty there are completely un-Canadian, he said.

“It is so wrong that it makes it right for us to be here.”

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