Trou­bled wa­ters in Congo’s fight to stem flow of ve­nal­ity and vi­o­lence

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide - Fer­gal Keane

OUT­SIDE the river is the same muddy brown ex­panse, sweep­ing clumps of veg­e­ta­tion past Kin­shasa and Braz­zav­ille and on­wards through the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo to­wards the dis­tant At­lantic. I am stay­ing in a ho­tel next to an army base. Scan­ning from the river to the street be­low my win­dow, a dis­tance of about 100 me­tres, I see troops in red berets loung­ing in the shade of a tree. I have passed them most evenings com­ing back from the day’s re­port­ing. They are po­lite, not the drunken and dan­ger­ous sol­diery I have en­coun­tered in this coun­try be­fore. But this is the diplo­matic dis­trict; a bet­ter class of soldier is de­ployed here.

I first saw the river back in 1991 dur­ing an at­tempted coup against the then dic­ta­tor Mobutu Sese Seko — and had to flee across to Braz­zav­ille to es­cape the vi­o­lence in Kin­shasa.

An abid­ing mem­ory of that day: I was part of a crowd of sev­eral hun­dred at­tempt­ing to board the ferry for the other side. A se­verely dis­abled woman, one of the many who tried to ex­ist by beg­ging on the streets of Kin­shasa, at­tempted to make her way to­wards the front of the crowd. As she crawled for­wards, a sol­der ap­peared with a whip and set about beat­ing her. No­body paid the slight­est at­ten­tion.

This was Kin­shasa in the time of Mobutu, the most ve­nal dic­ta­tor in African his­tory. From top to bot­tom, the state was rid­dled with cor­rup­tion and the ca­sual bru­tal­ity that it in­flicted upon the weak. We made it across the river to safety.

Congo en­dured an­other six years of Mobutu’s rule be­fore the dic­ta­tor­ship col­lapsed in chaos and war. Bri­tish and French marines ar­rived on the river to evac­u­ate their cit­i­zens.

Out­side my win­dow this morn­ing, the same river but a dif­fer­ent cri­sis, sort of.

Congo is wak­ing up to the re­al­ity that an elec­tion — which was meant to be about change for its 80m cit­i­zens — has de­liv­ered a pres­i­dent, Felix Tshisekedi, whose le­git­i­macy is be­ing called into ques­tion from the out­set.

Let us sim­ply say of Mr Tshisekedi that so far in his po­lit­i­cal life he has not earned a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing no­tably ef­fi­cient or charis­matic. He is the son of a leg­endary po­lit­i­cal fig­ure and in­her­ited the lead­er­ship of his party. Sus­pi­cion is gen­eral that he was al­lowed to win through ma­nip­u­la­tion of the re­sults at the be­hest of the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila.

Ka­bila has been in power for 18 years and only very re­luc­tantly agreed to hold elec­tions af­ter a cam­paign of do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional pres­sure. His own party’s can­di­date polled so poorly it ap­pears he had lit­tle choice but to ac­cept that an op­po­si­tion leader would win. There were two of them up for elec­tion — Mr Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu, a for­mer oil com­pany ex­ec­u­tive with a rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty and com­pe­tence. He was also backed by two de­ter­mined op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Ka­bila. The hugely in­flu­en­tial Catholic church had 40,000 ob­servers around the coun­try — and it con­cluded Mr Fayulu had won hand­somely.

There will be days of le­gal wran­gling ahead as Mr Fayulu takes his case to the con­sti­tu­tional court. I met him the other night. He was in­ter­ro­gat­ing a sheaf of re­sults, a po­lite man with the air of a math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor over­whelmed by an avalanche of exam pa­pers over­due for cor­rec­tion. He was an­gry — and it was not the con­fected anger of the ca­reer politi­cian seek­ing to gain a pub­lic re­la­tions edge.

Mr Fayulu came from out­side the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem here and he seemed gen­uinely baf­fled at the out­come. He has lit­tle faith that the court will change the re­sult. Al­ready it feels as if the world has moved on.

In the eyes of the diplo­matic com­mu­nity it is sim­ple: there was an elec­tion; it did not de­scend into chaos; there was al­most cer­tainly a fix — but at least it is an op­po­si­tion leader who be­comes pres­i­dent and not Ka­bila’s own party man; there is calm on the streets.

Given the op­tion, for­eign pow­ers will al­ways go for sta­bil­ity. Or what they per­ceive to be sta­bil­ity. But in places like the DR Congo sta­bil­ity is usu­ally bought at the ex­pense of mean­ing­ful change and of­ten stores up prob­lems for the fu­ture.

The old regime is very much in con­trol here still, con­trol­ling the army, the po­lice, the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and the civil ser­vice. What chance the rad­i­cal re­forms, the root­ing out of cor­rup­tion and crony­ism that might give the mil­lions liv­ing with des­per­ate poverty a fair shot in life?

Look­ing out at the river this morn­ing I think of the roots of all of this. From its in­cep­tion as a state, the Congo has been cursed by the ve­nal­ity and bru­tal­ity of its rulers. When our own Roger Casement came in the late 19th Cen­tury he ex­posed the hor­rors of Bel­gian King Leopold’s ex­ploita­tion of a ter­ri­tory he had made his pri­vate state.

In­de­pen­dence in 1960 saw the as­sas­si­na­tion of the coun­try’s first prime min­is­ter, Pa­trice Lu­mumba, af­ter a plot in­volv­ing Bel­gian and US in­ter­ests who thought him a So­viet stooge. He was not, but his an­ti­colo­nial rhetoric alarmed the Bel­gians who re­tained wide com­mer­cial in­ter­ests in the coun­try. The DR Congo is one of the most min­eral rich coun­tries in the world.

A se­ces­sion­ist war stran­gled the coun­try at birth. The United Na­tions sent peace­keep­ers — among them around 6,000 Ir­ish troops who served be­tween 1960-64. It was our na­tion’s first peace­keep­ing de­ploy­ment and a state­ment that Ire­land would play its part in try­ing to cre­ate a safer world. Twenty-six Ir­ish­men lost their lives in the Congo. UN troops are still dy­ing here in the cause of an elu­sive peace.

I was never con­vinced these elec­tions would mark the turn­ing of a de­ci­sive page. The rot is too old and too deep.

My sense is that things will mud­dle on. The 4.5m peo­ple dis­placed by war will not re­gain their old lives. There is an Ebola cri­sis in the north east that shows no sign of abat­ing. The wealth of the coun­try will not be used for the ben­e­fit of the masses. Yes, the coun­try had a largely peace­ful elec­tion. It came about be­cause civil so­ci­ety re­fused to al­low Pres­i­dent Ka­bila to cling to power him­self.

The new man may yet sur­prise us all — but the longer term hope lies in the count­less thou­sands who or­gan­ised and cam­paigned for democ­racy. They haven’t gone away.

In the early 20th Cen­tury a renowned Ir­ish­man spoke of a coun­try “where all your rights be­come only an ac­cu­mu­lated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to sub­sist in their own land… to gar­ner the fruits of their own labours.”

The Congo cam­paigner Roger Casement was by then speak­ing of his own coun­try but his words ap­ply to the DR Congo now.

The real dan­ger would if the ma­jor­ity here came to see democ­racy as an ex­er­cise which de­liv­ered noth­ing but the same ac­cu­mu­lated wrong. Fer­gal Keane is a BBC spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent and Africa ed­i­tor

CONGO: In­de­pen­dent ob­servers con­cluded Martin Fayulu had won the DRC’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion

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