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