Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

cc Returning to DRC for the first time since 1996, Lansana Gberie finds that a little cash comes in handy for dealing with bureaucracy and that it is impossible to get anything done without a ‘fixer’. Considering the conflicts in the country’s history, Gberie notes that in Congo ‘money is always at the centre of the bigger drama of suffering’ and that justice – or the interests of victims of mass atrocities – has had to be subordinated to wider geopolitical interests. Leaving Kinshasa after just over a week, Gberie finds himself feeling that he is ‘in a place whose future has come and gone’.

As soon as I saw the very exact note directing me from the plane through immigration and to the parking lot outside, I knew that even among the awkward spots in troubled Africa, the Congo still remained a special place. Because there was no Congolese mission in Monrovia where I could obtain a visa, my colleagues in Kinshasa had to get me first a ‘Visa Volant’ (or ‘Flying Visa’), a neat, carefully designed and apparently tamper-proof document that looks as official as national paper currencies. It was of course money – US$100 – and I would have to pay another US$60 for the actual visa when I got to the airport in Kinshasa.

My colleague Mirna Adjami, an old Congo hand, had sent me the following note via email a few days before I boarded a Kenya Airways flight to Kinshasa: ‘As you can see from the amount of stamps and signatures needed [on the ‘Visa Volant’], Congo is still in that stage of bureaucracy sadly,’ she wrote matter-of-factly. ‘We'll send a facilitator, Mr. David, who will try to find you as you are making your way to the immigration line… You will exit the airplane onto the tarmac, walk on the yellow striped line to the building, [and] you will have to first present your yellow fever vaccination card, and then you are in the immigration waiting room. Mr. David should find you there and will have the originals with him to give to the agent. From there, he'll bring you to the lounge and he will then take care of getting your baggage – please be sure to keep your baggage tag receipts for him to get your baggage… and then the parking lot [where a car would be waiting.]’

For this occasion, Mr. David had an official title – protocol officer, a grand contrivance meaning only ‘fixer’. He must be superbly experienced, for Mr. David – a young man probably in his late twenties, of medium height and carefully-dressed, with a well-barbered head of hair – picked me out among more than two dozen arrivals in the great Congo heat on the tarmac and, with a smile (as though he had met me before), shuffled me into a cluttered room where several officials sat, busily fidgeting with passports. I am familiar with this scene – Monrovia airport is not much different. But the presence of all those ubiquitous fixers, I told myself, is somewhat new: It must be a purely Congo thing. And there was that seriousness, borne as much out of avarice as of ignorance, that the officials asked for yellow fever vaccination card. I didn’t have it: One doesn’t really get seriously bothered about it in West Africa, except if one looks like a complete stranger. An enlarged visage of the very rotund former President – and the father of the current one – the bovine former gold smuggler and career pseudo-revolutionary Laurent Kabila, is the first to greet the passenger upon arrival, the prominence of the gleaming and unreliable face a reminder, if any were needed, that not much has changed since Kabila’s assassination in 2003.

The airport was not at all a busy place, and the officials seem to have plenty of time on their hands to deal with the two dozen or so passengers from the small Kenya Airways flight. The eyes of the man questioning me glittered when I told him that I did not have the yellow fever vaccination card. He lost control of his smile, which quickly, almost instinctively, became a grimace. He finally told me that this would have to cost me US$60. I protested, told him I had no money, and that in any case asking for the card is pointless because it is of no use whatsoever. We finally settled on US$20 when I insisted that anything more than that would require a receipt. My passport was stamped, and Mr David took me outside to the car in the parking lot. He went back to get my luggage.

I was last in the Congo in late 1996. It was not long after the horrors of Rwanda. The Congo wasn’t really my brief, but while in the region in October that year, the Governor of South Kivu – perhaps on the orders of the ailing, decrepit Mobutu; perhaps not – announced the expulsion of an ethnic group the name of which, once barely known beyond eastern Congo, now had great resonance: Banyamulenge. The Banyamulenge are ethnic Tutsi, and they are a numerically insignificant minority in eastern Congo, their position somewhat analogous to the Mandingo in Liberia. Two years before, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had been massacred in Rwanda, but the country was now ruled by the minority Tutsi. Meanwhile, thousands of former soldiers of Rwanda (FAR) and the Interhamwe – spearheads of the Rwandan genocide – had moved into vast Congo, reorganised and rearmed with support from Mobutu, and were launching increasingly deadly attacks on Congolese Tutsis (the Banyamulenge) and Rwanda itself. Was another genocide in the making? The region had moved back to the centre of global news interest.

The lines of anxiety ran very deep, touching very powerful nerves across the region and beyond. Rwandan and Ugandan forces intervened with massive force, carefully choreographing their invasion as an internal rebellion led by Kabila, which in quick order overthrew Mobutu and installed Kabila as President of the Congo. A second ‘rebellion’ was soon to happen after the opportunistic Kabila fell out with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, triggering intervention by several African states and what came to be known as Africa’s first world war. Twelve years on, with more than three million Congolese killed as a result of these conflicts, the Banyamulenge were once again at the centre of events in the Congo.

A few days before I arrived, the powerful Rwandan army had entered eastern Congo and very quickly arrested Laurent Nkunda, a Banyamulenge and leader of the ethnically-based and until then seemingly invincible Congrès National pour le Défense du Peuple (CNDP). Rwanda had been the key backer of Nkunda’s CNDP, which since August last year had renewed attacks against Congolese forces in the Kivu province, routing the rabble of Congolese army contingents, and embarrassing the 7,000 strong UN force in the province. An estimated 250,000 people fled their homes as a result of Ndunda’s attacks, which were characterised by appalling atrocities, including mass rape and widespread looting and massacres. This wave of refugees joined an estimated one million others who had fled the instability in the Kivus.

Nkunda – a swashbuckling former Congolese army officer with the distinctive sharp features of Rwanda’s Tutsi – claimed that the conflict is about defending the Tutsi community from the threat of Rwandan Hutu rebels operating in eastern Congo (reputedly numbering about 6,000), remnants of the Interhamwe and the FAR mentioned above who had come to form the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda FDLR), a claim which carries some justice. But the continuing atrocities had become an embarrassment for Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame; very credible recent reports, in particular one by a UN panel of experts, had detailed extensive links between the renegade Nkunda and Kagame. Britain – Rwanda’s most generous bilateral donor – threatened to cut aid. This made the stubborn Kagame open to mediation efforts by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and an unexpected (and secret) agreement between the Rwandan and Congolese governments was signed.

The agreement gave Rwanda free pass to deal with the Interhamwe within the Congo itself, with the condition that it helps disarm the CNDP. Suddenly, it seems, the Congolese government had awakened to a stunning fact: The insignificant Hutu minority in the Congo is entirely expendable, and Banyamulenge minority, because of the existence of a Tutsi government in neighbouring Rwanda, is not. That the conflict was also fuelled by the attempts to control the Kivus’ rich minerals – Cassiterite (tin ore), gold, coltan (an essential component of mobile phones) and wolframite (from which tungsten is derived) – is a matter that, in the Congo, is always taken for granted. So once again in the Congo new problems are about the old, and money is always at the centre of the bigger drama of suffering.

Whatever may happen to Nkunda is another matter altogether. Although there was much talk when I was in the Congo that he may be handed over to the Congolese government to be tried, no one I spoke to seriously believed this will happen, and no-one – certainly not the Congolese authorities – was seriously calling for it. Perhaps President Kabila would relish a show trial of Nkunda but he doubtless will cringe at the implication – it would open up demands for more trials.

Not that the Congolese are indifferent to what was going on. There was much optimism following Nkunda’s arrest that peace in the last main violent province in the country was coming. But another trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, that of Lubanga in The Hague, appeared to be faltering rather badly. Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord, stands accused of recruiting child soldiers and other perverse acts of opportunistic and murderous warfare.

But while I was in the Congo, one of the biggest news stories was of a key prosecution witness, an alleged former child soldier who had claimed to have been recruited by Lubanga, recanting his testimony and blaming international NGOs for setting him up to lie about Lubanga. A few days later this same witness re-asserted his former allegation – that Lubanga indeed recruited him as a child soldier – but the damage was done. It is one of the perils of this kind of prosecution, my colleague, a Harvard-trained lawyer told me. Prosecutors like to have sensational witnesses to have a grip on the news cycle (such trials, after-all, are geopolitics of sort) but the law court is a slug – more prose rather than poetry. Childhood memoirs may read very well – notice Ishmael Beah’s very garnished tale about fighting in Sierra Leone as a child soldier, A Long Way Gone – but they are inherently unreliable.

A day after I arrived, my colleague and I visited an old friend in Kinshasa, the heavyweight activist and Congolese patriot Baudouin Hamuli, the director general of Centre National d'Appui au Developpement et a la Participation Populaire (CENADEP). The highly educated and English-speaking Hamuli stayed on in the Congo, after a long study abroad, through all its depredations since the 1980s. Hamuli is from South Kivu, and he is the Congolese coordinator of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. ‘In more than 12 years we now have the best opportunity to reunite the country and ensure peace. Our key concern now is reintegrating Nkunda’s forces within the Congolese army,’ Hamuli told us. ‘For three times Nkunda refused a comfortable exile in South Africa, but that’s a Rwanda problem now.’ A Rwanda problem, overriding concern for the Congolese, in other words, is peace, something that this blighted, unfortunate country has rarely enjoyed since King Leopold of Belgium conquered it in the nineteenth century, ushering in a reign of terror – for criminal appropriation – that led, by some estimates (including one by the eminent Belgian historian Jan Vansina), to the death of 10 million Congolese.

[In fact the Congolese government announced a new arrest warrant for Nkunda in February, and said it would pursue his extradition. Few took this seriously: At the same time as announcing this new warrant, the Congolese authorities named Bosco Ntaganda, a former aide to Nkunda who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to face charges of war crimes, deputy commander of joint Rwandan-Congolese operations in eastern Congo. Bosco had ousted Nkunda as leader of the CNDP, and is now cooperating with the Congolese authorities. So now ‘in the interest of peace’, Congo is protecting the notorious Bosco. As always in the Congo, justice – or the interests of victims of mass atrocities, has had to be subordinated to wider geopolitical interest.]

Hamuli had mentioned incorporating the CNDP into the Congolese army. But no one that I met in the Congo had much to say about this army: A bloated and ineffective rabble notorious for its proneness to flight from battle engagement and, of course, looting, raping and pillaging the villages it passes through. A recent census conducted by the European Union put the number of Congolese soldiers (nominally) under the control of the government at 120,000, with 19,000 of them to be retired. The census is part of an elaborate plan to ‘right-size’ the army. At Sun City in South Africa in 2002 (when the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement was signed), all the factional armies – including those of the government – registered as the new Congolese army 300,000 fighters – a fraudulent contrivance which has been one of the main obstacles to the rather half-hearted (and poorly coordinated) security sector reform (SSR) process in the country. In the event, Nkunda’s merely 3,000-strong, well-armed force easily routed vastly bigger Congolese contingents sent against it on many occasions, only retreating after Rwanda’s elite forces entered eastern Congo.

I got these figures from a Western embassy, which is making limited, but significant, investment in the SSR process, mainly in police reform. The project had been going on for about two years, but the embassy official dealing with it did not know the actual figures for Congo’s police. Like most Francophone countries, Congo has two sets of police forces – the national police and the police force for the Ministry of Justice. The two are supposed to play complementary roles, but in the Congo this is part of a very long wish list. Even the actual size is unknown, I was told by a foreign official involved in the process at an embassy reception in Kinshasa. The national police is estimated to be 15,000 strong, a ridiculously small figure for even Kinshasa, which has an estimated population of anywhere from six to eight million.

The European Union, which has a significant presence in Kinshasa, has made police reform a key focus of its involvement in the Congo. We had an hour-long meeting with senior officials at the EU’s massive Kinshasa offices, and another with EU officials and several Congolese chief of police inspectors at a special office for police co-ordination in downtown Kinshasa. They have plans, documents, graphs and maps impressively displayed on walls, budgets here and there, but there appeared very little substantial progress – as they themselves readily admitted, slightly embarrassed about the curious little fact that even the actual size of the Congolese police remains unknown about seven years after the Sun City Agreement was signed. A scheduled meeting with the Congolese Chief Police Officer (incongruously a former army General) did not materialise: He got stuck in the chaos of Kinshasa traffic caused by the flooding that resulted from that morning’s downpour.

It is the enduring pathos of the Congo: The country began as a lie, and has remained, in spite of the reality of immense suffering, as a state something of a myth. The enterprise that began as the International Association for the Civilisation of Central Africa, then later, more fraudulently still, the Congo Free State, was conceived as broad daylight robbery, a brutal money-making venture. It has not changed much from that original conception. Even the current official name, Democratic Republic of Congo, is, as long-term Congo specialist Crawford Young has cautioned, bogus. Youngs calls the ‘democratic’ title ‘a grotesque misrepresentation of political practice’. The previous name, Zaire, was no better, a nonsense contrivance of the kleptocrat Mobutu. For Congo the phrase ‘banalisation of insecurity’ (Crawford Young) feels very apt indeed.

A day after the meeting with the EU officials, I participated in a high profile discussion on police reform. I presented a paper on the experience of Liberia; a day or two before I this series papers had been presented on the (relatively) more successful experiences of South Africa and Sierra Leone. A large number of Congolese police officers attended, including the Police Chief I had not met earlier, as well as dozens of EU police trainers and officials. As I spoke about the challenges faced by the Liberian National Police (LNP) and the poor relationship between them and civilians, the Congolese officers exploded in laughter and applause. I was slightly confused by this, staggered. Later a foreign security expert working in the Congo told me that I had at last given the Congolese police something to cheer: Now they know that they are probably in rather good company and may not be the worst police force in the world, after all!

So that night, in my hotel room in downtown Kinshasa, on the sprawling boulevard celebrating the Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 – in an area that, even in its decrepit, unkempt state, with rain water creating huge streams making roads impassable, is still suggestive of French ideas of cafes and wide boulevards – I reflected on some of my meetings in Kinshasa. I kept thinking about a story written by Joseph Conrad, who in 1890 visited the Belgian Congo several times. It was not the famous Heart of Darkness but the more mordant An Outpost to Progress. Getting down the coast, Conrad sees two almost derelict tragic-comic Belgian officials, insignificant men made relevant only by the vast powers behind them, Kayerts and Carlier. Idling one day as usual, they find ‘some old copies of a home paper’. The papers are extravagant about ‘Our Colonial Expansion’, speaking ‘much of the rights and duties of civilisation, of the sacredness of the civilising work, and extolled the merits of those who went about bringing light, and faith, and commerce to the dark places of the earth’. Infected by this propagandistic literature, the very simple and insipid Carlier is heard saying one evening, ‘In a hundred years, there will be perhaps a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and – and – billiard-rooms. Civilisation, my boy, and virtue – and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows…were the first civilised men to live in this spot!’ The ‘civilisation’ is very accurately described – quays and warehouses (it is a commercial enterprise) and, of course, billiard tables (civilised traders even in the bush must have their recreation!): Perishable items, junk demanding no higher ideals or labour. As we now know, whatever good these things may have done to the likes of Carlier, they were not that helpful to the Congolese.

I was in the Congo for just over a week, and I did not go beyond Kinshasa. As much as I was tempted, looking at the grand Congo River, I did not take the boat across to the more elegant Brazzaville, visible from Kinshasa. With my colleague I checked up a few places I had known in Kinshasa. The first was the huge former presidential palace grounds – complete with zoo and all that – where Mobutu once lived. When Laurent Kabila took over in 1997, he had his allies and troops shoot up most of the animals and barbecued them. The place now looks derelict, a sullen sprawl. The once grand places in Kinshasa, otherwise so lively and bursting, have this feel: Most of Kinshasa from the air has this look of desolation, rather like Pompeii, almost total ruin. In the city, you see the big cars, the UN vehicles, large embassy houses, and all those earnest uniformed foreign officials looking rather like strange creatures from outer space: Connoisseurs of ruin. And as I took the car to the airport – Mr. David insisting on sitting in the front by the driver to protect me from scavenging police and other security personnel – I remembered a line from V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which is set in a disrupted Congo of the 1970s. The world-weary and cynical narrator reflects in exhaustion at the sheer phoniness of what he’s seen in places like Kisangani: ‘You felt like a ghost, not of the past, but of the future. You felt that you were in a place whose future has come and gone.’ It is clearly Naipaul’s conclusion, and it rang true then, perhaps truer now.

Political pronouncements in the Congo, as a rule, should be deemed to be meaningless until proven otherwise; but a few tantalising developments in recent weeks ought to be recorded. On 23 March, the government signed a peace agreement with the political wing of the CNDP rebel group. The agreement provided for the rapid integration of rebels into the FARDC and the creation of a national mechanism for reconciliation – ritual demands. The most important, and therefore most controversial, provision was the agreement’s call for the swift adoption of an amnesty bill, passed by the National Assembly in July 2008, though both parties found it ‘too restrictive’. This is because though the law amnestied all acts of violence and rebellion committed in North and South Kivu since June 2003, it crucially excluded from these categories acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The Amnesty bill has now been sent to the quaintly-named ‘Commission Paritaire Mixte’ – which is a joint commission of both houses of parliament – to agree on an amendment.

* Lansana Gberie is an academic and writer, and is the author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone and Rescuing a Fragile State: Sierra Leone 2002-2008. He is currently based in Liberia.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at