Tuesday, November 28, 2006

DRC: Volcanoes, rebel attacks and tense elections all in one day

What other country can boast such diverse forms of crippling instability, all occuring simultaneously? If the Bemba fanatics in Kinshasa dont lynch you for speaking Swahili and supporting Kabila, Nkunda's men around Goma will gladly terminate you on suspicion of 'oppressing Tutsis'. And don't go seeking refuge in the wilds around Goma, as you're sure to get cooked by fresh lava flows from Mt. Nyamuragira, which erupted last night just outside of town.

Official election results were announced last night by Supreme Court officials in Kinshasa. They spoke under heavy armed guard from their temporary digs in the Ministry of the Interior, following last week's incendiary ravaging of the Supreme Court building by rabid Bemba supporters. Never has the thirst for lawlessness been more accurately expressed. Dont care for rule of law? Just burn down the Supreme Court.

In any other country, tanks would have flooded the streets in retaliation, and martial law immediately declared. In Kinshasa, police forces stood agape for a few reflective moments before the ravenous crowd of assailants, and promptly fled. UN peacekeepers arrived after the fact. The national army did not respond. Days later, Kabila formally asked Bemba to remove some of his estimated 1000-strong private army, of which around 60 were reported to have left the city. Congolese pundits blamed the international community for letting this 'blow to the heart and soul of Congo's national integrity' transpire uncontested, and in broad daylight. When will Congolese leaders assume the minimum of responsibility for their predicament?

From the BBC election graphic above one notes the clear division in voter preference between East and West, as though little mattered more than the geographical origin of the candidates themselves. Throughout their respective campaigns, neither candidate ever developed much in the way of political platform or agenda for reform. It was largely a high school popularity contest, costing the international community over $400 million. The cult of personality as the primary ingredient of political success in the Congo has changed little from the Mobutu era. Old habits, like dictators, die hard.

Now, Kabila has five years to address the country's problems, or will otherwise (one hopes) be voted out of office. Perhaps that in itself is worth all the effort, risk and cost of introducing democratic process to this country. Immediate benefits are intangible at this point.

On a different front here in the far East of the country, on the Rwandan border, the town of Goma has been on tenterhooks these last few days for very different reasons. Dissident general Laurent Nkunda of the national army has been rallying his forces to take the town of Sake, some 15 miles from Goma.

His apparent intention was to repeat his bloody takeover of Bukavu in June 2004. Then, UN peacekeepers stood by and watched, as the national army itself was crushed by Nkunda's powerful but limited number of men. This time, however, MONUC forces were intent on defending Goma, and spent much of yesterday reclaiming Sake and pursuing Nkunda's men with a combination of ground fire and helicopter gunships.

[displacements in Sake]

Nkunda's attack was reportedly triggered by the summary execution of a Tutsi man at a Sake checkpoint, a man with direct ties to Nkunda. Given Nkunda's pretense of defending his oppressed Tutsi brethren across eastern Congo, the murder provided a convenient pretext to begin military operations again, silent since August 2006.

Having been routed by MONUC forces, today the rumor is that Nkunda is ready to negotiate, although his exact terms and conditions are not clear. Amnesty for war crimes committed during his Bukavu invasion are likely among them.

On a final front, just outside Goma at 8pm last night, Mt. Nyumalugira erupted, sending lava 150m into the night sky. There is no threat to the town or its residents, as happened with Nyiragongo in January 2002. Goma town was eviscerated, and thousands were displaced. Whether the gods are crazy, angry or celebrating current events in Congo, no one bothers to speculate. Brute life soldiers on.

[satellite image of Goma, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira]

Friday, November 24, 2006

Rwanda: France weighs in on genocide

In the event of any lingering doubts you might have about the facts of the Rwandan genocide, have no fear. France is now the self-proclaimed expert on what triggered the genocide, and who is responsible. A French court has issued warrants for their arrest. The indicted happen to be nine of President Paul Kagame's closest government aides--including armed forces chief James Kabarebe and army chief-of-staff Charles Kayonga.

They are accused of involvement in the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwanda's former president - an incident the French judge claims sparked the mass slaughter.

The elephant in the room here is the preposterous notion that the downing of then President Habyarimana's aircraft was what triggered the genocide. The French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, is investigating the case because the crew of the plane were French and the families filed a case in France in 1998. The credibility of the case appears to rest on a brazen re-reading of history, whereby the Hutu extremists who murdered over 800,000 Tutsis were somehow directed or at least in collaboration with the Tutsi-led army (RPF), supposedly directed by Kagame from exile in Uganda.

Go France! Invent the facts and make it up as you go--the rest of the world does it equally shamelessly!

I cant believe anyone is taking this seriously. Habyarimana's assassination by surface-to-air missile and the assassination of 800,000 Tutsis by machete and petrol fires are separate events. Thousands of eyewitnesses and survivors to the genocide have already attested to the identity of hundreds of convicted genocidaires, all Hutu, most unapologetic: none of them claimed direction or affiliation from Kagame, or any other Tutsi on the planet. Why would they?

BBC and AFP have been reporting on recent developments:

"The French allegations have sparked anger in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where around 25,000 people are reported to have taken part in a government-organised demonstration against France. Foreign Minister Charles Murigande told AFP news agency Kigali had recalled its ambassador to Paris as they didn't "see why he should be there at this point"." I'm tempted to drive over to Kigali this weekend and savor all the anti-French ruckus.

On an entirely different front -- I'm a big fan of flags, so I cant avoid commenting on Rwanda's 'new look'.

Here's the new Rwandan flag, since Kagame took power after the events of 1994. It looks kind of South Pacific to me, less austere than the old one below.

Such was the old Rwandan flag, so devoid of creativity they had to put a big 'R' in the middle to distinguish it from the dozens of other African countries with this same color format.

Monday, November 20, 2006

DRC: Effects of Kabila's victory

Last week's announcement of the final results from the presidential elections were met with widespread celebration here in the Eastern provinces. I was in Beni, a commercial center in the Grand Nord part of North Kivu province, and everyone went wild. Not so in the Western provinces, particularly in Kinshasa, where Bemba had the majority. "Awa tozo sepila, kuna na Kin bazo lela" was the assessment of one smiling man here. (Here we're celebrating, there they're crying). Kabila won with 58.3% percent of the vote; turnout was pretty poor but I dont have the exact figure.

Bemba, the loser, claims he will contest the elections through legal process, which remains to be seen. Kinshasa is still tense, but no acts of violence since the announcement have been reported.

Here in Ituri it is relatively calm, although populations continue to be displaced in clashes between FARDC (govt army) and local militia groups. As the wider Congolese context is pacified, Ituri no longer qualifies as a 'war within a war', as was long the case. Kabila's election is likely to have a positive effect on the disarmament negotiations with local militia leaders, currently underway. Three leaders of different groups "want to be generals in Kabila's army" (they probably didnt vote Bemba!), and this may provide the carrot that should string them down the path of pacification. They are also demanding amnesty from ICC indictment, which remains to be seen. DRC government negotiators are in the area now meeting with the three leaders, something that has never been able to transpire in the past.

Kinshasa voted in favor of Bemba, from Equateur province north of Kinshasa, claiming he's the "son of the soil" (mwana mboka) -- not Kabila, who they argue is really a Rwandan, nor does he speak Lingala. The two candidates represent the two major cultures (east and west) defining and dividing the national psyche. The electoral contest has strained the limits of their compatibility: between east and west, that is.

Perhaps this grievance will abate with time, particularly if Kabila actually does something to improve the lot of the country, which wouldn’t be hard since its lows have never been lower. Political will to do so has been absent in this country for 40 years. For reasons I find incredibly myopic, people in Kinshasa think that whoever runs the country has to speak lingala and hail from Equateur, like Mobutu.

Very little time to blog or even breathe here but hope to catch up soon.

Friday, November 10, 2006

DRC: ICC 'pre-trial' hearing of Ituri militia leader

From a recent Human Rights Watch press release:
"Under rebel leader Thomas Lubanga, in ICC custody since March 2006, the Union des Patriotes Congolaises committed serious crimes in Ituri, including murder, torture, rape and mutilation of civilians. "

[Lubanga with underage cannon fodder]

"For example, UPC combatants under the leadership of Lubanga slaughtered at least 800 civilians on the basis of their ethnicity in the gold mining region of Mongbwalu between November 2002 and June 2003. More than 60,000 civilians have been slaughtered by armed groups in Ituri since the beginning of the conflict, according to the UN."

Human Rights Watch further reports that Lubanga's case will be considered for sufficient evidence before passing to trial, although the only current charges against him concern the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Numerous other rebel leaders, active in Ituri and elsewhere, have much blood on their hands but have been given military posts in the newly integrated national army as a means of securing the cessation of hostilities.

Impunity for rebel leaders is a useful bargaining tool when trying to pacify on the cheap, as the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo is learning. Lubanga was handed over to the ICC as a 'stick' to encourage other rebels to concede to ceasefire terms, though this is not working out as planned. For victims and their families, an ICC trial of Lubanga on the basis of child soldiers is mere theatre, a miniscule comfort given the scale of carnage associated with this war. Yet this possibility for justice in the Hague is the only light in Congo's legal darkness, whose judiciary system is non-existent and revenge the only form of justice available to victims today.

Read the ICC press release here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Congo's Pygmies: Can they be 'made equal'?

For 2007 UN agencies are considering intensive programming aimed at establishing the equal rights of Congolese Pygmies (Bambuti and other groups) long denied by the Bantu groups dominating Congolese society, politics and administration. There is little to romanticize in the Pygmy's remote and rustic lifestyle, whose perpetuation is largely the direct result of relentless discrimination by the Congolese majority.

A National Geographic site covers their status in the country today, complete with accusations of cannibalism committed against various Pygmy groups by presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba's armed group, the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC). The degree to which they are subjected to an unparalleled degree of humiliation, ridicule and abuse by Bantu groups across the country explains their currently abject state.

Within the last five years, I have had the occasion to work directly with Pygmy groups outside Isiro, Orientale, and in the Mai Ndombe region of northern Bandundu. In both instances I was struck by the automatic and fierce prejudice with which they were treated by the surrounding Bantu Congolese, people who were living at basically the same level of extreme indigence and dispossession as the Pygmies themselves. The other primary characteristic of their misery was the degree to which they had internalized the Bantu discourse of their inferiority and ignorance.

They were at such a nadir that they actually believed the racist slander to which they were constantly subjected; their inferiority complex was total and all-consuming. Every aspect of their lives was to them proof not of the injustice of the discriminatory discourse around them but of their own failure, their incompetence, their baseness. Their identity as they expressed it in focus group discussions consisted precisely of the very insults they heard throughout their lives from their Bantu neighbors. It was stunning and tragic—they were totally brainwashed. I would not be surprised if the majority of Pygmy communities in the DRC suffered this same degree of self-abnegation, the result of the extreme prejudice and humiliation to which they are constantly subjected.

I am curious to see how the UN approaches this issue: clearly Congolese society is at fault, rife as it is with profound racism and prejudice towards its original inhabitants. Project proposals I have seen base themselves on UN legal precedents recognizing and protecting the rights of indigenous groups, based on the principle of 'autochthony'.

I’m not convinced that in a Congolese context the autochthony argument is the most appropriate to defend/restore their rights and equality. Autochthony as the right to equal treatment of oppressed indigenous groups has its role in international law, although I'm quite sure no such precedent exists in Congolese law.

But are victimhood and a history of oppression the most constructive rhetorical arguments to restore equality between peoples? Victimhood as a tool of empowerment—'victimhood' being a placeholder for autochthony given the oppression indigenous peoples have universally experienced—does not seem to result in sustainable integration or equality between peoples; it simply perpetuates a discourse of difference, resentment and the ‘you owe us’ mentality. If such is the result, I dont see how it can serve the objectives of integration or equality at all.

Even the Congolese see themselves largely as the ‘victims’ of Rwanda, the international community, colonialism, ad infinitum, to the point where they take no responsibility for their predicament because ‘the world owes them’. As anyone who has spent a long time in this country would agree, this enormous and largely vacuous grievance has achieved nothing for the Congolese. My sense is that autochthony—often a sanitized synonym for ‘oppressed group’—as a rhetorical argument to assert the equality of minorities can backfire with disastrous consequences. What worse fate for the Pygmies to go from the frying pan into the fire by trying to beat back ingrained Bantu prejudice with the victim argument... . But, who knows, there are definitely no geniuses at the helm.

More as the 'plotting for Pygmy equality' unfolds...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Trade not Aid": Whither the China-Africa Summit?

From the BBC today: "Beijing is plastered with billboards announcing the China-Africa summit taking place this weekend to highlight the huge and growing relationship with the continent. The summit, called the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, began on Friday and is being attended by the heads of state and government officials from nearly 50 African nations.

Beijing has been busy wooing Africa in recent years. Trade between the two sides is expected to exceed £27bn this year but the Chinese presence has also drawn criticism. The US and the European Union say that China is dealing with what it calls the repressive regimes of Angola and Sudan, ignoring the wishes of the international community. China has been criticised for ignoring human rights and failing to meet environmental standards. However, increasingly reliant on Africa's resources, Beijing defends its actions.

Trade between the world's fastest-growing economy and the 49 African countries it has diplomatic relations with, increased tenfold from £2bn to nearly £20bn over the past 10 years."


The Chinese approach to African development is strictly business, avoiding the 'nation building', governance concerns and 'rights-based assistance' that inform the Western strategy, particularly the UN, donor governments, the World Bank and NGOs. The absence of these carrot-stick methods used by the West is welcome news to many African governments, particularly its most infamous rights abusers, such as Sudan, Angola and DRC--which happen to possess its greatest natural resources.

Will trade with China replace the Western aid machine in Africa's most troubled countries? Twenty to thirty years of foreign aid going to Africa from Western governments have had little impact, and most places are far worse off than they were at the time of independence. This is not the direct fault of the foreign aid machine, of course, but its sustained efforts are not having the desired effect.

Liberal economists and libertarians in the West should laud the Chinese invasion, because the constant hand-holding in the form of charity and aid subsidies by Western institutions has arguably generated a welfare state -- precisely the opposite approach to the domestic policies applied in the US, UK and elsewhere to bootstrap the indigent and marginalized up and out of their dispossessed state. If only the Western aid machine actually created jobs for the beneficiaries of its assistance, I could better defend its presumptions about 'good governance', democracy, and human rights.

Africa's poverty is its greatest challenge since colonialism, that much is incontrovertible. It may well be that increased trade with China allows the man in the street to improve his lot, even as Africa's worst governments remain the unaccountable, cronyistic and self-interested institutions they are today. If so, individuals will stand a better chance of prospering, even if their governments continue to be criminal and inept.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

DRC: Article on predatory governance

Research I conducted in 2004 in the DRC on the predatory practices of local administrators and the forces of order were documented in a series of internal reports. In 2005 a summary analysis of these practices and their impact on civilian livelihoods was accepted for publication by Disasters: The Journal of Disaster Studies, Policy and Management. The article, entitled "Democratic Republic of Congo: Undoing government by predation," is finally being published.

But isn't the data obsolete? I wish it were; I wish Congo were a completely different place today. Unfortunately little has changed, and the basic humanitarian and economic indicators remain as low as they were in 2004. The study is thus still relevant to the current landscape in DRC. While I dont have the right to post it here, if you are interested let me know by email and I'll send one along.

Here's an outtake from the Executive Summary:

"(...) Government by predation is an endemic and systematic feature of the civil and military administration, ensuring the daily economic survival of soldiers and officials, who are able to wield their authority in a 'risk free' environment, without oversight or accountability. The paper's conclusion tries to make sense of the persistence of corruption in social and political life, and assesses the capacity of ordinary citizens to reverse their predicament."