Congo, the neighbor from hell
Porfirio Diaz, a late nineteenth to early twentieth century president of Mexico one time said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!” Diaz apparently was flabbergasted by the propensity of the US to meddle (quite often with disastrous results) in the affairs of other countries, and Mexico being neighbor to the badly behaved giant often bore the brunt of that meddling.
One has to wonder what Diaz would say were Mexico to be neighbor to the DR Congo. The man would no doubt be convinced the very devil himself resides in that vast territory. The Congo is a geographic space that is only defined as a single political entity by the mere fact it is surrounded by nine countries. To call the DR Congo a state is a lie. To varying extents, most African states indeed are states only in name, with only a few exceptions (yes, our Rwanda is one of these few exceptions) fulfilling the defining characteristics of a functional nation state – a single national language and culture; a government that exercises control, and has the ability to deliver services to cover its entire geographic area; an entity with institutions universally recognized by the populace throughout that geographic entity. Et cetera.
Going by these yardsticks, at least a dozen Sub-Saharan African countries are failed states; but very few countries anywhere in the world are more spectacularly failed than the DR Congo. I can only think of Somalia, which has been languishing in total anarchy since 1992.
The DR Congo possibly is the country with the most irresponsible, feckless leadership anywhere in the world. (Somalia does not count because it has no body of individuals one would remotely describe as a leadership). The “head of state” of the Congo, Joseph Kabila is nothing more that a young lout who only is president because someone shot his even more loutish father, the late Laurent Desire Kabila, to death. The reason I use quote marks when calling Kabila a head of state is because the man controls nothing beyond the jungles encroaching in the outskirts of his country’s capital Kinshasa, quite easily one of the shabbiest and most dilapidated cities on this continent, a place cynical residents long ago renamed Kin la Poubelle (Kin the Dustbin).
In fact there are no means by which any government, even the most competent one, would control a space like the Congo’s. There are no highways leading outside Kin la Poubelle to any of the far-flung regions beyond the ramshackle capital; no railways to connect one region to the other; no airports worth the name other than jungle airstrips, nothing one would call a rudimentary transportation infrastructure. No telecommunication infrastructure links the country either. In short, there is no conceivable way one would say the Congo’s vast regions answer to Kinshasa. You don’t have to take my word for all that. For other people’s takes, one would suggest British journalist and prolific author, Michela Wrong’s detailed description of the Congo under the late Mobutu in her book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz.
Long after Mobutu was driven out, and died, Kabila and his “government” have never shown any demonstrable commitment to improving the lot of their countrymen and women, the vast majority of whom live under the most miserable conditions on earth.
In addition to the so-called government’s total indifference to addressing the urgent need to begin setting up a transportation or telecommunications infrastructure, Kabila and his cronies are perfectly content with the fact there are no public services, like education, reliable electricity provision, sewage disposal et cetera. There is no health service sector in the country. Only traditional healers and witch doctors, and charlatan “medical doctors” running dilapidated, smelly clinics from which they dispense expired drugs (whenever these may even be available), routinely write up wrong prescriptions, and are only interested in taking money from hapless patients.
Just ask any person who has ever been sick in the areas bordering Rwanda. Dying Congolese populate Rwandan hospitals and health centers, where they have the only fighting chance of recovery from their sicknesses. If a health centre ever existed in the Congo, you can be sure the state doctors long ago pawned off on the grey market whatever miserly medicines the so-called state provided; you can be sure the administrations of any Congolese health centre long ago stole laboratory equipment like microscopes and test tubes and set up their own private clinics and carted off clandestinely whatever they could — furniture, hospital cots, even pencils and notebooks — from the so-called public hospitals.
When you get sick in the Congo, too bad for you. Prepare to die. Or trek a vast distance to Rwanda through road-less terrain, and hope to make it to a health centre before collapsing. If you are a very rich, thieving member of the government, of course that is easy. You can fly out of Kinshasa’s slum of an airport, Ndjili, to Johannesburg to give ultra competent South African doctors vast sums of dollars to provide you first class medical care. After which of course you get to tour Joburg’s wonderful malls, stock up on perfumes and new clothes and electronics such as microwaves and laptops and fly back to your miserable country, to lord it over the miserable hordes of starving citizens.
Again you do not have to take my word for all this, just ask any Congolese who long ago became economic refugees and they will describe a situation even more dire than we can in the limited space we have in this newspaper.
Congolese hairdresser habits
Kabila and his so-called government seem perfectly content with running a country that does not provide even a bare minimum of security to its hapless citizens. The police, the gendarme, are merely armed militias with a fancy name. The only thing they are good at is shaking down motorists, bicycle riders, pedestrians, anyone they can find, for bribes. The “army” is merely a collection of government-sanctioned armed robbers and rapists only good for terrorizing civilians. All these are well-known facts. Anyone who ever has been in the Congo will tell you this. At the first sound of gunfire, “soldiers” of the Congolese army (FARDC), turn tail and run, faster than any member of the Congolese national football team, and disappear into the nearest shrubbery to remove their uniforms underneath which is civilian attire, and then re-emerge to merge with the general civilian population fleeing the gunfire.
Why is the Congo the way it is? There are many explanations, chief of them being historical. Of all our countries with the unfortunate history of having been colonized, the Congo has the most unfortunate past of all.
One would recommend reading American author Adam Hochschild’s meticulously researched King Leopold’s Ghost. The Belgian monarch was a rapacious land grubber and plunderer who could only get away with what he did in the Congo due to the racist context of the times he lived in. Utterly brutalizing the natives is what the Belgian men and women in the service of Leopold did.
Peoples of former colonized lands sometimes make comparisons which colonial power was worst and which was “less bad.” Some colonial powers (Britain mostly) did make a real effort to give something back, even as they plundered natives for the benefit of their country. Railway systems traversed populated areas to provide natives with the benefit of a rudimentary modern transportation systems, as opposed to, say, the Belgian model which was to build railways running through resource rich interiors, to the port strictly to cart off minerals, timber, ivory and other resources to enrich the coffers of Leopold.
British education, healthcare and other systems in the colonies most often were built to benefit even the poorest natives (even as racist Brits used slave labor to build these institutions!) With the Belgian case, well, here is what the statistics say about the education system for instance: by the time the Belgian colonial administration left the Congo in the early sixties, the country had only 19 university graduates.
But Rwanda too was colonized by Belgium. This always forces me to face an uncomfortable other truth, which is that the Congo’s main problem today is its people.
Kabila and his regime are failures with a simple but very cynical calculus to their always-blame-Rwanda game. They look at the starving, miserable masses they preside over, and deflect the anger from themselves, to the Rwandans.
Normally this is a subject one would steer clear away from. It is not acceptable to generalize about people and ascribe traits to whole populations, especially a multi-ethnic, diverse populace like the Congo’s. I have to be clear right from the outset then: a good number of citizens of the Congo, or Congolese anywhere else are cultured ladies and gentlemen, honest and people of integrity.
However if you have been in touch with many Congolese over many years you will notice how Congolese are unreliable in so many ways. A simple example: you are the owner of a beauty salon and you have to hire Congolese hairdressers. Now, I do not know why women like to have their hair done by Congolese, but any hairdressing business in Kigali that hopes to have many clients had better hire Congolese.
Yet the Congolese will drive the owner of the business crazy. The hairdressing guy will demand a three-month salary upfront, and will proceed to work well, for about a couple of weeks. That is when he will start behaving in a funny way. This Congolese man will go to his boss with all kinds of pretexts for more money, “Patron (boss), my mother in Bukavu has died and I need to rush off there for a few days for the funeral and I need another advance, please help!” Next time it will be his child who is sick. Another time his cousin will be getting married. In all cases he will need more “avance” (advances, though he has no advances due to him, having already depleted several months of his salary upon receiving the money upfront). And when he runs out of problems to make up, the Congolese will just disappear, only to be found working at another hairdressers, whom he is busy hitting up for “advances”. Just go to any hairdresser’s in Kigali, they will give you more detailed descriptions of what their Congolese employees do.
When the Rwanda government complains about Kabila and his government reneging on agreements they signed, and when you hear Congolese officials like Lambert Mende and others busy blaming Rwanda for every problem in their country, you immediately see “Congolese hairdresser” behavior in the utterances of Kabila and his officials.
It does not end there. In Brussels for instance, the police has a special unit for dealing with Congolese crime, something that followed an epidemic of shoplifting, pick-pocketing, vandalism and other petty crimes perpetrated by a sizable and growing Congolese community in the Belgian capital.
Congolese behave in unruly ways even in other people’s countries; they are fond of rioting at the slightest excuse, and populate jails in disproportionate numbers.
And nothing seems to set them off like the mention of Rwanda. Everywhere. Congolese will attempt to set fires in London “to protest” against Rwandans! They simply go berserk wherever and whenever Rwanda is mentioned. Right from Kabila, down to the street pickpocket, they will blame Rwandans for each and every problem in their country.
I wonder what a psychologist would make of this. Is this a case of untrammeled envy that the Congolese in their collective ID harbor for Rwanda, this much smaller country which is organized, clean, politically stable, assures decent services to its people? In short, everything the Congo is not, despite the latter’s being vastly more endowed with natural resources that should long ago have been utilized to turn the Congo into the wealthiest country on the continent but instead has been plundered by the country’s buffoon leaders to enrich their Swiss and other foreign bank accounts since independence? I strongly suspect it is something generally along those lines.
Kabila and his regime are failures with a simple but very cynical calculus to their always-blame-Rwanda game. They look at the starving, miserable masses they preside over, and deflect the anger from themselves, to the Rwandans. Even a child would see that.
But that is not the truth some want to see. Kabila is enabled by the likes of Monusco, the feckless UN “peace-keeping” force in eastern Congo which instead of keeping the peace has most often been a problem itself, witness activities like child sexual trafficking, illicit mineral trafficking and other malpractices Monusco personnel have been implicated in in the recent past. Yet the falsehoods the UN peddles about Rwanda through its risible, but highly dangerous reports, is what smug journalists writing for smug publications like the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, or The Economist magazine, or the BBC and a few other Western news organizations too burdened to do any fact checking about goings on in remote African places always jump on to further demonize Rwanda.
Truly there are few things worse than a bad neighbor. And the misfortune we Rwandans will always live with is that the Congo isn’t merely a bad neighbor. It is the neighbor from hell.
Follow Shyaka Kanuma on Twitter: @ShyakaKanuma