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The Congo’s Best Chance

21 August 2006

The Congo’s Best Chance

 By Gwynne Dyer

As soon as the election results were announced in Kinshasa on Sunday and it became clear that President Joseph Kabila had won less than half the votes in the first round, the shooting started. Army troops loyal to Kabila showed up outside the compound of the main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba, his guards opened fire (or returned it, depending on whom you believe) — and the United Nations had to send in twenty armoured personnel carriers to extract the American, French, Chinese and other foreign diplomats who had been meeting with Bemba.

Not a happy omen for those who hope that this election can end the long nightmare of the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) by producing a president whom everybody would accept as legitimate. Most people assumed that it would be Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country without benefit of elections since his father, former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, but he only got 45 percent of the votes in the first round of voting.

The runner-up, with 20 percent, was Bemba, who will now face Kabila alone in the second round of voting (probably on 29 October). Bemba will pick up votes from some of the other presidential candidates who were eliminated in the first round, but it’s almost inconceivable that he can catch up with Kabila, so the question is: will Kabila’s victory be the starting gun for another civil war in the Congo?

The Congo, with 60 million people, is one of Africa’s biggest countries, and it has certainly been one of the worst-governed. It has only recently emerged from a civil war that also involved six other African armies and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of four million Congolese. This is its first free election in forty-one years. If your dream is a future of peace and prosperity, you definitely wouldn’t want to start from here.

Yet fully 70 percent of the population turned out to vote. Despite their poverty and all the disappointments of the past, ordinary Congolese still see some hope of a better future — and so do the foreign countries that provided 17,500 troops, the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world, to ensure that the election happened at all. Are they all wrong?

For almost half a century the Congo has been a symbol of how bad things could get in Africa: a huge, resource-rich country where nothing works any more, where even the roads have vanished, where most people live in misery, poverty and despair. But that’s not what most African countries are like, and it needn’t have been the Congo’s fate either.

The Congo got its independence in 1960, but its former Belgian rulers were determined to hang onto the rich mines of Katanga province even if they had to leave the rest of the country, so they sponsored a separatist movement there. When that didn’t work, they and the US government (which feared that the Congo was going Communist) conspired to overthrow the new president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and subsequently had him murdered.

The man who ruled the Congo for the next 32 years, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), was a former sergeant in the colonial army, rapidly promoted to general by Lumumba and then chosen by the CIA to replace him. He stayed in power for a generation by taking over the state’s revenues for himself and his supporters, and NOTHING got spent on maintaining the Congo’s existing infrastructure, let alone improving it. So the country went back to the bush.

Lumumba’s surviving allies fought back, including Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who spent twenty years leading a futile guerilla struggle in eastern Congo. (At one point, in 1965, he even had Ernesto “Che” Guevara and a hundred Cubans helping him, but to no avail.) Kabila ended up in exile in Tanzania, and his son Joseph grew up there, so Joseph ended up speaking Swahili, the lingua franca of Tanzania and the eastern Congo, but not a word of Lingala, the language that serves the same purpose in the western Congo, including Kinshasa — and he speaks French, the Congo’s official language, with an English accent.

Mobutu’s time ran out when the Cold War ended, because without the “Soviet threat” the US lost interest in supporting him. Laurent-Désiré Kabila led a revolt in the eastern Congo that drove Mobutu into exile in 1997, but the war turned into a free-for-all that wrecked what was left of the country, and when Kabila was assassinated in 2001 his son Joseph, aged 29, took over as unelected president. A truce in 2002 brought a kind of peace to the country, but at the expense of making the four biggest warlords vice-presidents.

The current election is an attempt to move past that corrupt but necessary bargain and provide the Congo with a properly elected parliament and president for the first time since 1961. It may not work, and even if it does, the Congo will be starting over again poorer, more divided and less developed than it was at independence 46 years ago.

But if the peace can be kept and the income from the mines can be invested in basic services and infrastructure, the Congo could be transformed in a decade. What is required is not a miracle, but the political stability that comes from democratic legitimacy. The effort is worth making, and it hasn’t failed yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. “For almost…either”; and “Lumumba’s…accent”)

Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

10 February 2006

Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I became a good man after I’d been a bad man for twenty years,” Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC last year, recalling the days when most people saw him as a dangerous rebel. “When I was a guerilla fighting the regimes, I was always being called…all sorts of names, until my usefulness showed up much later. Therefore if I’m being reviled now, this is one of the phases of being misunderstood because the people have not seen what you’re trying to do.”

Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should stay in power for more than ten years, is now in his twentieth year as president, and he changed the constitution last year so that he could run for election yet again. He faces a serious challenge from Dr. Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician, but most people assume that he will win another five year term on 23 February. They also assume that if necessary he will cheat to win.

There is a strong sense of disappointment with Museveni. He took power at the head of a rebel army in 1986, ending twenty years of nightmare rule by two dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin, who had wrecked Uganda’s once-thriving economy and murdered hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. Most foreigners had seen him as just another killer on the make during the years when he waged a guerilla struggle in southwestern Uganda, but once in power he convinced them that he was much more than that.

For ten years he ruled as an autocrat while he restored order to the country, but then he held free elections in 1996 and won the presidency with 74 percent of the votes. Uganda remained dependent on foreign aid for about half of its budget, but Museveni became the aid donors’ favourite recipient.

He won their respect by running a relatively honest and competent government. He invited the Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin to return to Uganda and reclaim their property (though few chose to do so). He waged the campaign against HIV/Aids with an openness that few other African leaders have been able to match, and actually managed to bring the rate of infection down in Uganda.

Bill Clinton held him up as the leading example of a new breed of African leaders, and Britain started giving its foreign aid directly to his government to spend as he wished, abandoning the usual process of choosing specific projects to support and closely supervising how the money was spent. It seemed that Museveni could do no wrong — and then he began to do wrong.

It started with the genocide in Uganda’s southern neighbour, Rwanda. Museveni had given shelter and arms to the Rwanda Liberation Front whose invasion finally ended the killing. The defeated Hutu militia that led the massacres retreated into the eastern Congo, and when it began guerilla attacks from there in 1998 both Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Congo to suppress it. But they stayed to loot the Congo’s mineral riches.

The result for the Congo was an all-against-all civil war that killed several million people. For Uganda it was a huge inflow of illicit funds from stolen Congolese mineral resources, and a huge rise in the wealth and power of the military. Museveni’s Presidential Guard Brigade grew to over ten thousand soldiers, and many of the senior soldiers who had been with him from the earliest days acquired major financial interests whose protection required that Museveni stayed in power.

As late as the 2001 election, Museveni was promising to retire after the five-year term now coming to an end. But Kizza Besigye, who ran against him in that election on an anti-corruption platform, subsequently contested the results on the grounds that Museveni had won by violence and intimidation. He then fled the country after receiving death threats from the military: “I left in order to continue to be politically active rather than being behind bars or six feet under as had been threatened.”

Kizza Besigye returned from South African exile in November to contest this month’s election, and was almost immediately arrested and charged with treason, rape, terrorism and illegal possession of firearms. (There was no room on the charge sheet for the double-parking offences.) He spent December in jail, but the high court freed him on bail in early January despite Museveni’s best efforts, and he is campaigning vigorously for the presidency.

Opinion polling is in its infancy in Uganda, but it seems clear that Besigye leads among the educated, urban section of the population, while Museveni still commands a stronger following among the poor and the uneducated. There are more of the latter, so maybe he can still win honestly. Either way, he is expected to win, and much of the good he has done will probably be undone before he finally goes. Already half a dozen of Uganda’s leading foreign aid donors have suspended direct aid to his government.

What went wrong, above all, was the war in the Congo. Museveni’s senior soldiers, many of them his old companions from the guerilla war days, have grown too rich and powerful, and in a sense he has become their prisoner. It is a sad ending to his story.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“For ten…recipient”; and “As late…threatened”)


29 May 2003

Africa’s Thirty Years War

By Gwynne Dyer

In the next few days a French-led multinational force will begin arriving in the Congo’s north-eastern Ituri province, empowered by the UN Security Council to use “all necessary means”, including force, to stop the bloody struggle between the rival militias of the Lendu and Hema tribes that has killed an estimated 50,000 people and driven half a million from their homes in the past four years. It will have just over a thousand troops, and it will stay only until a Bangladeshi force of similar size arrives in August. It is, in other words, a very small drop in a very big bucket.

The fighting in the Congo since the death of long-ruling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 has been called ‘Africa’s First World War’, with up to six other African armies and dozens of local tribal militias involved in a many-sided struggle for control of the country’s rich resources. The International Rescue Agency, an American aid group, estimated in April that between 3.1 and 4.7 million people have died because of the war, mostly from famine and disease. How are a thousand troops for three months going to cope with a tragedy on this scale?

Well, first of all, it is not like the First World War at all. It is more like the Thirty Years War that killed up to a third of the population of Germany between 1618 and 1648. Like the Congo now, Germany then was more a geographical expression than a real country, with no central authority and no way of protecting itself from rapacious outsiders. The Germans were at each others’ throats, with religious differences playing a similar role to tribal rivalries in the Congo now, but military interventions by foreign powers — the Swedes, the French, the Spanish — made things far worse.

It took longer in 17th-century Germany than in the 21st-century Congo to reach the point where whole cities were depopulated and reports of cannibalism became commonplace (the Pygmy communities of the north-eastern Congo recently protested to the UN that their people were being “hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals” by both government and rebel troops), but Germany also got there in the end.

There is nothing uniquely African about this tragedy, and no particular mystery about how to stop it. It just takes political will on the part of the international community, and a sufficient number of peace-keeping troops with the authority to use “all necessary means” to stop the killing.

An emergency force of a thousand troops in one province isn’t enough. Neither is the larger Monuc force that the UN has maintained in the Congo since the first cease-fire agreement in 1999. It only has 3,800 troops scattered in small packets across the centre and east of the country (its authorised strength is 8,700, but too few countries were willing to contribute troops), and in any case it is an observer force with no right to conduct military operations. But forty or fifty thousand troops with a mandate to use force and to stay for at least two years would probably do the job.

Most of the UN force on the ground could be provided by Africans, even though it would be vital to exclude troops from the countries — Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola — that were most heavily involved in the fighting over the past four years. Western and Asian countries would need to provide communications, logistics, engineering and other specialist units and, above all, the money to pay for the operation. A few billion dollars over two years would cover the cost — the equivalent of one day’s expenditure in the recent war in Iraq.

It would be the biggest UN operation for many years, but it wouldn’t be starting from scratch. There is a formal cease-fire in place, and even an agreement to hold a free election in two years’ time. Most of the foreign armies have already withdrawn — indeed, it was the departure of some 6,000 Ugandan troops from Ituri province in March that unleashed the most recent round of carnage there, as the Hema and Lendu tribal militias originally armed by the Ugandans and their Rwandan rivals fought for control of Bunia, the provincial capital.

The first and worst of the foreign meddlers in the Congo, the Rwandans, would have to have their arms severely twisted. Though they are nominally withdrawing their forces, at least 5,000 Rwandan soldiers have been seconded to their proxy rebel force, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, which still controls a huge chunk of the centre and east of the country. But the perennial Rwandan excuse that their troops are in the Congo to contain the remnants to the Hutu militia that fled there after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has worn thin, and the country is highly vulnerable to pressure because over half its budget is foreign aid.

Rebuilding the Congo after 32 years of corruption and neglect under the Western-backed Mobutu regime and over four years of civil war and foreign intervention is a generation’s task, but ending the fighting and starting it down the right road could be done cheaply and quite quickly. Both the African Union, which would supply most of the troops, and the countries of the European Union, which would probably supply most of the money and the military expertise, would gain some sorely needed cohesion by collaborating in the task, and the UN could win back some respect after a very bad season.

In four and a half years, the Congo has lost between six and nine percent of its people to war. The rest of the world can put a stop to the slaughter now — or we could wait for a decade or two, and see if the Congo can beat Germany’s 17th-century record.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“It took…end”; and”The first…aid”)