Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Hoping for the Best Brings the Worst

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Hoping for the Best Brings the Worst

Article excerpt

"Congo's been bleeding to death for five centuries," John le Carre has a character declare in his new Africa novel, The Mission Song. "Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, the mineral companies, half the world's carpetbaggers, their own government in Kinshasa, and any minute now they're going to be fucked by the oil companies. Time they had a break ..."

Time they had a break, indeed. But as the second round of presidential elections approaches in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it strikes me that le Carre could have added yet one more candidate to his magnificent roll-call of those who have royally screwed the former Zaire: the naive souls who believe in democracy's capacity to heal all wounds.

On 29 October, the DRC goes to the polls in a run-off between President Joseph Kabila and his nearest rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba. The first round was by no means glitch-free, but the foreign donors who spent $420m organising a vote across a country where tarmacked roads are often only a memory none the less pulled off a logistical miracle.

As Peter Cook told the one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan: "I've got nothing against your right leg. Trouble is, neither have you." Like him, I've got nothing against the international community's role in staging the Congolese elections--but there is simply not enough to stand against that achievement. And the absence of that second limb risks ensuring that the $420m, like the billions more that are spent keeping the world's biggest UN peacekeeping force in situ, ends up as money down the drain.

After six years of a civil war that neither the government nor the various rebel groups in the DRC proved capable of winning, it made sense to get the parties around a table. At Sun City in South Africa, the Kinshasa government agreed with rebel warlords to set up a transitional administration, organise elections and let Congo's citizens decide who should run the place. It would be the first time in four decades, after all, anyone had bothered to ask their opinion.

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A laudable principle. So why are residents, diplomats and UN officials in Kinshasa "scared witless", as a veteran Congo watcher told me?

This is not hysteria; the ingredients for serious trouble are all in place. A new form of xenophobia between Lingala-speaking westerners, who regard themselves as "sons of the soil", and Swahili-speaking easterners, rejected as "foreigners", is being stoked by television stations owned by the two candidates. Unpaid soldiers, whose wages are routinely pocketed by their commanders, roam at will. …

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