Karibu Elections 2011

“Good efternoon Madam, Mossieu; jumbo karibu and BON – JOUR!” The platinum blond, pudgy air hostess of the Soviet era Antonov charter welcomed aboard the assorted mix of ID dangling aid workers and peacekeepers as we walked up the rear cargo ramp, hauling our duffels and back packs.

“Good efternoon ladies and gentlemen; jumbo karibu. — and BON! JOUR!”. She clasped her hands enthusiastically, and with that last bit, dipped a dainty courtesy squeezing tighter in her polyester uniform.

This was my flight to Lumumbashi — 1,500 kms and two time zones later to South Eastern Congo, which means three stops, one plane change and two potential possibilities to get bumped off by someone more worthy on the U.N. roster list.

The U.N. flight from Kinshasa was Canadian owned and operated, starring a hip young male airhost with a slick hairdo and a stud in his ear. The Russian Antonov on the other hand, was to take us the rest of the way in the middle of the Congolese rainforest down close to the Zambian border after a delay of two hours on account of the weather.

“Jumbo Karibu …. No not there…..please to go all the way down…” She momentarily loses her hospitality grin and motions me unceremoniously down the narrow aisle. I look down the cramped walkway and low overhead where the rest of the passengers had been stuffed and instead point behind to several rows of open seats – one of them even with nice legroom.

“That — for VIP!” She snaps, somewhat to the delight of two Russian officers sitting comfortably in the roomy back and continues to usher me down the musty carpet where the co-pilot had now emerged to pack in the rest of the people and the luggage.

“I already looked down there. There is no room. I have a huge bag — see?” I hold up my oversized bag stuffed with the usual – camera, mosquito net, emergency light, first aid kit, rope, etc.

“He said no room?” Apparently referring to the co-pilot. “Don’t pay any attention to him. I tell you, there is room.” She points to a single empty seat next to an oversized man in camouflage and beret, holding his duffel on his lap.

”No. I think I will sit over there.” I reply feeling instantly claustrophic. I turn decisively and walk back toward the cargo rear where the two officers are sitting; in the process revealing the bold print on the back of my vest: International Observer.

“I think over here.” I sit down, shove my bag under the seat and fasten my seatbelt.

“Yes. Ok.” She says, suddenly very agreeable “No problem Madam”

Then she leans down and whispers quietly “How about over there?” She points to the super VIP row with the nice leg room.

“Jumbo karibu fasten seat belt have a pleasant flight.” She recites on auto pilot, then pauses for a moment. “I come back with some nice coffee for you.” She winks at me and walks off.

I stretch out my legs, stow my bag away and lean against the window. The rain begins to pour.

It has been five years since the last elections in Congo. The major opposition party which had boycotted in 2006 is back in full force and they have many followers where I am going. I stared hypnotically at the double wheels as the plane picks up speed, splashing the rain furiously and then takes off.

“Madam, Mossieu, Good efternoon. Jumbo Karibu and Bon Jour. Please fasten seat belt and yourself read the card with safety features in seat pocket. Our flight to Lumumbashi is one hour and half. Jumbo Karibu — Bon Voyage and Safari Njema.”

Autumn in Africa

Last night in Dar es Salaam — the electricity is out again. If I have to pick just one advantage to having a power outage, it is that the megaphone at the corner mosque is also out and the tone deaf mullah who has been wailing the praises of Allah in some unidentified key all month long and at all hours of day and night, can not interrupt the program on the TV which comes back on as the generator kicks in.

The 66th U.N. General Assembly is in session as the political congeniality pageant of 193 Heads of State make their ways up the podium taking turns to out brilliant each other. Some do it through substance, some through controversy, a few even via comic relief. On that third note, those of us who remember Mr. Ghaddafi’s incoherent ramblings last year, muttering and throwing his notes about up there, surely miss him. That just means Ahmadinejad had to perform for two this year which he obliged by delivering an abundance of largely recycled material from previous reruns, taking the snoozing half empty hall from the beginnings of humanity through slavery, colonialism and the Arab Spring; blaming the U.S. for everything since the time of hunter gatherers to today’s debt crisis, finally culminating with the brilliant conclusion that 9/11 was an inside job. Did no one tell this man that the people of the country hosting him just marked the 10th anniversary of this event with a thousand tears a few miles down the road? He did make some valid points however, among which was a show of support for Statehood for the Palestinian delegation, whose members were probably cringing by the time he was done. Do us a favor – don’t help!

To be fair, last year has been so saturated with disasters, both divine and man-made, that it is tempting to dish out blame, especially in light of the ongoing global economic crisis and the Middle East unrest – both of which beg to implicate the U.S. and the West. But it isn’t until Mr. Ouattara, the newly elected president of Cote D’Ivoire, takes the stand that one is reminded that away from the focus of the media, Africa is having one of its most challenging years with 27 countries going through some form of elections in 2011. Liberia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, DRC….the list goes on. If you think of U.S. politics as Reality TV, starring fluff-brained Tea Party activists, penis texting politicians and shameless special interest lobbyists; African politics can play more like a Hollywood action blockbuster — the slightest election mishap risking a spiral into mass murder, serial rape and humanitarian disasters.

Mr. Ouattara himself succeeded the presidency only after a military intervention by the U.N. and French special forces; the Kenyans have three senior officials on trial at the Hague as we speak, as for the Congo — Elections are still two months away and one of the aspiring opposition candidates is already sitting at the International Criminal Court – has been for the past two years – for crimes against humanity.

So forget Ahmadi. He is a has-been. The only reason he is still in the news is because he looks funny and his name occupies the same sentence as the words “nuclear” and “Islamic”. The real powers are the infinitely less colorful Ayatollah and his extended Mafia network. But they are nowhere as entertaining I agree.

I wonder instead how Africa will emerge after its series of elections this year. The power shortages are not an anomaly in Tanzania and East Africa. Climate change, rising cost of living, and endemic corruption are systematically eroding livelihoods, and the election season is presenting infinite chances to divert badly needed state resources to campaigning and politics instead.

As my plane descends into Kinshasa, I see the capital city of 8 million largely swallowed in darkness except for a few clusters of light here and there – an incredible sight given it lies along a river capable of supplying electricity to the whole continent.

President Kabila is out of the country giving his own speech at the General Assembly, touting his accomplishments and hoping repeated broadcast of his appearance in the mother of all institutions would boost him in the polls back home. There have already been violent clashes with the opposition and campaigning has barely begun. Meanwhile, the logistical preparations of the election is seriously behind schedule and if it lapses the current government loses legitimacy in a matter of days potentially opening a free for all.

It may be premature to hope for an African Spring for fear that the cultural weather patterns may not yet allow for it. But if you find yourself overwhelmed with the mess in the northern hemisphere, tune south this Autumn and keep your fingers crossed that Africa will survive the growing pains and at the very least it will emerge no worse off than it did a year ago. Considering the present odds, that would be an accomplishment in itself.

Of Rapes and Reports: With friends like this….

Last week was eventful for avid Congo watchers like myself. First – a story about the violent rape of almost 200 women in Walikale, a contentious territory where Congolese battalions and ex-genocidaire FDLR compete over control of local tin and gold mines. What was curious about this episode was that the gang rapes took place over a four-day period a scant 20 miles away from a U.N. base, which only learnt about the incidents ten days after they happened.

Also interesting was that the day the rapes began, U.N. alerted the humanitarian groups operating in the area to the presence of armed rebels in the precise location where the attacks took place implying they should have known and secured the area. So this further confuses me. Were they scared and stayed away? Or did they simply not care? This would not be the first time. When General Nkunda marched into Kisangani in 2002 and massacred over a hundred and sixty people; and then again in 2004 when Bukavu was practically handed over, hundreds of peacekeepers were present but remained in their barracks. There are other examples.

Predictably, the familiar expressions of “outrage” and “concern” filled the airwaves followed by the usual demands that “all parties in the conflict immediately cease all forms of sexual violence and human rights abuses against the population in the Democratic Republic of Congo;” – not that anybody ever cares or listens to these declarations. If there is any reception, the rebels are more likely listening to the lively sounds of Soukous on Radio Okapi to set the proper mood as they go about their daily pillages. This must be especially frustrating considering the U.N. recently redubbed its Mission a “stabilization” force, implying that the worse was over.

And then – the explosive U.N. mapping report was made public detailing gross human rights violations between 1993 and 2003 in eastern DRC. The report focuses on a ten-year period that includes an alphabet soup of violations against many different groups – Katangans against Kasaiians; indigenous versus immigrants; soldiers against citizens — but what has been singled out are allegations of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Rwandan Army against the Hutu population in the Congo in 1996-1997. And it uses the G-word. It goes like this: “ …the systematic massacres of Hutus on Congolese territories which could be constituted as acts of genocide….only if proven before a court.” It’s non-committal – but just enough to be trouble.

Kigali is incensed to say the least, in light of the fact that nobody bothered to interview or get their side of the story, and have threatened to pull their troops from various peacekeeping forces like the Sudan. Hutu groups still in exile since the genocide and not able to return – for good reason I may add – are ecstatic! Finally, they say, the real victims are identified and the Tutsi hoax is revealed!

Notwithstanding the rightful pursuit of justice, and the need to avenge every man, woman and child who has been murdered in this greatest of all African wars, I wonder if the wider impact of this report on the ongoing efforts to bring peace and stability to the unfortunate people living in the region who happen to be still alive was considered.

That the RPA murdered thousands as they marched on, consolidated their power, then raided and closed the camps is no secret. The story was not given oxygen in international media in an effort to present a clear picture of good versus evil, to mobilize international aid and assuage the guilt of bystanders who failed to act in the fateful 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide and now needed to make amends. But the use of the word genocide to describe the ongoing aftermath of the hostilities in Congo, when according to its own admission, the report is “not based on the same standards of evidence as needed in an international court;…..lacking sufficient admissibility,” questions its wisdom and wonders if all the elements needed to contextualize such a conclusion has been taken into account.

The report refers to AFDL/APR/FAB, which includes a myriad of Ugandan, Rwandan and Burundian forces. Yet the Rwandan Army stands out as the main perpetrator. Furthermore, an allegation of genocide necessitates proof of a command structure with the intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic group – namely the Hutu population in the Congo. Was there in fact a master plan backed by the RPA to annihilate the Hutus in the Congo in 1996-1997? If so, how do we account for the peaceful resettlement of hundreds of thousands more with the help and facilitation of the RPA as attested by UNHCR and relief organizations at the time. Indeed if identification of Hutus and their extermination was part of the retaliation plan, why the subsequent push to eliminate all ethnic classifications from identity cards?

The Rwandan genocide happened under the watch of the resident U.N. Mission who failed to act due to incompetence, negligence and political expediencies of its member states.

As over a million fled the violence across the border, international relief agencies under the umbrella of the U.N. failed to act to prevent the replication of Hutu Power in Zairian camps blindly following mandates that treated refugees and criminals alike.

As Hutu Power slowly resurrected in the refugee camps under the loving care of the U.N. and international NGOs, they regrouped and mobilized into a new military force – the FDLR, who continued to terrorize and massacre the local population, frequently targeting Tutsis.

By 1996, FDLR and the Hutu government in exile were conducting routine raids across the border, mining roads, attacking genocide survivors, murdering witnesses and those willing to be repatriated all the while presenting themselves as the real victims and denouncing the 1994 Genocide as a Tutsi lie. Kigali’s repeated pleas to dismantle the camps fell on deaf ears. The relief mandate continued blindly for all the displaced, including murderers fleeing persecution for crimes of genocide.

“Dismantle the camps, or we will” — It was in part due to yet another in a series of failures of the international community that the Rwandan forces finally invaded.

After sixteen years and billions of dollars spent, FDLR continues to be a menace in the region, arming and replicating, forming alliances with local warlords, militia and Congolese soldiers; making a living by killing and displacing civilians in order to maintain control of lucrative mining territories all the while presenting themselves as the victims of a Tutsi conspiracy and demanding to negotiate with Kigali.

At a time the U.N. is fixing to leave the Congo, this report comes to them as god sent, inadvertently providing much needed leverage to present the FDLR as the protectors of the displaced Hutus and as viable negotiating partners to Kigali – imagine — war criminals newly legitimized as victims by an official report of a respected international organization.

Going back to the recent rapes, the U.N. spokesman mentioned they were not informed; they did not know. It appears that the U.N. patrols twice passed through the main village where the mass rapes took place and still no one told them anything. Congo’s top U.N. official, Mr. Meece said he “could not explain the villagers’ silence” perhaps it was cultural shame, perhaps a fear of reprisal.

I think that after so many years of let downs by local and international authorities, perhaps they thought, what’s the point.

Happy Birthday to Lady DRC

The main avenue running through Kinshasa is called Boulevard 30th June in loving memory of the day of the independence from the nasty Belgians exactly – oh – fifty years ago.   It runs straight from the thieves market next to the dilapidated central train station; cuts through Gombe where all the embassies, NGOs and aid agencies are; and ends up at the other end as you make your way up the hills to Binza, home to those able to parcel out the privileges of post colonial Africa while keeping away from its perils.  An Italian gigolo who ran some sort of lumber business by promising bicycles and soap to the tribal chiefs had his residence at a fabulous compound just past the Presidential palace. He was always careful to stress that his villa was the most beautiful second only to that of the president’s – just in case the walls had ears.

The last Independence Day I spent in Kinshasa was June 30th, 2005.   I checked the entry in my journal: “Today there is nobody on the streets except for U.N. tanks, riot police in full Rambo gear and an extra generous helping of Congolese military in fake Raybans,”

According to the power sharing agreements, national elections were supposed to be taking place on that day, but things were running a bit behind schedule, which is normal in Africa, but folks were getting so jittery that a complete curfew had been imposed to keep everyone from becoming – uhm — overly “jubilant”.

Uniformed police and armed riot guards lined the Boulevard and U.N. staff were sequestered at home or in their offices. Reports of machete bearing gangs called “Kat Kat” roaming the inner neighborhoods, demanding the resignation of the authorities circled the security alerts. I wondered — did they mean, “Cut! Cut!”? At any rate, it baffled all of us that the elite zones had been so nicely secured while the rest of the city was left to fend for itself. I saw it as a metaphor for many things.

This week Congo celebrated her Independence again – this time she’s turned 50; a real transformational milestone for any fifty-year-old girl who has been through the wringer  — this one being “the rape capital” of the world. But in contrast to the austere celebrations of a few years ago which left me watching a small audience of barefoot and ragged boys dancing in the garbage strewn main square next to open sewers, this year the government spared nothing in anticipation of the multitude of dignitaries and heads of states, among whom were Ban Ki-Moon and King Albert II of Belgium, who descended for the occasion. But many were wondering what exactly was being celebrated; and judging by the 21-gun salute lavished on Mr. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the message was confusing to say the least.

After a decade of peacekeeping and billions of dollars spent by way of international donors, peace and democracy seem elusive as ever; and in spite of the optimism generated around the 2006 elections, President Kabila is being criticized for his governance, economic record and human rights policies. He has also asked the U.N. mission to leave in a year, so we can safely assume that this time around international observers will not be on the guest list for the 2011 elections.

One week after the body of a prominent human rights activist was found dead in Kinshasa, an increasingly authoritarian president spoke of the future as he stood by a large banner that read: “The Giant Awakes”; and presided over a grand military parade of 15,000 men and 400 army vehicles. My first thought — with all the raping, looting and massacres – then who the heck was minding the store in the East? But following the multi million dollar preparations which paved the way from the airport all the way to the site of the celebrations at the Boulevard Triomphal — part and parcel of the $9 billion infrastructure aid pledged by the Chinese in return for mining concessions — I had little doubt as to who the “Giant” was.

So where are we on this 50th milestone?  Standing in a Chinese financed project and playing host for the biggest party in decades after kindly asking the UN to start packing; Congo continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, its inhabitants wanting for basic security, food and shelter, its fabled minerals ravaged by friends and foes alike; now under new management: an emerging patron with an insatiable appetite for resources and deep pockets, as well as a strict non-intervention policy laid along pragmatic economic interests — hands off from such mundane issues as human rights and domestic governance. Now – that’s what I call don’t ask, don’t tell!

I have been singing the famous 60’s song written by the great composer Joseph Kabasele all week:

Independence cha cha, we’ve won it
Independence cha cha, we’ve achieved it!
The round table cha cha, we’ve pulled it off!
Independence cha cha, we’ve won it Oh!