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August 9, 2013Posted by on
I’ve seen a few stories in the news the past few years that proclaim the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be the worst country in the world for fill-in-the-blank. Indeed, in 2011 DRC ranked last in UNDP’s Human Development Index (though taken on its own, it rose between 1980 and 2012).
While Congo certainly has major problems, some of these proclamations are based on data from only the most troubled provinces (or even highly specific locale) and extrapolated to apply to the whole country; and most of them are made based on or in conjunction with preconceived notions about DRC — in search of sensationalist headlines and/or donations.
Since I moved to Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu in the DRC, about five months ago, it got me thinking about some of the ways in which Congo — well, actually wins.
Here are six ways Congo, in my humble opinion, is the best.
People don’t just re-use things for pragmatic reasons (like plastic shopping bags, which they do). The whole system of buying soft drinks and cases of beer is based on re-using. You don’t just buy the beverages, you also pay for the glass bottles from the “depots” or outlets of the company. Most re-sellers won’t sell you bottled drinks unless you have an empty bottle to exchange for it in addition to paying for the drink (unless you ask nicely and they trust you to return the bottle in mint condition). Re-using bottles doesn’t just eliminate that much waste, but also eliminates the cost of recycling.
Just outside Kinshasa, overlooking the Congo River
2) Giant beers
In the US, you might order a 12 or 16 ounce Budweiser at a bar. In the UK, you might order a pint of ale, at 20 ounces compared to the US’ 16 ounce pint. But in Congo when you order a beer, you receive a beautifully grand bottle of Primus or Tembo or Simba or Nkoyi — at 72 cL, or a whopping 25.34 ounces. And usually for about $3.50 (less than £2) at an upscale restaurant. Cheers!
3) Fresh food
In South Kivu if you want food, you go to the market or a street stand where the bread was baked that morning or the tomatoes were grown not more than a few miles away. In the restaurants when you order fish for dinner, it’s likely it was caught that very afternoon in Lake Kivu. And if you want chicken, there are no refrigerated, shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store. You find the lady on the street with a sack of live chickens on her back, buy one, let it walk around your garden for a few days, and hope you can find someone not as squeamish as you to cut its head off and pluck it. Then there’s the pilipili. Flavorful pepper that packs just the right amount of heat, whose juices you squeeze over your lunch or make into a tasty dipping sauce.
Fish and chips, Uvira style; with onion, tomato, mayo, and pilipili
4) Christian-Muslim harmony
In a place where politics are explosive and ethnic identity a contentious fulcrum around which violent conflict turns, religion is by comparison a complete non-issue. And it’s not because people here aren’t devout — in fact, religion plays an enormously important role in people’s lives. Yet on a day to day basis I see Christians and Muslims mingling in shops as though their religions were invisible. Mosques and churches coexist in the same neighborhoods and no one seems to think much of it. The few people I’ve asked: “So, are there any problems between Christians and Muslims here?” have basically answered me with a statement along the lines of, “Not really. Why should there be? They believe what they believe and God loves us all. It’s the same God.” When I wrote the Freedom House report for DRC in 2012, I had to improve the religious freedom score because after days of research I could not find any reports of religious discrimination. In day-to-day exchanges, anyway, the DRC beats the United States and much of Europe in terms of Christian-Muslim harmony.
The Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Bukavu
Photo by Timothee Rolin
5) Music and fashion
While in the UK and US I hear new and re-mixed crap being played everywhere, here people actually have good taste in music. From the latest regional dance hits to the always popular Bob Marley; American hip-hop; Swahili hip-hop; and love ballads, the mix that drifts over the lake into my apartment on Saturday nights is melodic and pleasant and often includes some old school rumba tracks. The latter is considered perhaps Congo’s most significant contribution to world culture. On top of that, people have a keen sense of fashion. Whether donned in smart business casual, the bright patterns of kitwenges/pagnes/kangas, or a touch of vintage 90′s grunge — people here know what they like and being well-dressed is important even for a quick trip to the market to pick up some onions.
At the market in Baraka
You hardly see anyone smoking cigarettes here, at least in Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka. It’s sometimes associated with militants or armed groups; occasionally with intellectuals. But mostly, it’s an expat thing. That is to say, Americans and Europeans smoke. But rarely Congolese. Billboards fifty feet long may grace the border advertising the local brew, but you will see no such advertising space allotted for tobacco. After being here for a time, it’s almost startling to see someone smoking on the street.
DR Congo is certainly a country that is dealing with a lot. From a dismal colonial legacy that left the country with (among other things) 19 college graduates at independence, a government structure dependent on patrimonial networks, and citizenship policies that are still the source of conflict today; to the assassination of their first democratically elected prime minister with help from Belgium and the acquiescence of the United States; to decades of mismanagement by an authoritarian regime propped up by Western-funded lending institutions and diplomatic support from the West; to media censorship; flawed elections; violent conflict complicated by lack of sufficient security sector reform and the presence of some 30 local and foreign armed groups – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the DRC has a way to go before it gets to the point where it is truly flourishing the way it should be. But they will get there.
Considering all of that, it is a country not only rich in natural resources but rich in human capital; with a population that is clever, hustles to get by, and works hard to make ends meet despite all the challenges. I so far have not met one illiterate person, even in remote villages. Indeed, according to a study by the African Economist Magazine, Congo’s literacy rate stands at 67.2% (ranking 25th out of 52 African countries surveyed), relatively impressive compared to other countries with similar assessments in terms of indicators like PPP and insecurity.
And as a recent article in The Guardian was headlined, “Telling countries they’re the worst doesn’t help them.”
October 25, 2012Posted by on
I’ve been doing a very dorky thing lately. I’ve been listening to anthropology lectures while walking around Cambridge, and deliberately walking rather than cycling so I have more listening time (and because I’m too nervous to listen to my iPod while cycling).
Yesterday I was listening to the Oxford University anthropology podcast, and in particular a lecture called “What is social anthropology?” (number 65 in the previous link) by one Professor Marcus Banks. (It’s an excellent podcast; lots of stuff for anthropologist wanna-be’s and beginners like me, and lots of stuff, it seems to me, for those who are deeper into the field as well. I’m enjoying it immensely.)
In the introductory lecture I listened to yesterday, Professor Banks told a story that reaffirmed for me the relevance of taking an interpretive approach to certain social research questions (particularly my own); solidified even further my high level of skepticism with regard to modernization theory; had me contemplating the way we perceive similarities and differences between cultures and the assumptions we make about others; made me think about the literal translation that occurs when studying another culture without adequate context; totally turned on that part of me that is fascinated with metaphors and language; and made me laugh.
In short, Professor Banks told of a French anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century who picked up on the observations of a German traveler who wrote about the Bororo of Brazil. The German writer observed that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws. Literally.
So the German writer assumed, based on the “scientific” knowledge of the day, that because they were so different from Europe, the Bororo were closer to earlier forms of human life in general — i.e. “primitive,” or “original” people. He stated that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws because their brains were in an earlier stage of evolutionary development, and therefore they conflated the categories of macaws and humans — they couldn’t tell them apart. The French anthropologist took these observations at face value and included them in his studies about the “primitive” mind. However, the German traveler didn’t probe the matter, and, as far as I can tell from the lecture, the French anthropologist that cited him never bothered to go to Brazil himself.
The people there told the German traveler, quite explicitly, “we are red macaws.” It reminded me a bit of the way some Nuer (in Sudan) talk about cattle. Cattle are so special, and so critical to the survival and social organization of the group, that they’re tantamount to human members of the group. This is part of the reason why the Nuer will not accept cash in lieu of bridewealth cattle; it has no blood, it cannot reproduce. And cattle are so integral to Nuer society that accepting cash in their place would be, in a sense, unethical, like accepting cash for a human being. That’s why the attempts of the colonial government to commercialize cattle only half succeeded. (See this book by anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson for more really good stuff on the Nuer and their fascinating and deep relationship with cattle.)
So, in the short time Professor Banks elaborated, I thought about the kinds of metaphors and alternative realities that might be informing such a statement as “we are red macaws.”
As it turns out, anthropologists living with the Bororo in the latter half of the twentieth century noticed that it was only the men that made statements about being red macaws. Bororo society is matrilocal; so when a couple marries, the husband goes to live with the wife and her family. Many Bororo women, as it happens, are fond of keeping red macaws in cages as pets. Professor Banks says: “Therefore when men say, ‘we are red macaws,’ what they are doing is using, amazingly, irony, and describing themselves as [being] like pets, because they are so much dominated by their wives and their wives’ families in terms of social organization, economic behavior, etc. etc.”
The Bororo macaw metaphor is amusing and easy to relate to (“She’s got him on a short leash,” for example), despite the vast differences between Bororo culture and my own. But, beyond that, the story of the French anthropologist and the German traveler, and their efforts to interpret this culture, got me thinking about the ways in which a social researcher’s own cultural ontology can inform their interpretation and really muck up their analysis if they don’t examine it. More broadly, a story like this should lead people (everyone, not just social researchers and academics) to ask themselves what kind of assumptions they’re making about other cultures or societies when attempting to assess them or a particular aspect of them. I’m aware this is not a revelation, in general or for most people I know, and in a way the story kind of makes me scoff. (“What, is it that hard to imagine that the Bororo can have a sense of irony?”) On the other hand, there are a lot of people I know who would indeed be astounded by this story.
Ultimately, though, it reminds me of the imperative I’ve set for myself to keep questioning my own knowledge of the way things are; or the way I think they are. For the German traveler and the French anthropologist that cited him, I’m pretty sure that even if they had figured out the macaw metaphor, it wouldn’t have altered their underlying understanding of the “truth” that certain human beings were evolutionarily, scientifically, unquestionably less developed than others (the latter “others” being themselves — what a coincidence). So, I ask myself, what do I take for granted that, similarly, may be skewing my interpretation of the way I understand people, particularly those with different life experiences than me?
This is the reason why I struggle with the entire typology of “development.” We’ve stopped referring to other countries, peoples, places, and cultures as “backward” or “underdeveloped,” but we still talk about “developed” and “developing” countries. And I’m not sure I know what that even means these days, to be honest. So the red macaw story, I think — for students of anthropology, and those like me who appreciate its approach and/or recognize its utility — is less about the actual ironic metaphor and more about the context in which anthropologists finally really understood it. That is, what does the story of the French anthropologist (and all his peers who accepted his statements) say about the nature of scientific “reality” and what academically or professionally trained people take for granted? Extending the same inquisitive line to another field, what does the story say about the questions “development” experts should be asking? What is implicit and explicit in “development”? And what might “development” experts take for granted about these categories?
July 27, 2012Posted by on
I’ve written a number of posts in the last month or so, for UN Dispatch, about the protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. The protests were sparked by the announcement of austerity measures by the ruling National Congress Party in June, and were instigated by female students at the University of Khartoum. The protestors, however, are demanding the withdraw of the ruling regime and a new democratic system in which civil and political rights for all of Sudan’s diverse population will be respected. (See Girifna’s website and the Sudan Revolts website for an idea of what the protests are about.) The protests have also since gained the support of wider communities and professional associations such as the Sudanese Doctors’ Union and the Attorneys’ Bar, not to mention support from the diaspora and from around the world.
In the comments section of a post I wrote called “What Role for Celebrity Activists in #SudanRevolts?“, @fariniamujica left the following comment:
Carol I loved this! I think its really helpful for all us “non-Sudanese” on how to support. I was wondering if you could help me answer a question/comment I’ve seen around by some foreigners regarding the situation in Sudan: “NOW they protest because of rise in prices? Where were they when the genocide was going on?” I think you and me obviously know that this is not why they are protesting, but I also believe that up to a certain point this is why international support has been light…? I am probably wrong but I just wanted to know what you’re thoughts were on this. Thank you!!!
I responded, but there appears to be a glitch on the back end of the UN Dispatch platform and it doesn’t show up on the webpage. While that’s being worked out, I thought I’d convert my brief response into a blog post:
I’ve seen that sentiment once or twice on Twitter, yes. What I would say first is that I think it’s important to remember that a lot of these protestors are and have been opposed to the wars on the border, with the south, in Darfur, and in the east for a long time. It would be better to ask some Sudanese activists themselves, as I cannot speak for them, but my hunch is that it’s a matter of power and feasibility.
For example, you might ask an American why there are no mass protests over our continued attacks on Waziristan. It’s too far removed; it doesn’t affect your every day existence in the United States. In addition, the military is simply too powerful. You might be opposed to it, but it’s hard to imagine massive protests in the streets calling for the overthrow of the government because of it. But raise the cost of living, make good college educations tantamount to lifetimes of debt, turn a blind eye to (and participate in) corrupt banking and law-making practices, and you get Occupy Wall Street. Those may be unfair comparisons, and I’m aware of the ways in which they’re unfair, but it’s the best I can do to ellicit some form of empathy for the protestors and an explanation of sorts as to “why now” — now that austerity measures were announced.
I also don’t know the extent to which Sudanese in the north were writing about or protesting these wars in recent years, or the extent to which they would have even been able to. It’s easy to imagine any journalist writing with an anti-war slant being locked up or somehow silenced. So, although I can’t say for sure, I don’t think it’s fair to say that northern Sudanese have been apathetic or complicit in those wars over the years.
I’m not sure why international attention has been light, but I have a couple of thoughts. In one sense, the nature of the conflicts in Darfur and South Sudan is quite different from #SudanRevolts. War in Africa, particularly if there is a clear ethnic or religious ideological rhetoric being used to perpetuate it, is an easy narrative for outsiders to reproduce (even if it does overlook the inaccuracies of that narrative), and an easy story with which to appeal to readers’ emotions. I considered the possibility that the nature of the civil war with the south and the conflict in Darfur, with acts of genocide and aerial bombardments of villages, for example, was simply more dramatic and severe than the political protests and detentions that characterize #SudanRevolts. (Sexual violence, too, seems to be a hotter story if it’s a “weapon of war” than if it’s part of political repression.) Since #SudanRevolts is being repressed by what Mamdani calls the “normal violence of the state” as opposed to a genocidal mission (Saviors and Survivors, p. 281), it does not command the same kind of attention.
However, that doesn’t explain the relative silence on the conflict in the east. While South Sudan and Darfur have got a lot of attention over the years, in comparison, the rebellion in the east has barely been mentioned. It began in the 1990s, and there was a peace agreement in 2006. For more on the conflict in the east, you can research the main opposition movements there: the Beja Congress, the Rashaida Free Lions, and the Eastern Front.
This conflict was in the northeast of the country, a region which fits into the “Arab north” part of our Western story of Sudan. I’m guessing that the reason the war in the east didn’t generate widespread outrage and coverage is that it didn’t fit into the Arab-Islamic supremacy narrative. (Further confusing this narrative is the SPLM support of the Eastern Front. Adding to that, by the way, in the case of #SudanRevolts, is the demonstrated solidarity expressed, on platforms like Twitter, by Darfuris and Southern Sudanese for #SudanRevolts, and by northern Sudanese for those struggling in South Sudan and Darfur. This includes congratulations from northern Sudanese to South Sudan on the one year anniversary of their independence.)
So I think perhaps the reason for international support being a bit light is twofold; 1) it’s not an armed conflict, and 2) it doesn’t fit into the dominant narrative we have of Sudan. My feeling is that it’s very hard for many people, in the US for example, to alter that narrative in such a way as to be sympathetic to Sudanese in the north. Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, on an episode I was able to appear on, dealt with many of these same issues.
I think it’s probably true that the Western reaction you describe is part of why international public support and attention has been light, but I think that reaction itself comes out of a broader story we’ve been constructing about Sudan for many years now. The origins of that narrative are steeped in history and politics, and Mamdani goes into great depth in Saviors and Survivors explaining how it came to be (and what the implications are for US foreign policy toward Sudan). If you’ve read a bit about John Garang and his vision of a “New Sudan,” most of this should be making a lot of sense.
I’ll end with some recommended reading for those who want to learn more. These resources are regionally focused on Darfur (aside from the first, which focuses on South Sudan, and the next three, which focus on New Sudan and the north) because I wrote a book chapter about this topic and focused on Darfur (in New Directions in Genocide Research, ed. Adam Jones); thus these are the sources I’m familiar with. However, I highly recommend them for this particular topic. These sources do a very good job of deconstructing the dominant narratives and delving into the nuances of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, and power in Sudan.
Jok Madut Jok, Sudan: Race, Religion and Violence (Oneworld, 2007)
Amir Ahmad Nasr, “Ending Sudan’s Identity Crisis,” The Guardian, June 10, 2011
Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (paperback by Three Rivers Press, 2010)
Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2008)
Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed and Leif Manger (eds), Understanding the Crisis in Darfur: Listening to Sudanese Voices (University of Bergen, 2006)
Julie Flint, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur (Small Arms Survey, 2009)
R. S. O’Fahey, “Umm Kwakiyya or the Damnation of Darfur,” African Affairs, 106 (2007)
Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil, “Nomad-Sedentary Relations and the Question of Land Rights in Darfur: From Complementarity to Conﬂict,” in Richard Rottenburg (ed), Nomadic-Sedentary Relations and Failing State Institutions in Darfur and Kordofan (Halle: Orientwissenschaftliche Hefte 26; Mitteilungen des SFB, Differenz und Integration 12)
May 30, 2012Posted by on
“Everyone starts at the beginning of the road, and the world is in an endless state of childhood.”
It’s the 1960s, and we find ourselves in a village on the Nile. The narrator, a young man who has just finished his studies of English poetry abroad, returns home to discover a newcomer, Mustafa Sa’eed, has moved into town. At first somewhat suspicious of this stranger, the narrator becomes infected with the mystery of his story. Mustafa Sa’eed is from Khartoum and, although we are never certain what his academic role was, we learn that he studied in England and lectured as an economist there.
We are then taken on a journey as the narrator’s intrigue leads him to piece together the secrets of Mustafa Sa’eed’s past. In moments of confidence that seem to be laid out intentionally for the narrator to follow, Mustafa Sa’eed stops short of confessing involvement in the mysterious suicides of the women in his life in England. He recounts his trial there and his return home to Sudan; and before disappearing without a trace, Mustafa designates the narrator caretaker of his wife and sons.
The narrator, like Mustafa Sa’eed, is caught between two worlds in an attempt to reconcile an identity interrupted and brutalized by colonialism:
“The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future? Sooner or later they will leave our country, just as many people throughout history left many countries. The railways, ships, hospitals, factories and schools will be ours and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude. Once again we shall be as we were — ordinary people — and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”
The duality is almost maddening as it becomes duality upon duality, and the reverberations of Fanon — whether there intentionally or not — are potent. At times they are distant thunder underfoot, and at other times they are deafening clashes. When the narrator speaks to an Englishman in Sudan who knew of Mustafa Sa’eed’s work at Oxford, he is met with a cynical assessment of Sa’eed as an unreliable economist whose statistics were not academically sound.
The Englishman said that Mustafa Sa’eed was
“… one of the darlings of the English left… It was as though they wanted to say: Look how tolerant and liberal we are! This African is just like one of us! … If you only knew, this sort of European is no less evil than the madmen who believe in the supremacy of the white man in South Africa and in the southern states of America. The same exaggerated emotional energy bears either to the extreme right or to the extreme left. If only he had stuck to academic studies… He would have certainly returned and benefited with his knowledge this country in which superstitions hold sway. And here you are now believing in superstitions of a new sort: the superstition of industrialization, the superstition of nationalization, the superstition of Arab unity, the superstition of African unity. Like children you believe that in the bowels of the earth lies a treasure you’ll attain by some miracle, and that you’ll solve all your difficulties and set up a Garden of Paradise. Fantasies. Waking dreams. Through facts, figures, and statistics you can accept your reality, live together with it, and attempt to bring about changes within the limits of your potentialities.”
The narrator retreats into his thoughts: “What was the use of arguing? This man — Richard — was also fanatical. Everyone’s fanatical in one way or another. Perhaps we do believe in the superstitions he mentioned, yet he believes in a new, a contemporary superstition — the superstition of statistics.”
As Richard and a Sudanese friend continue the debate, the narrator observes: “They were not angry: they said such things to each other as they laughed, a stone’s throw from the Equator, with a bottomless historical chasm separating the two of them.”
The novel is a magical realist tale complete with scandal, murder, sex, passionate love, salacious humor, strong women, postcolonial politics, identity crises, soul-searching, and penetrating metaphors. The timing of the novel is crucial to the development of the story, as it is not told in chronological order; but Salih is a master of this device. The narrator recalls bits of conversation with Mustafa Sa’eed as they come to mind, but at times it feels as though we are hearing Mustafa’s voice as it emerges in the narrator’s mind, without it being an explicit memory. The silences are important too; what is said and what is not said, what is implied and what is left unanswered.
Considering this novel was originally written in Arabic, the translation is really impressive. You can tell Salih worked closely with the translators in interpreting this from Arabic idioms and language into English. Most of the metaphors are not lost, so far as I can tell, and the imagery is, at times, stunning:
“The blood of the setting sun suddenly spilled out on the western horizon like that of millions of people who have died in some violent war that has broken out between Earth and Heaven.”
I am no literary critic; I have no training in reading between the lines of literature or properly placing a work of fiction within the life and circumstances of the author or the time period in which it was written. The introduction to the New York Review of Books edition (2009) by Laila Lalami is very good and I would recommend reading it either before or after reading the novel.
Largely from my own imagination, I think, there may be a loose metaphor in the novel, in which Mustafa Sa’eed is colonialism anthropomorphized. While Lalami, in her introduction, points out the metaphor of colonialism as an infectious disease in much of Salih’s imagery, Mustafa Sa’eed, too, seems to infect people, and with disastrous consequences. Colonialism and Mustafa Sa’eed, in the novel, are both misguided, mentally unsound, mysterious, intriguing, and manipulative; and they both lead those they claim to love to death and madness — which also calls to mind Fanon. Lalami hints at this metaphor when she excerpts the defense attorney from Mustafa’s trial: “These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago.” (This is in reference to the Roman invasion of Britain, which Britain became infected by and subsequently spread to its own colonies.)
The book is vaguely reminiscent, in its intimacy and depiction of oppression, of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). It’s been a long time since I read that novel, but it aroused many of the same emotions in me and recalled some of the same kind of imagery. There is also a striking similarity in both novels’ endings.
What I would love is for someone with literary expertise, with more time than I have, to look at both novels and parse the colonialism, gender, and power dynamics of these novels to see what kinds of things they are saying, how they are saying them similarly and how they are saying them differently.
Season of Migration to the North is a beautiful novel that I would recommend not just to students of African literature, but to anyone who enjoys great novels. Little wonder that in 1976 Salih was declared the “genius of the Arabic novel” and in 2001 the book was chosen by Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.
It’s one of those rare books in which you finish it and think, “I have to read that again.”
April 15, 2012Posted by on
Last year I wrote a post for A Day Without Dignity about a community based development organization, Mbuyuni Development Youth Group. Mbuyuni works on a number of small-scale projects in their neighborhood, including trash collection and recycling. They run a tree nursery, make soap to sell as a way of fundraising, and help run the school for children that can’t afford school fees or for whatever reason can’t go to the primary school just down the road.
Mbuyuni is made up entirely of volunteers.
I recently helped Hassan, the director of Mbuyuni and a friend of mine, set up a blog for the group. At the moment we are talking about how to coordinate posting and how best to solicit donations online.
For Hassan, the blog represents a way to get support (moral and monetary) from a broader audience than the suburbs of Mombasa. For me, as a graduate student trained in area studies, it represents a much needed platform for organizations like Mbuyuni and people like Hassan to have a more audible voice. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to either interview Hassan or ask him to write a blog post in time for A Day Without Dignity 2012.
This post is a hat-tip to, and mini-portrait of, Hassan.
As if community work and providing a place for the local kids to socialize and learn weren’t enough, Hassan commutes to Mombasa during the week to manage a small curio shop just across the way from Fort Jesus. If I’m reading his emails correctly (my Mombasa Swahili is rusty) Hassan has also just trained to be a teacher. This is a schedule that rivals that of a working graduate student (which, I should be clear, I was once but am not at the moment).
I write this post, then, in support of A Day Without Dignity 2012, whose focus this year is on Local Champions.
Hassan, kweli wewe ni shujaa ya jamii. Tuendelee kufanya kazi kwa bidii pamoja ili Mbuyuni ikue. Tutawasiliana tena hivi karibuni.
February 28, 2012Posted by on
On 14 February 2012 the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Oxford Central Africa Forum, and the Royal African Society hosted two panel discussions on the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Please read the requisite introduction and disclaimer related to my note-taking here.
This post is a summary of Marco Jowell’s comments from the first panel. The rest of the speakers’ comments, and the Q&A sessions, will follow shortly in separate posts. (Théodore Trefon’s comments can be read here.)
Comments in brackets are mine.
Panel 1: The Elections and the International Community
Marco Jowell, School of Oriental and African Studies
Marco Jowell is a former Senior Research Analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with a particular focus on Central Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate at SOAS. [From Royal African Society event announcement, here]
I’m going to be talking about the role of the international community, and in particular the UK government, and why they didn’t use as much leverage as they might have. So I’ll illustrate the constraints of international action.
In the build-up to the elections, it’s indicative that no one batted an eyelid when Kabila changed the electoral law nearly a year earlier. This was a clear signal. It was a very clever move, and it was legal, and Kabila must have known that it wouldn’t be picked up on; the reaction was muted in the international community, no one questioned it. In the build-up to elections, there were inflammatory speeches made on all sides, with the UDPS [the main opposition party] declaring Tshisekedi [the UDPS presidential candidate] the only real president and accusing those that disagreed with that as being “collaborators”. This was highly inflammatory.
There were calls that the elections were disputed, there were delays, election monitors and diplomats were present but scattered. Kabila was determined to have won with 49% of the vote with Tshisekedi taking 32%.
The UN explicitly only planned to provide logistical assistance; it was wary to get involved in politics or judge the elections. The Supreme Court upheld the results, which itself suffers from issues concerning credibility as the composition of the Supreme Court is swelled with Kabila supporters. Tshisekedi was able to rally the support of thousands of people on the streets of Kinshasa but wasn’t able to lead a sustained movement.
So donor policy was what? Essentially it was a policy of watch and wait. There was less engagement than in the 2006 election. They took a watch and wait policy and weren’t aware fully of all the facts.
There is also the fact that diplomatic attention was directed at the Arab Spring, so eyes were off Sub-Saharan Africa generally. There was no cash to do anything substantial. There were also other intense situations to pay attention to, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Somalia. Those are the priorities of the government of the UK. These issues completely distracted senior policymakers. On top of these crises, there is the UK involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, it’s terrible to say, but it was the Christmas holiday so people were away. They just weren’t looking.
UK activity often represents French, American, and EU policies. With Congo, there was a serious fear of “the other.” Kabila was known, the opposition candidates were not. Tshisekedi had been out of the political scene for a time and so was not familiar. Kabila was seen as the least bad bet. The UK is also paying close attention to other areas, particularly the Middle East and North Africa. There is a growing fear of the Arab Spring taking hold in Sub-Saharan Africa and a fear that the UK government isn’t in tune to what’s going on there. The UK government didn’t start paying attention to the elections in the Congo until September. [Elections were held in November 2011.]
There was also an unfortunate confluence of disengagements last year. The senior DFID representative in Kinshasa finished his tour, major UK senior personnel in Congo and specialists in the Great Lakes retired or left, and Ministry of Defense resources were reduced dramatically. Senior researchers and policy analysts from all of these agencies were leaving. So the UK was a long way off in being informed as to the dynamics at play. Tshisekedi came to the UK to meet with officials, but he didn’t do himself any favors. He used a lot of inflammatory language, referring to people that opposed him as “collaborators,” and he scared some people. So to UK politicians and policy makers, Kabila comes across better.
The term “inclusive government” will probably become more and more common. The watch and wait policy still seems to be in effect.
So the DRC was just not deemed important enough to be high on the agenda in the UK, in part because the important policy makers were not informed enough.
February 16, 2012Posted by on
On 14 February 2012 the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Oxford Central Africa Forum, and the Royal African Society hosted two panel discussions on the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Please read the requisite introduction and disclaimer related to my note-taking here.
This post is a summary (not a transcript) of Théodore Trefon’s comments from the first panel. The rest of the speakers’ comments, and the Q&A sessions, will follow shortly in separate posts.
Comments in brackets are mine.
Panel 1: The Elections and the International Community
Théodore Trefon, Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa
Théodore Trefon is a Congo expert specializing in the politics of state-society relations. He has devoted the past 25 years to Congo as a researcher, lecturer, author, project manager and consultant. He heads the Contemporary History Section of the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa and is Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston University Brussels. Trefon is also the author of Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure (African Arguments / ZED Books).
[From Royal African Society event announcement, here]
Just to begin, let’s think about this discussion in the context of the death of Augustin Katumba Mwanke on Sunday, who handled the mining contracts in the Congo.
Elections and their impact: the question is, do elections in the Congo matter? The answer is both yes and no.
Elections are part of the democratic process. There was some popular enthusiasm for the elections, with people braving bad weather and waiting in line all day to vote. Elections are also a sign of political maturity, a manifestation of political sovereignty, and affirmation of national sovereignty. It reflects respect for international commitments. Electoral mobilization contributes to political awakening in remote areas. In the DRC, there was re-distrubution of parliamentary seats, and some regime strongmen were not re-elected (Thambwe, Endundo, Kabwelulu).
For one thing, the 2005-2006 electoral cycle was incomplete. Local elections were never held, so the country went into a new phase in 2011 without finishing the 2005 process. If there’s no accountability between local populations and local representatives, there’s no hyphen between local people and the people in government. The same mistake was reproduced in 2011. Furthermore, the elections were chaotic. There was also pre-electoral manipulation and changes made to the constitution [I believe he is here referring to changes in the electoral law made in January and June 2011, but not sure which he’s referring to or if he’s referring to both]. The membership of the electoral commission was changed [see here and here], which also led to questions of credibility locally and internationally. You have a president who is increasingly marginalized and vulnerable, and thus a political stalemate: who is in control? Who is running the country?
How power is organized in Congo is extrememly fragmented. With major institutions like the World Bank, do they know what’s going on in other sectors, like public health, and with other organizations? There’s a lack of coordination and communication between people in the government and among different sectors. Then there is Kabila [Joseph Kabila, the President], who was seen at the home of Katumba after he died. This was the first time Kabila has been seen since January 5.
Since time is short, I’ll start with my conclusions. There are three possible political scenarios that could emerge:
1. Kabila remains in power, controls the parliament, manipulates international partners, and it’s business as usual. In my opinion this is the most likely scenario.
2. Kabila remains in power but comes under pressure by opposition forces and civil society, and the opposition gets organized for elections in 2016. I think the UDPS [the main opposition party] regrets not being able to capitalize on political relationships in parliament as a result boycotting the 2006 elections. In this scenario they’ll look to have a greater effect in 2016.
3. Kabila is ousted by coup or assassination and Congolese sovereignty erodes.
Since 2001 international partners have devoted a lot of funding and diplomatic effort to bring about positive change. But just because there were elections doesn’t mean things will move ahead. So what are the major challenges? There have been a lot of efforts with international partners, but little tangible success. According to Human Development Index indicators and transparency rankings, Congo is still low or has even declined. It seems we’re in a situation of change without improvement. Reform failure in past ten years is a shared responsibility.
In the context of patrimonial politics, and the high economic stakes, do Congolese authorities really want change? Does the international community want a strong and independent Congo? We’ve had 50 years of Cold War manipulation and other involvement [by the West]. Reform has been handicapped by overwhelming challenges, crisis is historically entrenched, politics and society are complex, and the country is vast and very diverse. MONUSCO’s role has been limited and its claim to fame is that it’s the best airline in Congo. Rwanda is also a challenge, but I don’t want to say that’s the sole reason why there’s not change.
It’s impossible to address all challenges at the same time; everything is a priority, but where to start? Where’s the financial committment? Many strategies make sense at a theoretical level, and there are many great experts working on these challenges, but implementation seems unattainable.
There are two missing links:
1. Adequate administration and lack of an honest, motivated, well-paid cadre of civil servants. [PowerPoint presentation shows photo of a bare office with a few administrators standing around a table.] Where are the phones, the computers, the chairs?
2. Adequate involvement of a vibrant and independent civil society.
Kabila is too weak to share power. Look at the idea of power sharing; the state has to be strong. A vulnerable and fragile state will not be willing to share power; it wants to capture and consolidate power, and once solidified, then you can start sharing. Right now we’re still in the phase of regime consolidation, which is why ciivl society wasn’t able to play a big enough role.
There are success stories too, but they’re problematic. There are many NGOs, IGOs, and other organizations acting on behalf of the state. They replace the state and this perpetuates dependency. And when things go wrong, it’s never the fault of government authorities; it exonerates authorities from responsibility. Security sector? That’s up to the UN. National parks? That’s up to American environmental NGOs.
Final thought: Congo is on the move, but where is it going?
[Power Point shows photo of a woman on a bike, riding away from us, on a path in the forest.]