Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Kinshasa fearing Baghdad

I am not sure the extent to which Congo makes it into the mainstream media these days. However, I do know that in the next few months a spotlight will be on it from certain news sources, as it will be holding elections in June.

Stories referring to the Congo usually include phrases like “the forgotten crisis” and add for good measure that the situation risks “destabilizing the region.” The second statement is very true, but I don’t think this region has been terribly stable for the last few decades. Perhaps the word “again” should be added in parentheses. In the history of the Congo no leader has ever been able to secure the eastern portion, or The East, is it as often labeled, with capital letters, as though Eastern Congo were a separate country (which in many ways it is). Supporting armed movements, playing groups against each other, preventing local officials from having too much power…various tactics have been used by leaders maintain (or acquire) a grip on this region.

So what happens now that people can vote? Check out this New York Times article on the elections. I love the irony of the introduction:

“One of the angry young men marching through the streets here in the Congolese capital the other day carried a handwritten sign that summed up this country's worst fears. ‘Tshisekedi,’ it said, ‘or Iraq’ ” (Tshisekedi is an opposition politician who’s so into opposing things that he’s even opposed the elections – trying unsuccessfully to get his party to boycott the earlier referendum on the constitution).

In a country that has had dozens of rebel movements, eight foreign armies fighting out their own conflicts on Congolese soil, tens of thousands of women raped, and 1,200 people dying per day in 2003 as a result of the five-year conflict that still hasn’t gone away - I really think the Iraqis have more to fear from a Congo-type situation than vice-versa.

So what does “or Iraq?” mean when the journalist says that it “sums up this country’s worst fears?” That they will have civil-war style violence? Already happened and continues in some forms. That they will be invaded by a foreign army? Precisely what happened in 1998 and 1999. That groups will dissolve into sectarian violence? Check out Katanga, Ituri and the Kivus – all provinces have violence fissuring on ethnic lines.

I am more impressed in the element of globalization that would lead a protestor in Kinshasa to put Iraq on his placard than the journalist’s assessment of the deep meaning on this statement.

This does not mean I am not concerned about the fate of the Congo following the elections. I just think that we need not look any farther than the Congo's history to express our fears.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Made it to Kinshasa last Thursday and in many ways it is overwhelming. Trying to secure an apartment (Memling is really nice but kinda expensive) but it is not easy. Part of my job will have to do with the repaving of the Kindu airport so I guess one day or another I will come to your little hamlet. Hope you are well.

Take care


7:46 PM  
Blogger TheMalau said...

Very accurate piece, savanna princess. The East has been treated as a separate country because that configuration has always accomodated the needs of the dictators, from Leopold on. And objectively I must say that we have suffered more for being one country.

I must also say, however and more importantly, that it is the very reason why the country must stay one and indivisible. We need to prove to those - colonizers - that set us on a path for failiure, by tracing artificial borders, that though it is a long shot, this is a bet that we intend to win.

Now, I was rather surprised at all those comparisons with Iraq (discussed on Lady D's and my blog as well), but it is quite true that not only is the stuation different in Congo, it is definitely a whole new level of hardship. Those Iraqis, WADR, have nothing on us...

1:04 AM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

tasos- tried to send you an email but it didnt go through. thanks for your comments on my blog. hope youre getting settled in
just fine - kinshasa is a bit rough around the edges. the bar at the
memling is one of my favorite spots to have a drink when i'm in kinshasa
and the resto has got a grilled capitaine that i love. but i normally head to
3615 off the the 30 juin for pizza. cheaper and very good, though watch
out for all the prostitutes! have you discovered al-dar yet? just walk out of the memling to the blvd, and its a across the street and to the right a little bit. perfect for chwarmas and falafels, and does a good cheap breakfast.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Congogirl said...

Sarah, interesting that you mention this -- I think I questioned it in passing, but every journalist has a different 'definitive' interpretation of what this poster means. In the photo from BBC that I linked in my post, it was "Afghanistan ou Iraq." Since it's in relation to Tshisekedi, the meaning is obviously fairly specific, but I couldn't help but imagine a meaning something akin to comparing the two (or three) countries in terms of being overrun by Northerners to force democratic elections. Glad that you are analyzing it, because the only things I'm seeing analyzed in mainstream media are South Dakota, risks/benefits of elective C-sections, and whether or not Kaloogian (conservative repub congressional candidate) purposely put a photo of downtown Istanbul on his site, using it as proof that Iraq is calmer than popularly perceived.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

Interesting, Congogirl and Malu.

I wish we could find that guy with the sign and ask him what the heck he meant. Somehow I think it will not have as much meaning as we give it.

One interpretation is, "or the opposition will resort to terrorism/civil war." There I don't see as much danger from Tshisekedi as some of the actors. I think the main question is to whether some powerful people who are about to LOSE power (Tshisekedi has not ever even had it officially) will try to gain it another way - like exerting control in Katanga. Just as people protested in Kinshasa (several weeks behind other countries) about the Danish cartoons, I think this is an effort to just seize a theme that might make since to the rest of the world, even if the analogy is off-base.

If "or Iraq" means that the country will dissolve into war and Western/Northern governments will establish a military presence...well, let's just say those south africans in kindu with guns aren't tourists afterall.

I think it will be interesting to see if other opposition movements in the world will learn from the terrorism tactics they can now hear about grace a la globalisation. Before the standard procedure of causing terror in Congo and much of Africa has not been about bombs.

8:27 AM  
Blogger exMI said...

While I understand the attempts to keep the Congo as one country There may come a time when you just have to conceed reality and let The East go it's own way as Ethiopia did with Eritrea.
As for the "or Iraq" sign if I had to guess, and a guess it is becaseu I am distressedly uninformed of the current politics of the area, I would view it as a threat of increased ethnic/political violence. Our way or the roadside bomb.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

The east is de-facto a seperate entity. My reading of the current situation (and I am well prepared to have my reading pointed out as being obtuse) is that the Kinshasa government controls nothing in the east where there aren't UN forces. If the UN pulled out tomorrow, the Kin gov would control nothing at all.

The west of Congo would be a stronger and more stable political entity by itself. All that mineral wealth in the east is more a curse than a blessing.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Manuel Delgado said...

Dear Sarah,

The "or Iraq" sign is quite probably just a product of how much publicity is given to what happens in that country. For all Western media, the situation in Iraq is the worst-case-ever-seen-in-the-world, and this they transmit every day to the whole planet. It is surprising how effectively that thought has spread worldwide: even Congolese people think the situation in Iraq is far worse than their own.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

I think the defacto separation of the east/west is one that could never be formalized without another big war. with so much mineral wealth in the east (indeed this is a large factor in why this region has had so much conflict and the secession attempts. kinshasa will never let this happen without a fight - as history here has shown.

8:56 AM  
Blogger TheMalau said...

And I for one, as a Congolese man, would be in that fight in a heart-beat, Sarah. I would be on the plane, because it is not just a theory, the Congolese nation. You live in Kindu, Sarah. Ask people if they do not consider themselves "Kongomani". The society in that vast territory would be in a bigger mess, in separated bits, because though they do not seem like it, they are pretty interdependent. The Kivu (North, South and Maniema) would suffer from the loss of the Western market. Orientale Province would be in a diplomatic mess if they needed visas to navigate on the Congo River, towards Kinshasa. In order to even consider building new institutions, and infrastructure from the very little we have now, East and West DRC need to support each other, because separately, it is a recipe for assured failiure (except maybe for Katanga... and even then). There are powers that be, that are just betting on that divide to materialize, so they can continue to plunder the country, thus not solving the problem of the people benefitting from the natural resources of their land...

10:43 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

There probably would be another war if the east were to go its' own way. The question is, would the Kin gov have any chance of winning? So would it be wise to fight?

Right now the DRC army is led by guys who let their soldiers starve to death. In a fight like this they would be opposed by armies who aren't so inclined and who would be fighting close to their base of power.

I do think the Kin gov could hold on to the Congo river basin and I mean to include that in the "west of Congo".

None of this considers emotion, pride and patriotism which are very important factors in fighting and winning (or losing) wars.

The justice of the situation is not considered either. I am just trying to figure the cost vs. the gain.

I hope the UN can maintain forces in the east until all this can be worked out, however long that will be. I fear what will happen otherwise.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Kurt Wayne said...

In Nigeria during the 60s, did then-the-capital Lagos have more influence in the Igbo Biafra area which tried to separate, than Kinshasa does in the eastern DRC?

Biafra had mineral (extensive petroleum) wealth as well...

7:23 PM  

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