Letter from Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by war for nearly two decades. The largest UN peac

On 30 June, the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. Over the course of a pallid and humid morning, several thousand soldiers marched down the wide, balloon-covered Boulevard Triomphal in Kinshasa, the capital, while tanks, Jeeps and other military hardware rolled past as part of a triumphant military parade. After an hour or so, President Joseph Kabila stood up to give a speech but the microphone was broken, like so much else in this blighted country, and his words were unheard by the crowd.

Since independence, as many as five million people have died in Congo's wars. The curse of Congo is to have promiscuous natural wealth in the world's roughest neighbourhood. It has diamonds, gold, cassiterite, coltan, timber and rubber - as well as the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history. For more than ten years, the United Nations has had a mandate to keep the peace here - but there has been no lasting peace, least of all in the eastern Congo, where violence continues between various militia groups who scavenge off the land, killing innocent people and each other as they scramble for resources in this mineral-rich country. Now, the gov­ernment of President Joseph Kabila wants the UN to leave altogether.

Kinshasa is a city of 11 million people, most of them confined to scorched tenement buildings and rusting tin shacks. The average wage is 90 cents a day in a city where a meal of steak and chips can cost $18. In the city centre, the Congolese elite live in luxury apartments, with rents comparable to those in central London. The UN headquarters is in the northern part of the city. The compound looks like an embattled fort in a war zone: high walls of barbed wire and broken glass sit behind concrete breeze blocks placed strategically along the road. Outside, people beg for money, with a refrain that I heard again and again: "Un dollar, un dollar, un dollar."

General Babacar Gaye is the Senegalese ­commander of the 20,000-odd UN troops in Congo. "Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers [but] it is a job only soldiers can perform," he told me when we met. "This is not classic warfare where the objective is to defeat the enemy. Occasionally you need to use force, to ensure things stay on track or to deter or ­convince. But you are accompanying a [political] process."

The soldiers operate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of "lethal force" to keep the peace. "Lethal force gives you more freedom of action," said General Gaye. "You can take the initiative when you feel that the population is under imminent threat." (In Rwanda during the genocide of 2004 the UN peacekeeping force, led by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian, was not permitted to use "lethal force" against the local population, and was thus rendered helpless to prevent the slaughter of as many as 900,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.)

Since independence, five million people have died in Congo's wars. After the Belgians left, Patrice Lumumba became the first indigenous prime minister, but his strident anti-imperialism alarmed the western powers and he was assassinated in a Belgian-US plot only three months after coming to office. In 1965, following a period of infighting, Mobutu Sese Seko, a tough but sharp army chief of staff, seized power in bloodless coup and, in 1971, renamed the country Zaire.

His despotic regime was toppled in 1996 by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a corrupt regional governor from eastern Congo. He was supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila had learned well from his predecessor and he installed his own sprawling kleptocracy as well as changing the country's name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But he made a fatal mistake: in 1998 he ordered the Rwandans and Ugandans to leave. They pulled back temporarily, before launching a counter-invasion during which they seized a third of the country.

Kabila called on the support of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, who entered the war on his behalf, bribed with the promise of access to Congo's vast mineral wealth. In 1999, the UN decided enough was enough and passed resolution 1279, which resulted in the creation of a permanent peacekeeping force in Congo. It is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in history. The war officially ended in 2003, but militia groups continue to operate with impunity - especially in the east, where Rwanda is fighting a proxy war against Hutu militia - and different ethnic groups from inside the country clash over land and territory.

The current president, in office since the assassination of his father in 2001, is Joseph Kabila Kabange, commonly known as Joseph Kabila. Aged 39, he is something of a mystery. Kabila has maintained close relations with the Rwandans (he fought alongside them during his father's rebellion against Mobutu) and this has aroused suspicion among political rivals and international agencies that his policies may not be entirely independent. A fear of ­assassination means he makes few public appearances and his intentions are opaque.

What is clear is that, from 2001 to 2006, he ruled as the head of a transitional government, one strongly influenced by the international agencies present in Congo. However, in 2006, following internationally supervised elections deemed "free and fair" by the UN, he emerged as the head of a sovereign state with a genuine democratic mandate. He then began to assert his authority, pushing back all foreign influence - including the UN.

However, there are suspicions that there may be something more sinister beyond mere grand­standing in his desire to have the UN leave Congo. Since the elections, he has displayed increasingly authoritarian behaviour. Local elections scheduled for 2010 have been postponed, and he wants to extend the presidential mandate from five to seven years. The chances of his forging a more dictatorial regime during his second presidential mandate (presidential elections are due in 2011) increase if the UN leaves, and international scrutiny with it.

The UN Security Council is not sure that ­Kabila is ready to take full control; under its new mandate, the UN peacekeeping presence was extended earlier this year to run until 30 June 2011. The decision followed the call in May by the ­government for an end to the UN peacekeeping mission at the latest by mid-2011, before the planned presidential elections scheduled for November that year. "Everyone was a bit surprised by the government's decision," General Gaye told me. "It is not our intention to remain indefinitely in the Congo. But we feel it is best not to leave the country in a precipitous way that will create a return to square one."

This is what human-rights groups fear most: the chaos that may fill a UN-shaped hole in the country.

One morning in Kinshasha, I visited a ramshackle government building to speak to Lambert Mende, Congo's smooth and smiling minister of information. "The UN has done a good job in Congo," he said. "But it has been ten years that it is here. No nation in the world accepts that others fulfil tasks on their behalf. They are here for a given time. And this time should end one day."

Peacekeeping is by its nature temporary; the UN is never any more than a guest in someone else's country. Whether widescale violence returns to Congo will depend on the ability of its own army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), to keep order. But what exactly is the army? Last year, 22 militia groups were invited to stop killing and join up. Absorbed into the FARDC, they retained parallel chains of command, "taxing" and terrorising the local population. Many believe the FARDC is a collection of killers and rapists who now wear one uniform instead of many. I put this to Mende. "Two and a half per cent of the army is in prison," he said, rather triumphantly. "I know very few armies in the world which, in the middle of a conflict, would immobilise 2.5 per cent of its forces for disciplinary reasons. They never tell you this!

“The Congolese army is being rebuilt. In 18 months it will be sufficiently trained to defend the Congolese people, and to deal with this existing threat in the east [of the country] - which is a residual threat, not a significant one. We will be ready and that is the truth," he added.

Ever since Belgian rule, Congo has fed the world's lust for resources. during colonial times, we wanted rubber; today we want cassiterite and coltan, minerals that are used in the manufacture of PlayStations and mobile phones.

Congo has a border with nine countries, seven of which have had armies on its soil in the past 30 years. In 1998 the Rwandans invaded, citing the need to combat Hutu rebel units that had fled into Congo; a claim somewhat undermined, as their armies headed not for the Hutu encampments but for the mineral mines in the north-east of the country, where foreign-backed militia continue to loot and kill. On 24 February 2003, before the UN arrived in Congo, rebel militias entered Bogoro - a village near the small town of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province in the north-east, close to the Ugandan and Sudanese borders - and killed more than 200 people, a crime for which the militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui are now on trial at the International Criminal court in The Hague.

One afternoon, I went out on patrol with Banbat 7, the Bangladeshi peacekeeping battalion in Bunia, and there I met a woman named Banébuné; she was 13 when the militia raided her village that February day seven years ago. "They were killing with machetes," she said. "They were saying, 'Don't waste bullets - just slash them.' There was so much blood. Children, old people, even pregnant women - anyone who couldn't run was cut down."

How did the FARDC army respond? "They did nothing." I asked Banébuné how she felt about the people that raided her village. "I cannot forgive them," she told me. "Only God can forgive. I pray to him that justice will find those that did this."

Another villager called Mwengwe picked up the story. He used to farm cows but the militia stole them, he said. "When we heard the firing, we all fled to the school." But the militia were waiting in the classroom where we now stood. "I jumped out of the window and ran away.

I wasn't alone; there were many of us running. But on the way so many were killed. I lost my mother and two of my sisters [in the slaughter]." As we were leaving, Mwengwe asked if someone from the government would put head­stones on the graves as had been promised.

In July 2003, the UN passed Resolution 1493, bringing Chapter VII to the Congo. Back at base, General Hasan, the Bangladeshi commander, spoke of how effective it had been. "A peacekeeper is the most constrained man," he said. "Chapter VII enabled us to properly protect civilians. "

The last rebel attack was in February this year. Militias had emerged from the bush to shoot dead three villagers before fleeing. The situation remains uneasy, but there has at least been an improvement and local people feel safer. "Guns are a last resort - to save people who don't have guns," General Hasan said. "So it is for the greater good."

It is the UN mission, bolstered by Chapter VII, that has made the difference in Bunia, not the Congolese army. But a larger conflict still smoulders. I travelled on a UN helicopter 300 miles further north to the town of Dungu, in the Haut Uélé district, where the murderous Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army has its stronghold. Led by the notorious Joseph Kony, a high-school drop-out who believes he is God's spokesman on earth, the LRA has, since its formation in 1986, kidnapped as many as 30,000 children and displaced over a million people. In 2005 the government of President Yoweri Museveni forced Kony and his followers to flee Uganda; they settled in Congo's Garamba National Park. They have been killing and raping ever since.

In 2008, Congo, Uganda and South Sudan undertook a joint military campaign against the LRA, "Operation Lightning Thunder", but which failed to kill Kony and his lieutenants, who disappeared into the bush. They took their revenge on the local population. On 24 and 25 December, the LRA simultaneously attacked three surrounding Congolese towns, and 500 people were killed in what became known as the Christmas Massacres. The LRA remains the main threat to peace in this part of the country; the freedom it has to strike will be a test of both the UN and of FARDC's efficacy and of the possibility of lasting stability in Congo.

At Dungu airport, we were greeted by a Tunisian peacekeeper in a battered Jeep, with one door hanging from its hinge. The Jeep's tyres churned up red dust as it sped along a dirt track on the approach to the Guatemalan special forces base, a few kilometres from Gar­amba. A ten-foot-high barbed-wire security fence surrounded the camp, with watchtowers at each corner of the perimeter. Three white tents, with "UN" emblazoned across them, 30 feet long and ten feet wide, were home to 80 soldiers. Three UN Jeeps, with mounted machine-guns, lined the dirt courtyard, and near­by helicopters took off and landed.

The FARDC camp was located 30 metres away along the same dirt track. In place of gates there was only a makeshift barrier - a gnarled tree trunk that was raised and lowered by a bored soldier. A huge white tent was home to a group of 100 men. The front two poles of the tent had fallen down and the whole thing was close to collapse. Two rusty Soviet-era Jeeps were parked next to the tent. Someone had painted "FARDC" on a piece of cardboard and hung it by the entrance. This was the camp of the troops who will be required to protect the people once the UN peacekeepers have gone.

The Guatemalans are on the front line of the peacekeeping mission and, after much argument, I was allowed to go out on patrol with them to Dungu. The patrols, explained our guide, Private Byron Monzon, were vital because of the LRA threat in the region.

It began to rain heavily as we set off and our vehicle was soon sluicing across the saturated, pitted road. A soldier sat at the mounted machine-gun. "As far as we know, the LRA have rocket launchers," Monzon said as we drove along Dungu's main street. Children played in pools of mud, and women - it is always women - struggled beneath improbably heavy loads.

We were meeting Rémy Sitako, a local priest. "Since the LRA arrived, things have worsened," he said, sitting in his gloomy office, lit by single splinter of light from a tiny window. "They commit massacres and burn houses. Sometimes they mutilate. They cut off people's lips and ears . . . I believe some undisciplined elements in the Congolese army are also involved."

What did he think of the UN and its peacekeeping mission? "Occasionally, they take part in joint operations to re-establish security.

This is reassuring. But we would like them to intervene more." What if they were to leave? "Insecurity is still too high. If they go now, there will be a catastrophe."

The key to security is the night patrols. The LRA uses the cover of darkness to scavenge from or raid local villages. One evening, out on patrol, we travelled with two platoons for safety as our armoured personnel carrier cut its way through maize fields. On the edge of the town, we paused alongside a bridge straddling a stream. What happened next happened very quickly: without warning our vehicle surged across the bridge and swerved to the right, creating a protective shield for the three Jeeps ­behind it. Six soldiers jumped out and formed an armoured wall while four more soldiers fanned out across the bridge. There were guttural shouts in Spanish and another six soldiers from the Jeep behind ran into thickets of bush either side of us. Gun-mounted lights crisscrossed in the gloom. Monzon whistled and two villagers emerged from the darkness. The LRA had been sighted two kilometres to the north, they said, not close enough for engagement but close enough for alarm. Monzon was relaxed enough: troops from the LRA will not attack tonight, he said. They do not like to fight those who can fight back.

Spend any time in Congo and you quickly become articulate in the language of international diplomacy - "failed state", "nation-building", "peacekeeping" and so on. On the ground, you understand the hollowness of all such talk. But on that night patrol in Dungu, I understood the importance of the UN's continuing role in the country, because it is the peacekeepers alone who have the means to protect the people.

There is a fundamental political difference in Congo today between the government and the UN: the latter wants greater transparency and democracy; President Kabila wants nothing of the kind. He wants the UN peacekeepers out; the UN fears the violence that would follow its departure. The UN mission is underfunded, overstretched and imperfect. Tens of thousands of innocents continue to suffer, as was shown by the recent mass rape of around 200 women in Luvungi, only 20 miles from a UN base.

Congo works on Darwinian arithmetic. The strong oppress the weak, as they have done for as long as Europeans have been present in this part of Africa. However, in Dungu and in many other places like it, a thin blue line of UN peacekeepers is all that separates the people from the cruelty and violence of the Lord's Resistance Army and from many other rebel groups like them. It is a bleak truth that, without the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, Congo would collapse again into a chaos of violence and destruction; and with its mineral-hungry neighbours still meddling in the country and ethnic hatreds simmering, Congo's war will once more be Africa's war.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

Getty/Julia Rampen
Show Hide image

View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496