Looking ahead in 2008

Sian Berry looks ahead to a busy year including the possibility of running for London mayor alongsid

2008 is going to be another eventful year for green and civil liberties campaigners.

In January we’re expecting announcements on two major campaigns I’m working on. Transport for London will soon release the results of their consultation on new Congestion Charge bands for high and low emission vehicles. By the looks of a recent opinion poll, which will also inform TfL’s decision, charging gas-guzzlers more remains popular amongst a big majority of Londoners (not surprising when nearly half of us in London don’t even own a car).

Later this month, we’ll also hear the government’s decision on who will be running the next census in 2011. I’ve blogged here before about our campaign to prevent arms manufacturing and intelligence gathering giant Lockheed Martin from getting the contract and undermining public confidence in the census. With recent government carelessness raising security concerns among the public about personal data, a decision in favour of Lockheed is looking increasingly self-defeating, as do plans to impose ID cards on us all.

Radio 4’s iPM programme picked up on the census issue a couple of weeks ago, and their interview with the Office of National Statistics showed they are taking the concerns we have raised into account and seeking to prevent the Patriot Act from sending all our details to the US intelligence agencies. The Census Alert petition is nudging into the top 150 of more than 8,000 on the Downing Street website, which isn’t bad but still maddeningly far behind the ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ petition. Perhaps Jeremy should join me in running for Mayor – even I’ll admit he makes more sense than Boris Johnson.

And at least Transport for London and the ONS seem to be taking the concept of public consultation seriously, unlike the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to the Independent, ‘within days’ new nuclear power stations will get the go-ahead from BERR following the government’s re-run ‘consultation’ on the issue.

This second exercise in coaxing a positive reaction out of hand-picked members of the public has been even less convincing than the first, which was thrown out by the High Court last February after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. The situation hasn’t fazed Secretary of State John Hutton. The Indy quotes sources in his department who are oddly proud of the underwhelming fact that, “dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation.” Not sure that will impress the judge when the decision is challenged again by Greenpeace. They and other green organisations pulled out of the second process after being ignored and sidelined and are signalling their intention to take the matter back to court.

Later in 2008, the Climate Change Bill will continue its path through Parliament. With science telling us loud and clear that we must set emissions targets that will keep warming below two degrees, we will be watching closely to make sure the government commits to real action at last. Personally, I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the policies that will enable 7,000 new offshore wind turbines to be built by 2020. This intention was announced in a grand speech by John Hutton (him again) a month ago, but the details of how this will be achieved are thin, if not non-existent. Given that German-style feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing higher prices for clean energy, are by far the most efficient way of funding new renewables, we might just see the government’s perverse commitment to the comparatively useless Renewables Obligation dropped.

Aside from big projects, carbon savings in our daily lives will need to be stepped up this year too. Unfortunately, as outlined in an Observer article last week, polling organisations report worrying signs that the efforts of the other parties to make greener lives appear difficult and expensive may be paying off, with ‘green fatigue’ threatening to set in. People are reluctant to pay green taxes and change their lifestyles mainly because they don’t see the issue being taken seriously by business or government. “There's cynicism because on the one hand we're being told [the problem] is very serious and on the other hand we're building runways, mining Alaskan oil; there's a lot going on that appears to be heading in the opposite direction,” says Phil Downing of MORI.

Keeping the public behind green policies will therefore be a major challenge this year. Since last January, when I blogged about a new high for the environment in MORI’s ongoing ‘most important issues’ poll at 19%, the proportion of people bringing up environmental concerns with MORI’s researchers has dropped back to a much more modest 10% - still way higher than pre-2006 levels but now heading in the wrong direction.

It’s hardly a surprise people lost enthusiasm during 2007 when they saw so little of it from their political leaders. It couldn’t be more obvious that Gordon Brown is looking for an excuse to drop green issues from his agenda: climate change doesn’t even appear on his ‘big issues’ webpage. The Tories also gave the game away last year when their green policy document was repudiated with the ink still wet as soon as an election looked imminent. And, despite their good intentions, the Lib Dems’ mantra of ‘more green taxes’ is surely doing more harm than good to the public’s perception of green issues.

No, it looks like it will be up to us real Greens to make the case that action on climate change can be good for the pockets of ordinary people, not just for our consciences.

Refreshingly, some political previews of 2008 have given airtime to the concept of peak oil, and the fact that high oil and gas prices will become a permanent fixture this year and beyond. In this context, the policies we have planned for London – free insulation for homes, improved public transport with lower fares, more local food, more small and green businesses not complete reliance on the volatile financial sector – start to look like pure common sense, not just for green reasons, but for economic ones too.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage