Henry Morton Stanley and his "boy" Kalulu, c 1873. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Kinshasa: on the trail of Henry Morton Stanley

Welsh-born explorer and journalist Stanley was employed in 1879 by the crown prince of Belgium, Leopold II, to annex Congo on his behalf.

I held on tight in my seat on the road from Kinshasa International Airport as beaten-up cars and minibuses wove around pedestrians, goats and Kalashnikov-waving militiamen. I work as a biomedical researcher, seeking new cures for human African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, a disease transmitted by the tsetse fly. Most of the world’s cases of sleeping sickness are found here, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was the Victorian explorer David Livingstone who, over 150 years ago, recognised the importance of tsetse flies in carrying disease. Livingstone and his fellow travellers left a lasting legacy, not least because their explorations helped define the map of Africa today.

One of Livingstone’s travel companions was Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-born explorer and journalist who in 1879 was employed by the crown prince of Belgium, Leopold II, to annex Congo on his behalf. Stanley made his way up the River Congo, negotiating with local chiefs the rights to their lands, people and resources – often in exchange for little more than a bottle of gin and a yard of cloth. Whole populations of villages were killed when they objected. Perhaps, some have suggested, Stanley exaggerated his cruelty to sell more books. In any case, Leopold then imposed a brutal system of forced labour in the Congo, attracting international condemnation.

Even after independence in 1960 the violence continued. The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. In 1965 Mobutu Sese Seko seized control and sought to re-Africanise the state. Both the country and the river were renamed Zaire. Leopoldville, the capital, became Kinshasa, and Stanleyville, on the river bend, Kisangani.

A statue of Stanley, erected in Leopoldville in 1956 on the spot where he built his first post, was taken down in 1971. Mobutu plundered the country for 32 years and his successors have done much the same.

So when I arrived at the national museum, built on that same hill where Stanley placed his post, I had a surprise: there was a statue of that old bastard, Leopold, sitting proudly on a horse.

I asked my guide, Marie-Ange, about Stanley. “Il est là!” she replied. Tucked away behind the building was the giant bronze statue of the explorer, lying face up, having been cut off at the feet. How symbolic, I thought, seeing Congo’s slayer slain.“Non!” Marie-Ange exclaimed. “We must restore this statue. Stanley did bad things to Congo’s people. But we must preserve history and learn from its lessons.”

Museum staff are desperate to find the cash needed to get Stanley back on his plinth; they estimate they need as much as $28,000 to do so. In 2010, when the museum first opened to the public, the British embassy in Kinshasa sought funds to restore the statue, but a number of people, including Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, a book that brought the horrors of the Belgian Congo to a new readership, vociferously opposed the resurrection and the opportunity was lost. The Congolese are stuck trying to find other funders.

Desecration of statues easily becomes symbolic of regime change – just consider the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003 in Baghdad. Some statues remain, however. Livingstone, for one, continues to look out over the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Statues of Hitler and Stalin are unlikely to be erected in Warsaw despite the role these tyrants played in the building of the Polish state. But what about Auschwitz? It has been retained as a memorial to the horrors of genocide.

Which is, I think, Marie-Ange’s point. Don’t hide from history; there is much that we must learn. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

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