Congo on the edge

After its elections, will this gigantic African nation begin a new, normalised future - as the inter

In the lakeside town of Bukavu, a nervy day followed a violent night. In the early hours, soldiers had broken into the house of a local man, stolen cash meant to pay for his wife's hospital treatment, and shot him dead. The previous night, a 16-year-old girl had been killed by looting soldiers. Come daybreak, Bukavu's students showed their exasperation the only way they could, blocking traffic on the main avenue with burning tyres.

That both of last month's incidents were virtually routine highlights the challenge facing the international community in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In less than three months' time, Congo will stage its first multi-party elections in 40 years, polls that will theoretically solder the social contract between citizen and state. The soldiers' behaviour raises the question of whether there is any contract there to be salvaged at all. "The state died here a long time ago," shrugs Father Jean-Pacifique Balaamo, stationed at a seminary on the outskirts of Bukavu. "Since 1990 there has been no state."

When the western officials who committed themselves to the continent's recovery at Gleneagles last year survey sub-Saharan Africa, they juggle two alternative scenarios in their heads, each hingeing on events in this huge nation. In upbeat mode, they see the Sudan peace agreement gelling, an end to the insurgency in northern Uganda, Somalia's warlords reaching a modus vivendi, and a post-electoral Congo, its leadership newly legitimised, beginning to resemble a normal nation. In the dark hours of the night, they see the Sudan deal foundering, Ethiopia imploding and post-electoral Congo slipping into chaos - a swathe of instability stretching like a festering sore across the continent. "Après moi le déluge," whispers the ghost of the late Mobutu Sese Seko, who not so much ruled Congo as oversaw its steady collapse.

It is a scenario that the rest of the world is ready to spend a great deal to prevent. The United Nations, European Union and other donors are contributing $422m to the elections alone. The UN force stationed in Congo, numbering 17,000 men, is the biggest in the world and costs $1.2bn a year. Britain, sensitive to accusations of favouritism towards Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, is the biggest bilateral donor to the election process in the DRC.

Sadly, goodwill and funding may not suffice. There are many who fear that the elections, far from setting Congo on the right path, could actually make things worse, spelling an end to a semi-peaceful hiatus in which mortality rates have fallen and trade has picked up. One problem is the eagerness of President Joseph Kabila to emerge as undisputed victor. Under the three-year-old transition arrangements, he is at present obliged to share power with two rebel movements and the opposition, and he is itching for an undisputed mandate. Many observers fear that, given the absence of credible, politically unbiased mechanisms for policing election irregularities, Kabila will be unable to resist rigging the vote to ensure he gets that mandate at the first round.

It looks unlikely that the donors will kick up a fuss if this occurs. There are uncanny echoes in their relationship with Kabila - a mild-mannered, pleasantly spoken man who strikes most whom he meets as strangely devoid of charisma, drive and vision - of the west's initial indulgent attitude towards the young Mobutu, once hailed as "le doux colonel" ("the gentle colonel").

"History is repeating itself. The international community is backing Kabila, although there's nothing there, just as it built up and backed the young Mobutu," says Thomas Nziratimana, vice-governor of South Kivu Province. "It's all a question of perception, but a sense that Kabila is unstoppable has been created."

Initially, various legal mechanisms aimed at giving election also-rans some voice in the political dispensation were envisaged, but none has been enacted, dooming Congo to a winner-takes-all system. In a country where losers rarely agree to fade quietly into the background, this is asking for trouble.

One loser is certain to be Étienne Tshisekedi, Congo's veteran opposition leader, who originally announced he was boycotting the polls and urged his supporters not to register, only to change his mind. His original refusal to play ball means millions of voters in Kinshasa, the two Kasais and Katanga will in effect be disenfranchised. It is not clear how much pulling power the 73-year-old Tshisekedi still possesses, but he was once a figure who could rally the angry youth of Congo's dilapidated cities.

Another likely loser is Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former head of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, now a transitional vice-president. Son of a close Mobutu ally, Bemba went into the bush to win a stake in Congo's political game. It is hard to see him accepting anonymity now.

The biggest loser, however, may be an entire ethnic group, the Kinyarwanda-speaking population of Congo's east, tinderbox of previous wars. In the wake of two invasions by neighbouring Rwanda, this community, made up of Tutsis and Hutus, is regarded by other Congolese tribes as a fifth column in its midst. The Kinyarwanda speakers, in their turn, live in terror of a local version of the genocide staged across the border, which left Rwanda scattered with rotting bodies.

One of Kabila's great failings is that, aware of his vulnerability on the nationality issue (he spent much of his youth in Tanzania, and avoids speaking Lingala in public), he has done nothing to preach ethnic reconciliation in the east or to dilute the loathing felt towards the Kinyarwanda speakers by other Congolese.

"For us, the Banyamulenge, the Rwandans - there's no difference," says Colonel Joseph Tchimanuka, a former member of the Mai-Mai, the home-grown militia that sprang up to fight Rwandan infiltration. "I have never regretted killing a Tutsi, after what I saw they had done to our country."

In North Kivu, the Kinyarwanda-speaking people look to the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) for protection. This Rwandan-backed former rebel group, which once controlled nearly a third of the Congo, is likely to win fewer than 50 seats in the new, 608-seat Kinshasa parliament. In South Kivu, administered from Bukavu, the Kinyarwanda speakers are dubbed the Banyamulenge, after the isolated Mulenge plateau on which they live. They stand to win no seats at all.

"The problem is that a lot of people who are in power now will lose it in the elections," says Jason Stearns, senior analyst at the non-profit-making International Crisis Group. "Many of those people have links to armed groups. The maths is simple: why go through a process that's not in your interests?"

Braced for anything smacking of ethnic cleansing, the Kinya-rwanda speakers are growing increasingly jittery as polling day approaches. Banyamulenge fighters listed for demobilisation are heading instead for the hills, wary of disarming at such a sensitive moment. In North Kivu, watching and waiting, sits a mutinous force of Kinyarwanda-speaking soldiers who split from the Congolese national army in 2004, poised for a return to action.

If conflict does break out, Rwanda could once again intervene to protect what it sees as kith and kin. "If there is anything that even looks like the beginning of a Banyamulenge witch-hunt, the Rwandans will return," predicts Danilo Rosales Díaz, UN political officer in Bukavu. "I'm not saying they would come to stay, but they would not let the Banyamulenge be targeted."

For citizens in the east, Congo's soft underbelly, the future rests on the whims of armed groups that "tax" local businesses, stealing and raping at will. These include the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda militia, many of whose members took enthusiastic part in the 1994 genocide; the Mai-Mai ("little more than bandits", despairs one resident of Bukavu); breakaway Banyamulenge factions; and, most worryingly, the army.

When I lived in Kinshasa in the mid-1990s, in the Mobutu era, people lived in fear that the army, whose pay was routinely stolen by the generals, would launch one of the bouts of pillaging that had already twice battered Congo's cities. It is depressing to discover, 12 years later, that military pay is still being stolen, soldiers still receive only $10 a month, and the public still lives in constant fear.

While acknowledging the urgent need to reform an ethnically divided, factionalised and demoralised army, western donors have dithered over who should take the lead. The money the international community has spent preparing elections would arguably have been better directed towards tackling a collapsing institution that has such a noxious daily impact on Congolese lives.

No wonder that when the World Bank recently conducted a survey of attitudes and put the question, "If the state was a person, what would you do to it?" the answers included the blunt, but no doubt heartfelt: "Kill it."

Congo's Elections: making or breaking the peace and Security Sector Reform in the Congo are both published by the International Crisis Group. www.crisisgroup.org

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Is this the end?

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Is this the end?