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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Alfie’s Other Army: the parents and doctors defending Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

To hundreds of thousands, Alfie Evans is the baby condemned to die by cruel doctors – but others condemn the myths and methods used by protesters fighting for his life.

“Over the time we were there, they saved her life three times over,” says John*. “From our point-of-view, we will always be grateful. If it wasn’t for Alder Hey, she wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old father of four nearly lost his five-year-old daughter to a brain tumour. Suffering severe headaches in October last year, she was rushed in an ambulance to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, near where the family lives in Warrington, and a brain tumour was found at the back of her skull.

What followed was every parent’s nightmare. With their three other children waiting for news at home, they waited – living in the hospital – as their daughter underwent emergency surgery to drain fluid from her brain, a 12-hour operation to attempt to remove the tumour, and nearly suffered from sepsis after she developed an infection.

The surgery was successful, and John’s daughter still has regular appointments with the oncology specialist now.

But the scene outside the hospital has transformed since they arrived in that ambulance last autumn.

A mass of protesters have gathered in solidarity with the parents of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a rare neurological condition whose life support has been withdrawn.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a public surge of sympathy for his parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, which has grown into what’s known as “Alfie’s Army” – a wave of online support as well as a near-permanent rally outside the hospital, where he’s been since December 2016 and remains in a “semi-vegetative” state.

“I feel terrible for Alfie’s parents. I have no idea how they feel; I’ve only been part way down the path that they’re on,” says John. “I can only imagine that they’re at their wit’s end. I applaud them for fighting for their son as much as they are doing.

“What I’ve got an issue with is pockets of the protesters who have caused massive issues and could be stopping other children being cared for, abusing medical staff, and just generally disrupting the hospital on a daily basis,” he adds. “And it’s the kind of place that can’t afford to be disrupted.”

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The protesters support Alfie’s parents, who have lost a string of legal battles to keep their son’s ventilation on; he’s been in a coma for well over a year and has been deemed incurable.

They have attracted a range of people, from other parents to people who don’t live locally – including a mother from Manchester whose son went deaf after developing sepsis during birth – to Christian pro-life campaigners (Alfie’s parents are represented by the Christian Legal Centre, which is part of a religious campaign group called Christian Concern) to a 400,000-member strong Facebook group.

Although Merseyside Police emphasise that “many people have gathered to protest in a peaceful way”, a minority of the protesters have converted their sympathy for Alfie’s parents into hostility towards the hospital, with dozens trying to storm it on Monday, and “instances of verbal abuse and acts of intimidation from those outside the hospital”, according to police.

Protesters have also disrupted traffic, hooted car horns, played music and inflated a bouncy castle. Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy commented last week that some of their actions caused inconvenience to “people trying to access the hospital”.

A few days later, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson had to “remind the public that this is a hospital for sick children” and asked protesters to “respect families and staff”.

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Online, parents of patients currently in the hospital report feeling upset by the protesters. One says the hospital staff are “still smiling despite the obvious strain of insults being thrown their way”, and claims a couple of them have had “people banging on their car windows on the way into work”. Another whose own child is on life support feels “trapped”, so reluctant is she to face the protesters outside.

This has given rise to a new online movement expressing support for the hospital. The #ImWithAlderHey hashtag is used on Twitter by locals defending the work of their hospital, NHS staff from other hospitals, and people dismissing the protesters as deluded.

There are also Facebook groups in support of the hospital, but they reach nowhere near the numbers of Alfie’s Army. Even its official page is smaller, with just over 60,000 followers.

Supporters of the hospital say this is because both traditional and social media have fuelled a viral movement against Alder Hey. The UK tabloids have been sensationalising the story – “Conspiracy to murder” was the Metro’s splash today – and social media is spreading myths about Alfie’s condition and the doctors’ and judges’ motives.

Some claim the hospital is trying to save money by reducing Alfie’s treatment to palliative care; a few accuse the doctors of a “conspiracy” to end Alfie’s life; others suggest he’s in better health than doctors suggest, because he continued breathing after his ventilation was switched off (doctors say they expected this).

“Everyone jumps on Google and suddenly thinks they are qualified doctors,” says Clare, a 21-year-old mother whose friend’s two-year-old child is being treated at Alder Hey. “Social media especially [has influenced people].

“They [the staff] have done nothing but wonderful things for my friend’s child even during the madness of the protests. It’s so lovely to see their child smile because of the staff,” she says. “I’m disgusted that grown adults think it’s acceptable to stand outside of a children’s hospital… threatening staff and other visitors.”

“I think the people have joined because it’s within the media, it’s talked about, people know about the case,” says Poppy*, a nurse at a different hospital, who knows people at Alder Hey and has a 19-month-old baby.

“I most definitely think they have been influenced by the media, social media. The page ‘Alfie’s Army’ is a huge source of information… [but] they also use the page to slander Alder Hey and their staff,” she says. “There’s no moral respect for anyone. And it’s not just NHS staff they target. It’s everyone who doesn’t agree with ‘saving’ Alfie.”

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There is a cultish feel to a handful of online posts about Alder Hey. While trawling, I even find a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate mocked up to read the hospital’s name.

This kind of tone shows the unintended consequences of a campaign going viral, and puts Alfie’s parents into an even more distressing situation. Last week, his father even had to apologise “to the parents and staff” affected by the protesters. While they are understandably fighting as hard as they can for their child, not everyone joining them in battle is helping.

The upshot is that this case has morphed from a debate about life support ethics into an issue of protecting hospital staff and patient visitors.

Parliament is now being petitioned to “Protect hospitals with exclusion zones preventing protest outside”, and although its low number of signatures is nothing on the petition for the Queen to intervene in Alfie Evans’ case, it does echo the context of a landmark ruling to ban pro-life protesters from outside an abortion clinic earlier this month.

While the swell of sympathy for Alfie’s parents is understood by all I speak to, the myths and methods swirling around it could be doing more harm than good.

“I think people have joined the family’s cause because they care,” a visitor to the hospital tells me. “It’s human nature to protect our young and nobody wants to see a child die... [But] it’s awful to see such hard-working professionals being criticised in such a way when they’ve gone above and beyond for every patient in their care.”

*All names have been changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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