The goings-on inside Africa

The joint parliamentary meeting between the delegation of the European Parliament and the delegation from the African, Caribbean and Pacific parliaments (EU-ACP) is not anything like the grandiose Commonwealth meetings of the respective members’ heads of state. They are more down-to-earth affairs where you are more able to connect with the host country and its people and feel its pulse. You will not see pompous protocols observed, car-cades of BMWs and organised sightseeing. If you want transport about town you have to make your own. Security outside the conference hall is mostly your own affair. So I must admit I did express some hesitation before confirming to attend as an EP delegation member at this year’s EU-ACP meeting in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The country, lying straddled across the equator in the heart of Africa, after all has the unenviable distinction of being the second poorest country in the world after Zimbabwe.

This ex-Belgian colony has historically experienced one of the darkest chapters of colonial rule claiming innumerable deaths from slavery and starvation. This was followed by pre- and post-independence riots and army mutinies, including the unforgettable mysterious death in prison of their former Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. The Mobuto Seso Seko era which followed under the country’s new name Zaire saw the excesses that a one-party authoritarian rule can do to its country. It has been estimated by Transparency International that President Mobutu had amassed a fortune of $5 billion during his tenure. The culmination of the Eastern rebellion or first Congo War saw President Mobutu being deposed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila senior in 1997. The anti-democratic stance continued, however, with rebel groups armed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda giving rise to the second Congo War, also known as Africa’s World War, leading to the extermination of 3.8 million persons. Wars under whatever guises are always very ugly but the atrocities, torture, maiming, rapes are quite remarkable in this region.

Who cannot remember the shocking TV footage of the Rwandan genocide pitting Hutus against Tutsis in 1994. Unlike with WWII as a historical subject, Hollywood was less generous with telling this human story on film, although Hotel Rwanda was one such distinguished exception. This war too spilled into the Congo since Hutus had crossed the border and their armed militia has remained a threat to both Congo and Rwanda alike. These conflicts are still marked today by atrocities including arbitrary executions by the state armies and the use of rape as an act of violence during such conflicts. The number of displaced people in Congo today still makes up some two million persons.

With Joseph Kabila (the son of the deposed President who died in exile), things stabilised: a 20,000-strong UN army (Monusco) was brought in, a new Constitution was approved, peace with some rebels was sought and a free democratic multi-party election was held. The EU and its member states spent some €250 million for this very first election, much sought by the West and which was narrowly won by President Kabila.

The EU is heavily involved in its support of the DRC army and police by two advisory missions – Eusec and Eupol. Without law and order one cannot have sustainable economic activity. By coincidence, my next seat passenger on my flight to Kinshasa was a young Portuguese woman who told me she was going for a year in Kinshasa as a human resource manager with Eupol. I asked her whether she minded working in such a high-risk city where even men are advised not to walk the streets unaccompanied. She replied in the negative informing me she has returned from a similar stint in Kabul. Of course, I could not comment any further. Today the DR of Congo is in post-conflict state where human and democratic rights are being fought for and won in very small increments. Corruption is endemic and the country is off-track for most of the Millennium Development Goals. The DRC has still a staggering 76 per cent of its population hungry – a world record. HIV/AIDS prevalence is among the world’s highest while tropical diseases, even the most dreaded ones like Ebola, are found in this unfortunate country. Yet, putting all this behind them there are many Congolese people and their officials who are very hopeful. The country is rich in natural deposits of coltan (used in mobile phones), gold, diamonds, copper, oil and gas. One need not be a cynic to admit it is because of this natural wealth the country has had so many wars. One is encouraged to see the morning throng of children going to school in Kinshasa. But many more, especially in rural areas, need to go too. The average life-time education of the population is only four months against the 13 to 14 years in our case.

The presence of the European Parliamentary delegation together with delegations from other African, Caribbean and Pacific countries was meant to bring a sign of optimism and support for this post-conflict African country. Up north in Libya, at that same time of our meeting, an EU-Africa summit was being held. Africa needs assistance on many fronts including finance, infrastructure, trade, education and health. However it also needs moral support from the world. Recent signs from the EU, China and the US indicate it is increasingly forthcoming. Let us, then, like the world at large, keep ourselves posted too on what is happening inside Africa. – 22nd December, 2010

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