A glimmer of hope from out of Africa

Towards the end of Kinshasa's main street, just set back a little from the pavement, stands a large mango tree. In front, sheltering under it, was a plain wooden slatted seat, on which stood a mirror, and, carefully nailed to a lower branch but slightly askew, a large sign: "Salon Coiffure Nelson". Such typical African enterprise and presumption brought a smile. I hope it also brings clients. Most African capital cities burst with energy and confidence, with traders and taxis everywhere, and with individuals full of confidence that their current business enterprise is going to become the next conglomerate. Such activity is not as evident in Kinshasa as it is in other cities in which I have worked.

Certainly Kinshasa has markets and it has its street corner money changers and its salesmen and women. It also has a number of those amazing pieces of art when the publicity for a shop or on a hoarding isn't pasted on but is an original painting. But there aren't as many and with it all there is a sense of weariness and wariness. Usually in Africa, when walking along a street, most passers by give a big smile and a "hello", or, as here, a "bonjour". In Kinshasa perhaps only one in ten catch your eye and greet you. It is all a consequence of decades of civil unrest and of the precariousness that still characterises the current regime of Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - formerly Zaïre, and before that the Belgian Congo. Even the week before I arrived there had been another failed coup, but, for the first time for forty years, there seems a genuine desire amongst the main parties and their leaders to end the long period of turmoil and to seek peace and democracy. If one were looking for a good sign it would be the recent evidence of a free press. Every day there are scores of newspapers on the streets, covering all political hues.

Situated right in the heart of Africa, this a huge country - a quarter the size of the USA - with a population guessed at 53 million. Guessed, because the last census was nineteen years ago. It has so many tribes that none is dominant. It has four million internal refugees as a consequence of ongoing wars, mainly in the north-east, on the Rwandan and Ugandan borders which has cost some three million lives. It has virtually no infrastructure. The roads are in a sorry state, even in the capital, and the electricity supply is unreliable. There are no telephone landlines, though GSM portables are said to cover the whole country. There are no buses and no taxis, but many private cars tout for business that is too dangerous for a foreigner on his own to accept.

As a politician I am always fascinated by the sheer scale of the social, economic and security problems posed by such countries. What does one do? Where does one start? Certainly when, as now, there is an opportunity to help, the international community is capable of acting swiftly and on the grand scale. There is a UN peace-keeping presence in key areas and a European and American commitment to considerable amounts of dollars and euros in order to assist the Independent Electoral Commission to hold effective elections next year.

This will be a vast exercise, requiring an electoral registration from scratch and then, probably, a referendum on the new constitution followed by elections for a new government. All this in a country where determination of nationality, let alone age, is exceptionally difficult. The old adage that the best is the enemy of the good was never more appropriate. One could wait forever for the perfect conditions to materialise and the Congolese who have suffered their outrageous fortune deserve better and deserve it now.

I talked today with a man of around forty who told me that he had never voted and that he believed that, elections or no elections, power would still go to the man with the largest army. But he was prepared to give it a try and he said that, for the first time, he had "a little hope". The paradox of the Congo is, of course, that it is too rich for its own good. If it were a smaller and, relatively, poorer country like Botswana or Namibia democracy would be easier, in that there would be less temptation to grasp by force for the dictator's own pocket. The Congo has vast resources of diamonds and minerals, some of them exceptionally rare, making it the most extreme example on the African continent of a potentially rich country whose people are in abject poverty.

There is today the first real chance in a generation of peace and security in the Congo. Its history of Belgian colonialism, of the sudden Belgian evacuation in 1960 with minimal preparation of the Congolese, the assassination of Congo's first leader, the charismatic and forthright Patrice Lumumba, the attempted secession of the rich Katanga province under Moïse Tshombe, and the decades of Mobutu's "kleptocracy", are all gone. It is now up to the young Joseph Kabila to deliver what all his predecessors have failed to achieve: a secure and stable government and an elected parliament.

Then I and those on the same electoral "circuit" can return home and listen once again to interminable arguments about mortgage rates, second cars and what one's health insurance covers, all of which seem so very distant from the problems of life and death in a poor African country.

20 June 2004