August is traditionally the month of the "silly season" for news, with journalists scratching around for good stories. This year the Olympic Games were a godsend for generating miles of column inches. And from the vantage point of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the news was certainly far from being silly, and I convey some home thoughts from abroad.
On the evening of Friday, 13 August, 160 Congolese tutsis were massacred in a refugee camp at Gatumba just four kilometres inside the Burundi border. They had thought themselves to be in a place of safety after fleeing from marauding bands of hutu bandits, including the notorious Interahamwee who were responsible for the genocide in Rwanda a decade ago. Despite the efforts of United Nations peacekeeping forces, the whole border area, where eastern Congo meets Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, is still unstable, and the tribal loyalties that cross national borders put great strains on the ability of governments to maintain security. How can a transitional government in Kinshasa, way off in the south western corner of a country a quarter the size of the USA, and with borders with nine other countries, hope to enforce its authority in the far away eastern border provinces of Kivu?
Attempts by politicians from the region to undermine the transitional process have not found support from their members of parliament but there is much talk of incursions from Rwanda and of protecting Congolese "national territory" as if it was some primaeval and preordained natural entity. In fact, of course, the Congo is a European colonial construction with its borders, as with those of all African countries, determined at meetings in Berlin in the 1880s. The current parliamentary debate about who is and who is not "Congolese" is a legal necessity for the determination of citizenship and for electoral registration, but it is essentially artificial. But for Belgian colonisation the word would not exist. Despite all their well justified denunciations of colonialism, African governments have passionately defended the colonial inheritance of their national boundaries, indeed, only one new country - Eritrea - has emerged from this century old carve up of the continent.
I find the whole concept of the nation state and of "sovereignty" wholly illogical and, frankly, baffling. It is a very useful tool for politicians to brandish when there are votes to be gained from bashing the French or whoever happen to be the current villains but in the sense in which it has acquired some mystical embodiment of the "nation" it is a very recent, and all too Hegelian, concept. How can lines on maps, drawn after military conflict, define some unifying and over-arching identity? It is nonsense. I recall an "Any Questions" in Portsmouth in the 1980s at which Enoch Powell waxed lyrical about the nation state. I mentioned that he was an "United Ulster Unionist" Member of Parliament and asked him who had decided what constituted "Ulster" and what was "united" about a settlement which left three of the nine counties of the historic Ulster outside Northern Ireland. He did not respond.
The sad fact is that this is not simply an academic debate for intellectuals on some abstruse notion. It is a lethal concept for which millions have died and, whether in Sudan, Iraq or the Middle East, are still dying. Take the arguments about immigration. There is no intrinsic difference between Bradfordians moving to Leeds to find work and Poles or Kurds getting on Norman Tebbit's metaphorical bike and coming to Britain or wherever to seek employment - and, more often than not, safety. It is simply a question of where the politicians draw the boundary. Is it at Pudsey, Offa's Dyke, Hadrian's Wall, the Channel or the Tigris river? It is a pragmatic issue and not one of principle. I find my compatriots amongst those who share my views and my interests, rather than necessarily amongst those who, mainly by sheer accident, share my country.
Historically it has been frontiers that provoked wars, not people, and the quicker we can erode national borders and develop natural communities of interest the safer the world will be. It will not happen overnight but it will not accelerate until the illogic of the whole idea of sovereignty is appreciated. After all it has taken fifty years to reach by peaceful means a European Union of twenty-five members - a concept that Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler tried in vain to achieve by war. Within that union older, natural, entities are now beginning to emerge. Some, such as Catalonia, have their own languages which are again being promoted, making the point that historically the creation of national identity has often required the imposition of a conqueror's language on a subjugated people.
The border between Russia and Poland was always shifting with the vicissitudes of war and when it was finally fixed an elderly peasant was said to have remarked that he was very relieved to find himself again in Poland, as he "simply couldn't stand those Russian winters any longer". The same point was made still more tellingly by the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn: "A man from Berehovo/Bergsasz arrives in heaven and they say to him that before he can come in he has to tell his life story. 'Well,' he says, 'I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire - educated in Czechoslovakia - started work in Hungary and was for a time in Germany - spent most of my adult life in the Soviet Union and the end of my retirement, just before coming here, in the Ukrainian Republic.' 'My goodness,' they said, 'You must have done a lot of travelling in your lifetime.' 'Not at all,' says the man, 'I never left Berehovo.'"
The human problem of different tribes living together in peace is vividly acute, whether in a corner of central Africa or in Northern Ireland, but masking it with the excuse of border posts and nationalism will delay its solution for ever.
30 August 2004