McFerson Discusses her 2007 Trip to the African Continent in "The Two Congos"

The Two Congos

July 30, 2006

Hazel M. McFerson, PhD

In May [2007], I visited the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC formerly Zaire).  The two countries face each other across the Congo River, connected by a 20-minute ferry ride preceded and followed by a 2-hour nightmare.

The visitor feels that the river is made of tears shed over centuries of rape, plunder,  mismanagement, and poverty on both sides. The heritage of the tragic history of the Congo Basin is evident in today s social, human, and political disaster. Two centuries of Portuguese, Arab and other slavers were followed by the systematic brutality of rapacious King Leopold II of the Belgians--personal owner of the so-called  Congo Free State   until the regime s obscenities became too extreme for even the tolerant imperialism of the day. A half century of inept colonial administration by Belgium ended in turbulent  independence  and three decades of the kleptocratic dictatorship of equally rapacious Joseph Desire  Mobutu. The DRC is ruled today by 36-year old President Joseph Kabila, whose father Laurent was Mobutu s long-time nemesis and successor from 1997 until his murder in 2001. On the other side, Congo Brazzaville was colonized by France, and thus spared King Leopold s horrors. Its independence has  progressed  from Marxist-oriented autocracy to plain autocracy, punctuated by nasty civil conflicts in the 1990s.  Both countries have large deposits of oil, gas and minerals, including uranium, diamonds, and coltan--essential for cell phones, play-stations and computer chips.  In neither country does the population benefit from this rich natural endowment. On the contrary, in the absence of good governance, the struggle over resources has produced millions of human casualties.  As the African proverb has it:  when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

Four vignettes:

The U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville helped me find a  fixer  to facilitate my travel across the river.  His first question was:  How much money do you have?  Fortunately, I was wise to his inquiry, and adjusted my stash accordingly. Still, plenty of money was extorted here and there, for this ticket and for that  stamp  and for the innumerable oral  permissions . Arrival at Kinshasa Port was bedlam, with hundreds trying to push their way through the gates, beaten back by baton-wielding officials. As one raised his baton to strike me, my fixer on the Kinshasa side arrived and rushed me to safety. On the return trip the following week the whole ritual was repeated, with informal payments to several customs and immigration  officials .  Safely back across, my Brazzaville fixer was waiting for me, and for the rest of my money, but kindly left me just enough for the taxi back to the hotel.  Message: everybody gets hassled and extorted on both sides of the river Congo (much worse on the Kinshasa side) but only up to their  extortionable capacity , although visitors with black skin who arrive on the regular ferry are mistaken for locals and mistreated accordingly.
At the Kinshasa city market an incredible place with thousands of stalls stretching over city blocks, selling bushmeat, diamonds, gold,  dead white men s clothes  donated by charitable Americans, and everything in between--a thief grabbed a woman s purse, and ran. The crowd turned on him in hot pursuit, caught him, beat him senseless and ripped off his clothes. He eventually escaped and melted away only to be spotted again later trying to rip off another person. Message : when legal systems don t work,  due process  is an empty term, and people will take matters in their own hands.

Among the more perplexing sights in Africa, in downtown Brazzaville next to the ruins of buildings destroyed during the civil war, stands a kitschy but grand marble mausoleum in honor of the Italian-born explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who claimed the northern side of the river for France in 1875.  (The claim expanded to the whole of what is today the Congo Republic, Gabon, Central African Republic and Chad.)  The mausoleum houses the tombs of Brazza, his wife and four children, the remains of whom were returned in December 2006 under the auspices of a Congo government agency. Witnessing the re-burial were the presidents of Congo and neighboring Gabon, Angola and Central African Republic, along with the French Minister for Foreign Affairs. Although the French government kicked in about $4 million, the mausoleum ended up costing an additional $10 million of Congo s money--in a country where the majority  live  on less than a dollar a day.  It is true that only the lucky accident of Brazza arriving on the northern riverbank before Henry Morton Stanley spared the inhabitants the  brutalities of the Congo Free State . Still, it is surreal to see in an African capital a government-built monument to the former colonial explorer especially when on neither side of the river can one find any homage to Patrice Lumumba, the democratically-elected prime minister of the newly independent Belgian Congo, assassinated as  regime change  in pursuit of the Cold War and to reopen the way for Belgian mining interests in Katanga.  Message: the psychological hooks of colonialism can be longer-lasting than physical oppression.  

His Excellency Denis Sassou-Nguesso, current president of the Congo Republic and past chairman of the African Union, spent eight days in 2007 at the Crowne Plaza in New York to deliver a 15-minute speech to the U.N.  He paid, in cash, a hotel bill of almost $500,000 for his 50-person entourage, which included presidential butler, personal photographer, and presidential wife s hairdresser. In August 2006, presidential son Denis, head of marketing for the state oil company, took one of his regular shopping sprees to Paris and Dubai, spending $35,000 of his country s money on items by designers Louis Vuitton and Robert Cavelli.  And so it goes.  Message: the paradigm of exploitation and oppression typified by colonialism is being replicated by Africa s own exploiters.  Not until accountability and legitimate governance are built in Africa can the heritage of colonial and post-colonial oppression be shaken off. And accountability will not take root until Africans themselves and people of African origin everywhere cease making excuses and demand it.

Hazel M. McFerson, is an Associate Professor of International Studies in the Department of Public and International Affairs and the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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