COMMON GROUND
 

Air Date: February 2, 1999

Program 9905

Inside the Congo

Guests:
Members of the Great Guys English Language Club, Congo
Wilfred Ullrich, mining consultant
Lambert Djunga, attorney
John Joseph Mukende Wasmumumba, politician, Congo
Guillaukme Muhindo, National Institute of Statistics, Congo

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

OLIVIER KUNGWA: [via a translator]: After Kabilaís military campaign to topple Mobutu, the Tutsiís and Banyamalange were welcomed here. Soon after that the behavior of the Rwandan Tutsi soldiers was very bad. They would take away peopleís food. They would rape women. They were abusive. So people were pretty angry at them.

PORTER: This week on Common Ground, we go inside the Congo.

PETER BASHIGA: Whatís going to be the future of this country. Itís hard maybe to see through all these problems and see exactly could be done because Kabila has to stick to his position, the rebels, they stick to their position, and the economic situation is really very bad. So whatís going to be the future?

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. Iím Keith Porter.

Few Americans understand whatís going on in the Democratic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. The country is undergoing a civil war, foreign invasion, and tribal massacres. But to many it just seems to be another mess in a country far away. To help us all better understand the consequences of this problems, we have two reports this week from our special correspondent, Reese Ehrlich. Later in the broadcast heíll look at the vast mineral wealth still untapped in Congo. But first, Ehrlich reports that the Congo crisis is unique in post-colonial African history. And the outcome of the war may shape African politics for many years to come. He reports from Kinshasa.

[sound of someone speaking over a loudspeaker]

REESE EHRLICH: Every Sunday a preacher thumps his Bible and shouts out a sermon to his adoring flock here in Kinshasa. And just as regularly, members of the Great Guys English Language Club meet down the block to practice their English and talk politics.

[sound of men talking]

EHRLICH: All the club members complain about the countryís economic crisis. The economy improved during 1997 and early 1998 after Laurent Kabilaís guerrillas overthrew the hated dictatorship of Mobutu Seseseko. But then the economy plummeted when the current war broke out. Inflation has hit 250% and people canít make ends meet, according to Dr. Kabamba.

DR. MBWEBWE KABAMBA: It is weakening. Kabilaís support from people. Because apart from appearance you can see with people supporting Kabilaís government, there is a deep feeling of really, of being abandoned by the power. And that this segment is getting bigger and bigger. We feel it. I personally am facing, I am in fact with patients, when they canít pay their consultation fees you feel there is a kind of sadness, a kind of disappointment.

EHRLICH: All the club members complain about the countryís economic crisis. The economy improved during 1997 and early 1998 after Laurent Kabilaís guerrillas overthrew the hated dictatorship of Mobutu Seseseko. But then the economy plummeted when the current war broke out. Inflation has hit 250% and people canít make ends meet, according to Dr. Kabamba.

KABAMBA: The economic impact is really a nightmare for all people for the time being. Food is very difficult for the time being. Everyone, for civil servant, even for an employee. To get ?? and meat is very difficult. We have to pay school fees for kids. And I am a civil servant. I am not able to pay school fees, and let me tell you that thatís a majority of people.

EHRLICH: But many poor and working class Congolese disagree. They continue to support Kabila and thatís a crucial issue because for the first time in post-colonial history black-ruled countries have invaded and occupied another nation-state in Africa. Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo with the tacit support of the US and Western powers. Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad and Namibia came to Kabilaís military defense. If Kabila loses the war the Congo could fragment and the result could lead to chaos in the region. If Kabila maintains popular support and wins the war, his supporters will claim a great victory for national sovereignty.

[sound of Congolese music and dancing]

EHRLICH: Here on a Kinshasa street corner, men in bright yellow jackets busily sweep streets and clear storm drains. These formerly unemployed men were hired under a government-sponsored public works project. This man earns the equivalent of $28.00 per month, enough to provide some food and other bare necessities.

CONGOLESE WORKER: [via a translator] Iíve been unemployed since 1991. This is my first job since then. Today I was assigned to planting seedling for the lawn. On another day I may be assigned to cleaning out the water drains. It varies every day.

EHRLICH: This man is typical of working class Congolese who see Kabila as a fighter against foreign domination.

CONGOLESE WORKER: [via a translator] Getting this job is a good first step, although things are not perfect. Itís better than staying at home and not doing anything. Many events have taken place in the country. I think Kabila is the right man. If there were elections today I would vote for him.

[sound of phone ringing and person answering in French]

EHRLICH: Businessman Sindika Dokolo sits at a large desk dressed impeccably in a double-breasted suit. His family owns a mining concession and a large fish import-export firm, among other businesses. Dokolo is typical of the businessmen who strongly oppose Kabila and blame him for the countryís economic problems. Dokolo says since the war broke out, the banking system has virtually collapsed.

SINDIKA DOKOLO: If you put your companyís francs in your account, the time for you to get them back, the inflation rate will, you know, will have, like taken away maybe 20% or 30% of what you possess. So thatís why the game here is to try to get rid of the Congolese francs as soon as possible.

EHRLICH: As if to illustrate his point, Dokolo excuses himself for a moment. He returns carrying a bag filled with $30,000 worth of Congolese francs, payment for a business deal. Since no one trusts the banks, he says, all business transactions are literally cash and carry. Dokolo says foreign investment and aid could help turn the economy around.

DOKOLO: Right now the national economy is just, you know, itís just falling down, falling in pieces. Because we have a problem of infrastructures in this country. And we have a problem of macro-economic environment in general. And unless some very strong decisions, very dynamic policy, is started, to find a solution to this problem, the private sector wonít be able to express itself and to bring new money on our market. And the real problem is that it was a great mistake in my opinion, that the government made, to try to have the people believe that we could reconstruct the country without the help of institutions such as IMF, World Bank, African Development Bank.

EHRLICH: If the Democratic Republic of Congo is ever to get such assistance however, it will have to pay off the massive foreign loans run up during the Mobutu years. But Wilfred Ullrich, a mining consultant living in Kinshasa, says the current government shouldnít be forced to make those payments because the loans never benefited the Congolese people.

WILFRED ULLRICH: Mobutu managed to run up such a huge debt with the World Bank and they insist that Kabila pay it off. And I mean, thatís a joke. Because everybody knows that the money that he got was squandered away back to Europe in the forms of palaces, luxury trips, yachts, you name it. And they knew that the money wasnít going to where it was supposed to go, but oh no, they just kept funneling it in to him. And now they expect Kabila to pay it off and heís telling them "not a chance." And I agree with him. And theyíre holding that against him. And theyíve tried everything to discredit him.

[sound of Congolese music]

[sound of rooster crowing]

EHRLICH: Many Congolese say their country has been victimized by Western countries and international financial institutions. Here in a run-down district of Kinshasa unemployed office worker Charles Abedi lives with his family of five in a two-room house with no indoor plumbing. The family shares a water spigot with five neighboring households.

[sound of running water]

EHRLICH: Abedi and many of his neighbors strongly support the Kabila government.

CHARLES ABEDI: [via a translator] Personally, I have a good opinion of Kabila. We can count on him. The short time heís been in power heís restored hope. If he stays in power longer he will do many other good things. Especially if people let him work. If people donít slip banana peels under his feet. Iím speaking to you as someone representing western countries. Let him alone. Let him carry out his projects.

EHRLICH: Abedi specifically blames the US for backing Rwandaís and Ugandaís invasion of Congo. When Kabila refused to make payments on the World Bank debt, says Abedi, the West gave the green light for the invasion.

ABEDI: [via a translator] The international institutions and Western governments feel guilty about something. They supported Mobutu for a very long time. Theyíve plundered along with Mobutu. But with Kabilaís program itís tough for them to get something from Congo. I believe thatís why theyíre creating problems for Kabila. The current war in Congo is a war of the Westernerís making.

EHRLICH: Abedi and others point out that the International Monetary Fund recently extended a $2.5 billion loan to Uganda, which is supporting the Congolese rebels. But that same institution halted payment on an already promised loan to Zimbabwe, which is backing Kabila. But ABEDI, like many Congolese, also offers a tribal explanation for the current war. And this is where things get very complicated.

ABEDI: [via a translator] The Westerners are fighting a war against Kabila by proxy, using Tutsi people. I am from Kivu, in the eastern part of Congo. There, local people have always fought the Tutsi. There is no such thing as a Congolese Tutsi. They are Rwandans. They call came from Rwanda.

EHRLICH: Tens of thousands, some say as many as 300,000 Tutsi, live in eastern Congo. The country has a total population of about 46 million. The Tutsi emigrated from Rwanda generations ago and have Congolese citizenship. But many Congolese still consider them outsiders. President Kabila came to power in 1998 backed by Rwanda, whose army is almost exclusively Tutsi. Kabila also had strong support from the Congolese Tutsi minority, known as Banyamalange. When these forces marched into Kinshasa it led to problems. Olivier Kungwa is a researcher with the human rights group, Voice of the Voiceless.

KUNGWA: [via a translator] After Kabilaís military campaign to topple Mobutu, the Tutsiís and Banyamalange were welcomed here. Soon after that the behavior of the Rwandan Tutsi soldiers was very bad. They would take away peopleís food. They would rape women. They were abusive. So people were pretty angry at them.

EHRLICH: By the middle of 1998 resentment of the Tutsiís in the Rwandan Army was severely undercutting Kabilaís popular support. He decided to kick the foreign political advisors and troops out of the country. In retaliation Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo in early August and sponsored a rebellion by disgruntled Congolese military men. When the rebels appeared on the verge of seizing Kinshasa in mid-August some of Kabilaís ministers mobilized popular support by giving speeches attacking all Tutsi. It played into the popular prejudices against the Banyamalange. The population hunted down and murdered Banyamalange, or anyone who even looked like a Tutsi. The government eventually reversed course and sent out troops to protect the Banyamalange. However, many of them had to flee Kinshasa. Foreign diplomats and human rights groups confirmed that the anti-Tutsi violence has stopped in Kinshasa. The Kabila government now proclaims itself an opponent of ethnic hatred and tribal war. But the tribal-based conflicts continue in the east of the country.

[sound of Congolese music]

EHRLICH: The Kabila government argues that it is fighting for an important principle: to stop foreign invaders and keep the Congo united. Finance Minister Mwanga Nanga Mowampanga wonders out lout why Western countries launched a massive war when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but have doing when Rwanda and Uganda have invaded his country. He says that compared to Mobutu, or even neighboring African leaders, Kabila is honest and wants to help ordinary Congolese.

Mwanga Nanga Mowampanga: The people of the DRC understand that President Kabila is, and his government, are doing the best they can in very, very difficult circumstances. And they see, that where we live. We donít drive big Mercedes cars or we donít have huge bank accounts in Switzerland, whatever. Whatever we get we give it to the people. When we brought in some busses and there were some problems at the prison, put them on the street for free. Yes, yeah, but itís something that you know, we donít keep things for ourselves. Whatever we get we give it to the people. And the people see we share whatever we have. So people understand that, and they support the government.

EHRLICH: Back at the Sunday meeting of the Great Guys Club members continue to practice their English by discussing current politics. They want to see the Democratic Republic of Congo stay united, but they also want to see meaningful negotiations between Kabila, neighboring governments, and the rebels. Peter Bashiga is a Great Guys member.

BASHIGA: I mean we donít have the kind of national consensus. So I wonder myself how heís going to solve the problem. Thereís the economic situation which is pending. So, when you take all these elements into account, what is going to be the future of this country? Itís hard maybe to see through all these problems and see exactly could be done because Kabila has to stick to his position, the rebels, they stick to their position, and the economic situation is really very bad. So whatís going to be the future?

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, Iím Reese Ehrlich, in Kinshasa.

[sound of Congolese music]

PORTER: In a moment Reese Ehrlich will take us back to the Congo, this time to look at the enormous deposits of wealth which sit just below the surface of this very poor nation.

ULLRICH: The Belgians took the easiest, most accessible gold. And when they left at independence they blew their mine shafts, they pretty well took, you know, took a lot of the stuff out, to make it unusable.

[sound of Congolese music]

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, once known as Zaire, sits on an estimated $58 billion in mineral wealth. The country has huge deposits of gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper and other minerals. But due to corruption under the old Mobutu regime and political upheaval for the past two years, much of that wealth still lays in the ground. Reese Ehrlich reports from Kinshasa.

[sound of Congolese music]

EHRLICH: In front of a café a street musician entertains a group of Congolese. But nearby, much more serious business is going on. A Lebanese diamond trader and his two brothers stand stiffly at attention, anger in their eyes, as two Congolese men walk in. They arenít about to be robbed. The Congolese want to sell ten gem-quality diamonds and the Lebanese traders are just demonstrating a tough bargaining stance. The Congolese men want $45,000 but the Lebanese trader wonít go higher than $28,000óat least for the moment.

LEBANESE DIAMOND TRADER: The top price of it is $28,000.

EHRLICH: Youíre a tough bargainer.

LEBANESE DIAMOND TRADER: Thatís it.

[sound of laughter]

EHRLICH: These days Congoís gold and diamond mining is done almost exclusively by individuals and sold in small deals like this one. Neither foreign companies nor the state-owned mining firm are producing much. One reason is that some of the best deposits are deep in the bush. To dig up gold, for example, mining companies must build everything from scratch: roads, electrical generating plants, workersí housing; everything. Wilfred Ullrich, is a mining consultant who has worked in the back country.

ULLRICH: If youíre out in the serious jungle then you live in a tent. No running water, no electricity unless you have a generator, but if youíre too far out itís even hard to get fuel. So, itís very basic, basic type of living. Get up when the sun comes up and you pretty well knock it off when the sun goes down.

EHRLICH: The Belgians, the colonial rulers of the Congo before 1960, used to operate gold mining companies in remote areas in the eastern part of the country.

ULLRICH: The Belgians mind it for about 50 years, almost from the turn of the century. And it was easily as rich, probably much richer than the California mining fields at the time. The Belgians took the easiest, most accessible gold. And when they left at independence they blew their mine shafts, they pretty well took, you know, took a lot of the stuff out, to make it unusable.

EHRLICH: In 1960, after national elections, leftist Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister, much to the dismay of Belgium, the US and other western powers. Later that year Colonel Mobutu led a coup deí etat. He arrested and murdered Lumumba, many Congolese believe under pressure from the US. Western aid and investment flooded into the country to help Mobutu Seseseko, who became the dictator for over 32 years. At first Mobutu welcomed foreign mining companies, who profited handsomely from the mineral concessions. But by the late 1980s mineral production steadily dropped due to rampant corruption. Lambert Djunga, an attorney who advised mining companies, says during the Mobutu years mining company applications for concessions just sat on a ministerís desk until a bribe was paid.

LAMBERT DJUNGA: You filed your application, they just sit on it and wait that you come to fill up your application. And money you discuss with them. At the end heíll make you understand that, "Listen, you know, itís, Iím the one who will sign your contract. You have to think about remunerating my signature." So we used to know then that you have to spread, distribute some candies to those guys.

ULLRICH: Under the last government nobody really wanted to mine heavily.

EHRLICH: Mining consultant Ullrich says Mobutu ran a keptocracy.

ULLRICH: He wanted his cronies to basically run it and he got pretty well the bulk of anything that was mined, and very little went to the other people, to the workers and stuff. So there was no morale, no production. It just kept going steadily downhill until it pretty well ceased.

[sound of Congolese music]

EHRLICH: In 1998 Laurent Kabila led a successful uprising against Mobutu. Some Western mining companies saw the handwriting on the mine shaft and backed Kabila. One Dallas-based company paid Kabila $1 million in advance taxes and offered him use of its private jet. After winning power Kabila encouraged foreign investment. ULLRICH says Kabila wanted taxes from the countryís mineral wealth to be used for schools, hospitals and other needed services.

ULLRICH: Kabila himself doesnít get involved in the mining industry as say Mobutu did, for his own personal gain. Kabila is more interested in having foreign development. And heís interested in having foreign development work with the local peoples. People get registered on their, in companies. They do their payroll taxes. And basically what he wants is to set up an accountable workforce so that the government gets the revenues and the people get their healthcare and their schools.

EHRLICH: Not everybody thinks the Kabila government has been so honest. In late 1998 the government-owned mining company, Zhekemin, awarded a cobalt mining concession in Katanga province to a Zimbabwean company called Ridgepoint. One of the men signing the contract on behalf of Ridgepoint, however, was the Congoís Minister of Mines. Government opponents suspect that the Mining Minister is pocketing money from the deal. John Joseph Mukende Wasmumumba?? is a leading opposition politician

MUKENDI WAS MUBUMBA: [via a translator] I must say the economic destruction of our country stems directly from the lack of transparency in government and in business dealings. Kabila is walking in Mobutuís footsteps. That contact signed by Zhekemin?? in Katanga shows a remarkable lack of transparency. There are other examples as well.

EHRLICH: Ullrich concedes that corruption exists, but says that Kabila is sometimes a victim of ministers and bureaucrats trained under Mobutu.

[sound of Congolese music]

EHRLICH: Alleged corruption is just one problem facing the country. Rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda now control about one-third of the Congo, including some valuable mines in the eastern part of the country. As long as the war continues, Western mining companies and banks arenít real anxious to invest. So the Kabila government sold mining concessions to Zimbabwean and Namibian companies. But attorney Djunga says that wonít solve the problem either.

DJUNGA: In terms of mining expertise and experience they donít have any, because theyíve never been involved in mining before. This is the first mining operation they are undertaking, here in the Congo. I think what they are going to do, certainly they will subcontract with some junior South African, small mining company to do the mining work in consideration of some commission or payment.

EHRLICH: Guillaukme Muhindo, an official from the governmentís National Institute of Statistics, says Congo will need massive amounts of capital from industrialized countries in order to fully develop the mines.

GUILLAUKME MUHINDO: [via a translator] He says it will require an investment of between $2.5 to 3 billion. I donít think Zimbabwe or Namibia could generate that kind of capital. Even companies in Western countries donít have that amount of money on their own. There will have to be partners from several countries. Such a huge financing would involve multinational institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

EHRLICH: But all that hinges on the warís end. At that point some of the Congoís incredible wealth could actually reach the Congolese in the form of much needed social services.

[sound of Congolese music]

EHRLICH: Back at the Lebanese diamond traderís office the haggling is still going on. The two sides canít agree, however, and thereís no deal. Thatís a metaphor, perhaps, for the mining industry as a whole here in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Everything is on hold until the war ends. For Common Ground, Iím Reese Ehrlich, in Kinshasa.

[sound of Congolese music]

PORTER: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free, cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to Program No. 9905. To order by credit card, you can call us at 319·264·1500. Transcripts are available on our web site. Go to commongroundradio.org. Our e-mail address is commonground@stanleyfdn.org. Again, cassettes are $5.00 and transcripts are free of charge.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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