Congolese children ride through Kinshasa in a dilapidated vehicle. Despite the political divide, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the roads, hospitals and schools need to be fixed. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters. Supporters and opponents of Joseph Kabila are united in their desire to improve Congo's devastated infrastructure, writes Chris McGreal from Kinshasa.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
by Chris McGreal
Thursday November 16, 2006
A couple of days before President Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of Congo's only free presidential election since independence, the Rev Th鯤ore Ngoy - former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, failed presidential candidate and, latterly, opposition spokesman - decided it was time to get out of town.
Mr Ngoy's house had come under attack from government forces at the weekend, and the wife of his gardener was shot dead. He figured that it was not the gardener's wife they were really after so he boarded an Air France flight to Paris and breathed a sigh of relief.
The evangelical pastor had already been locked up several times over the years for sermons criticising the government, and his statements over the past few weeks as a campaign manager for the defeated opposition candidate in the presidential election, Jean-Pierre Bemba, were far more provocative.
But as the plane was preparing to take off, Congolese security forces arrived to take Mr Ngoy from his seat. He was threatened but eventually let go. "I think they want to keep me in Kinshasa as a kind of hostage," he said.
Mr Ngoy did not dare go home, so he is now holed up in Mr Bemba's campaign headquarters behind a line of Uruguayan peacekeepers. "I've got myself into a lot of trouble over the years and it all comes down to one thing; I've dared to say that Kabila is like Mobutu," he said.
Indeed, within months of Mobutu Sese Seko, the one-time dictator of what was then Zaire, being overthrown in the spring of 1997 and replaced by Joseph Kabila's father, Laurent, Mr Ngoy was cast into prison for "subversive preaching" and "threatening state security" for saying nothing had changed. Amnesty started a letter-writing campaign on his behalf.
And nearly a decade later nothing had changed. In March, the pastor escaped from another bout of custody and took refuge in the South African embassy after he was once again locked up for insulting a Kabila, albeit Laurent?s son, Joseph, who came to power six years ago after the assassination of his father.
"What is different from the Mobutu years?" Mr Ngoy asked this week. "Look at the corruption. Look at Kinshasa; the roads hardly exist, the buildings are falling down, nothing works. They blame the war but there was no war in Kinshasa.
"There's something else. Our country got like this because Mobutu was serving the interests of foreigners, not his own people. It's still the same."
There's a lot of support for Mr Ngoy's view on the streets of Kinshasa, where people old enough to remember Mobutu's three decades of misrule are as likely simply to be disheartened as angry that so little has changed.
Many Congolese were doubtful about Laurent Kabila when he was installed in 1997 by a Rwandan army invasion of Congo. They knew little of him other than that he spent most of his time out of the country and was handpicked by a foreign government.
But there was a sense of hope that perhaps things would be different after the years of decline under Mobutu, who unashamedly treated billions of dollars of the country's mining revenues as his personal wealth while millions of people lived in ever-deepening poverty.
By the end, Zaire had fractured into a series of self-governing city states for all practical purposes even though Mobutu remained the towering political presence. The infrastructure eroded until electricity, working phones and decent roads were regarded as an occasional treat. A country more than twice the size of France was left with only a few hundred miles of useable roads.
For a fleeting moment after Mobutu's fall there was hope. It could be found in the new head of customs, who was put in charge of combating corruption and brimmed with enthusiasm for change. And the immigration officer who proudly announced that this was the new Congo and he would no longer be asking for money.
There were ordinary people who turned out to do the most basic reconstruction such as clearing storm-water drains so blocked by mud that the streets became rivers in the rainy season. They offered a glimmer of belief that change was in their hands. It was gone within months.
Laurent Kabila proved to be an authoritarian and insecure ruler, which translated into locking up his critics, such as Mr Ngoy. And the corruption continued as ever with its destructive effects compounded by foreign invasion, civil war and deepening ethnic rifts that Mobutu had kept suppressed.
Joseph Kabila, say his supporters, is different from his father and they credit him with ending most of the civil conflict by bringing rebel leaders such as Mr Bemba into the government as vice-presidents.
But Mr Kabila?s critics say that, like Mr Mobutu before him, he serves the interests of foreign powers with an eye on the diamonds and cobalt mines (that's why the EU has sent peacekeepers, they explain on the streets of Kinshasa) while lining the pockets of the military and political muscle that helps keep him in power.
It is a view given some currency at Mr Kabila's election headquarters in Kinshasa today, where Lidy Mudeka and her friends were lounging in front of a new silver Mercedes. Between them they sported an array of gold jewellery, large diamond rings and even gold-coloured lipstick.
Nonetheless, while Ms Mudeka, 31, is derisive of Mr Bemba and his supporters, her list of what needs to be done by the next government is not so far from what everyone in Kinshasa seems to want.
"We need the roads, the hospitals and the schools fixed. Look at the roads. You can't even drive in a straight line anywhere in Kinshasa because of the holes. Kabila will fix it," she said.
Although Mr Kabila has been in power for six years and not fixed these problems, Ms Mudeka, like many of the president's supporters, blames Mr Bemba and others who became vice-presidents as part of a 2002 peace deal.
"Kabila's had four VPs and they got in his way. Now that he's in charge on his own, he can get things done," she said.
Mr Ngoy is not hopeful: "I supported Bemba because he is not Kabila. People didn't vote for Bemba in the election. It was against Kabila. Anyone could have won those votes. Those who voted for Kabila have voted for what this country has had for almost its entire existence. It's what you see around you."
Last Updated November 17, 2006 5:43 AM