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Congo In Harlem 2012

2 Oct

  

 

Maysles Cinema

343 Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Blvd

New York, NY 10027

(212) 582-6050

  

email: congoinharlem@gmail.com

Websites:

www.mayslesinstitute.org

www.congoinharlem.org

 

Congo in Harlem 4 is the fourth annual series of Congo-related films and events at the Maysles Cinema in New York’s historic Harlem neighborhood. Congo in Harlem showcases innovative work that celebrates Congolese culture, raises awareness about the Democratic Republic of Congo’s challenges, provokes dialogue, and encourages community engagement.

This year’s series highlights a wide selection of films by Congolese and international directors, ranging from political exposés to personal journeys, historical inquiries, artistic provocations, and groundbreaking animation.

Highlights of Congo in Harlem 4 include a retrospective of the work of pioneering Congolese animator Jean Michel Kibushi; the much buzzed-about Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, followed by a post-screening discussion with filmmaker Renzo Martens; Cuba: An African Odyssey, with director Jihan El-Tahri in attendance; Thierry Michel’s The Chebeya Affair: A State Crime?; a sneak peak at Kinshasa native Dieudonne Hamadi’s Atalaku, a hard-hitting exposé of Congo’s 2011 elections; White Elephant, Kristof Bilson’s elegant study of the crumbling central post office in Kinshasa; a pair of deeply personal journeys into the past (Return to Mandima and In the Footsteps of My Other); a bold exploration of corruption and impunity (Justice for Sale); and two cautionary tales of colonial racism (Ota Benga andBoma Turvuren: The Voyage).Many screenings will be followed by discussions with the filmmakers, musical performances, and receptions. Please check our websites in the coming weeks for updates: www.MayslesInstitute.org & www.CongoInHarlem.org

In addition to the films, Congo in Harlem 4 will present a special off-site panel discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture -- KONY 2012: Lessons for Congo -- that explores the implications of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 video campaign for DR Congo. There will also be live musical performances by Congolese rapper Alesh, and New York’s own Isaac Katalay. The Maysles Cinema lobby and community space will showcase artwork by Goma’s Justin Kasereka, and digital photographs by TIME Magazine photographer Michael Christopher Brown.   

Congo in Harlem 4is a volunteer-run, non-profit series produced by Maysles Cinema, True-Walker Productions, and Friends of the Congo. It is made possible by the generous support of DISH Africa TV, The Cultures of Resistance Network, V-Day, and Panzi Foundation USA.

Proceeds from Congo in Harlem will be contributed to a fund supporting emerging Congolese filmmakers

Series Partners and Friends:Cinereach, Congo Leadership Initiative, Cultures of Resistance, DISH Africa TV, Elokomasi, HEAL Africa, Man-Up, Mutaani FM, The New York African Film Festival, NomadicWax, Now AfriCAN, Panzi Foundation USA, Tabilulu Productions, V-DAY, V-DAY-Harlem, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom - New York Metro Branch, Yole!Africa, WBAI Radio.

 

Maysles Cinema is located at 343 Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Blvd at 127th St.

Screenings are open to the public at a suggested donation of $10.

Box office opens 1 hour prior to show time.

Seating is limited and available on a first come first served basis.

We recommend arriving 30 minutes before event’s start time to secure a seat in the main screening room. For advance tickets and full program, visit:

www.mayslesinstitute.org or www.congoinharlem.org

Contact: congoinharlem@gmail.com or call (212) 582-6050

_______________________

Congo in Harlem 4 is dedicated to the memory of Lyn Lusi and Veronique Tudieshe

 

 

Virunga Rangers

16 Aug

I just returned a few weeks ago from Goma, DRC, where the conflict has ramped up significantly since May.  This fresh bout of violence has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people in the area being displaced and politicians are scrambling for peaceable solutions.  The M23 militia has been roving around North Kivu and making trouble in Rutshuru, very near the place where I was raised.  To get there you have to go through Virunga Park from Goma, which has long been a favorite drive of mine.  After all, as I've shared on this site before, my view from the back yard into the Virunga park looked like this:

 

 

So, it can be quite beautiful.  I have to admit that haven't been paying attention to Virunga as a park much lately.  When I wasn't able to travel up north I thought about it a bit, but I've been so worried about the local populations that I haven't paused to consider what it's been like for those tasked with protecting the Virunga park as a national resource.  It was only on my return to the US that I ran across the video below that's just recently been produced.  It focuses on how recent unrest is affecting Virunga through the lens of resource protection and preservation:

What strikes me most in the video is something I've admired often in Congo: the  tenacity and bravery of local professionals who are working under extremely difficult conditions to accomplish a job that a lot of people may not even appreciate.  This is the story of people who don't automatically pick up and run when the danger arrives at their doorstep, because their job is to ward off that danger the best they can.  In an area where news stories about the war often include death tallies in the  thousands, the 130 Virunga rangers who have been killed in the last 20 years won't make headlines, so I'm pleased to see someone telling their story and acknowledging the work they do.   While I was in Congo I was struck by another form of acknowledgement that is worth mentioning, too.

 

As I share it with you, I also wish I could tell the rangers about it.  During my recent visit to the New Hope Center, founder Anita Paden recreated a scene that the children made during free play.  The children have a sand box where they have many items that they use to recreate scenes in the process of healing from loss--usually the death of one or several family members, often a parent.  New Hope is a center where children go to talk about what's happened to them and their families, where they go to grieve and connect to other children who have similar hurts.  During free play the kids do whatever they like.  Often, they choose to recreate scenes of death and funerals as a way to process their feelings, so they have toys that enable them to do this, including quite a few toy guns and a coffin.  These are mixed in with other toys suitable to happier themes so that they have a wide choice of possibilities in storytelling.  In the story that Anita recreated, the children chose to depict the death of a Virunga ranger.  They explained that all of the animals gathered to mourn his death, and that they were terribly sad.  "See how the animals are weeping because their protector has died," the children said.  "They loved him."  

This is what I would like to say to the Virunga rangers:

I am surprised and happy to see how these children think of you.  The toy they've used to represent a fallen ranger is a soldier: a man in a uniform with a gun.  I didn't expect to see him as a victim, since this toy usually plays the "bad guy" in the children's recreations.  A large percentage of these children have seen violence at the hand of soldiers (see some of the childrens' drawings herehere and here showing soldier attacks).  In general, civilians have experienced extreme violence at the hands of armed men in Congo, and these children's lives have been shaped irrevocably by that ugly dynamic.  It is because of people like you that these kids can imagine a Congolese man in uniform with affection, as a person fighting to protect and care rather than exploit and harm and conquer.  Your job is important for more reasons that you may know.  The deaths of your colleagues have not gone unmourned and you are a powerful symbol of care for these grieving children.  Your story is helping them heal.

conflict free

20 Nov

Yesterday I spoke at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference, a one-day event hosted by the Pittsburgh Human Rights Network and the Center for International Legal Education to discuss conflict minerals, consumer activism, and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A decent number of students showed up on a Saturday, indicating they’ve heard that electronics companies are not ethically sourcing their minerals and that our purchases have a sinister connection to what’s happening in the Congo.  That, or the healthy student attendance suggested a significant extra credit incentive.  Either way, I was glad to see them and spend some time discussing this issue, which is a hot topic in the activist world these days.  I thought it might be useful to share my part in the conference here, in the spirit of providing educational resources to those asking themselves “when I buy a phone am I ruining someone’s life in the Congo?”   (NOTE: If you aren’t curious to know the backstory and controversy in the advocacy world about this issue, you can skip a few paragraphs to the “I care. Now what?” section.  If you have an extremely short attention span, then you can skip down to the very end, where I have a “DRC activist checklist.”)

The “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference overview on PHRN’s site explains the connection between the electronics industry selling products here and the situation in Congo in these terms:

This war has lasted over a decade and claimed over five million lives, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. At the heart of the issue are tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, minerals which are mined in eastern Congo and that eventually find their way into our everyday electronics. Profits from the sale of these minerals are used by armed groups to brutally oppress local populations in efforts to maintain control over resources. Conflict minerals connect consumer decisions in developed countries to violence halfway across the world, sparking a growing consumer movement in recent years to demand accountability from electronics companies who trace back their supply chains to mines in eastern Congo.

The consumer movement pushing for “conflict free” mineral certification has grown very popular over the last two years.  Here's a diagram showing why the general public warms to the concept easily:

Owing for a small margin of oddies, your average person both dislikes war and values freedom; they also don't want their everyday purchases to incentivize war.  ENOUGH, a project of the Center For American Progress, has been working hard to raise public consciousness about the conflict in the DRC using a “blood phone” approach akin to the “blood diamonds” awareness campaigns of several years ago, as you can see in this short film: Your Cell Phones Are Funding a Deadly War.  Their efforts allowed Congressman McDermott to add an amendment to the Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010, requiring manufacturers to disclose if they have used any “conflict minerals” from Congo in the making of their products.  The legislation has not been implemented yet, but there have already been indications in the year since it’s passed that the Dodd Frank law has some serious issues.  Among the most troubling is the fact that the law has triggered a defacto embargo on Congolese minerals, forcing the black market further underground, increasing insecurity, and shutting off lines of income for artisanal miners who were already struggling to survive on the meager income these difficult livelihoods provided them.  This, in turn, has caused activists to ask: is certification a good thing or a bad thing for the Congolese?  Is there a tension between what’s good in the short-term vs. the long-term?

Many critics have pointed out that the Dodd-Frank legislation’s impact so far runs counter to the goal of improving conditions for the ordinary Congolese. Though the issue of certifying minerals has been controversial for years and many of the negative results were predicted by Congolese experts (read the Pole Institute’s 2010 report “Blood Minerals”) the recent developments in Congo have brought the “conflict minerals” approach under tremendous public scrutiny, especially since August, when David Aaronsen published his article “How Congress Devastated Congo” in the NY Times.   Mvemba Disolele’s article in the Huffington Post soon followed, leveling similar criticisms.  The ENOUGH Project’s Sasha Lezhnev responded with a defense of their approach, while others, like the scholar Jason Stearns, have expressed cautious optimism.  I have been watching this debate unfold for months.  At Clark University’s Informed Activism: Armed Conflict, Scarce Resources, and Congo in September, and at John Hopkins’ Great Lakes Policy Forum on “How the Story of Congo Gets Told” and the NY Bar Association Debate in October, I’ve seen these arguments burn hot.  The disagreement revolves around whether mineral certification can not only provide consumers with a sense of satisfaction about their purchases but actually contribute to peace and improved conditions in the Congo.

I've been thinking about how to enable people to understand this issue in context, without swamping them in policy detail.  I approached student attendance at the "Conflict Free" conference as a basic unit of expression:

“I care.  Give me some direction, here.”

I have criticisms of the certification approach, but, at the conference, I did not reproduce the policy debate that I provided above for the blog-reader’s benefit.  Instead, I attempted to give the audience tools for critique that are basic to advocacy work, as well as a better sense of the context and history of resource wars and activism for Congo.  Below you can read the presentation I gave to students; hopefully it will contribute to your own lines of thinking as you na through this hairy subject. 

Putting the Free in “Conflict Free”:

Resources wars, activism, & the DRC

Thanks for coming, for giving your time and attention, and for being willing to educate yourselves about the issue of resource exploitation in the Congo.  The DRC needs good allies and I hope today’s events inspire you to explore Congolese realities and perspectives and become involved in advocacy for the DRC; there are a lot of reasons to be concerned and myriad ways to play positive roles and to partner with Congolese working to achieve peace and justice in their country.

Let me introduce myself first, so you know who’s talking to you, why I’m here, and where I’m coming from.  My name is Rebecca Cech.  I work as an instructor in the English Dept. here at Pitt; I have my Master’s degree in literature, so I’m somewhat predictably attached to storytelling.  As you may have guessed from the fact that I’m sitting here, I’m also attached to the well-being of the Congolese.  Part of this comes from my family history in the Congo (see: me sitting on an elephant femur in Virunga Park, DRC, to the left).  In 1917 my great grandfather first traveled to the Belgian Congo as a building missionary; my family was going into its fourth generation in Congo in 1990, when we left under political duress.  I was nearly thirteen at the time.  The accounts I subsequently heard from friends struggling through the violent years that followed, and what I learned during my volunteer work at the HEAL Africa medical facility in 2002 and 2009, motivated me to invest in finding solutions to root causes of the conflict.  These days I combine my commitments to story and to the Congo by authoring a site dedicated to helping readers understand the history, the challenges, and the potential of the country on congostory.org.  On Congo Story I use personal accounts, fables, gossip, art, and a host of other common storytelling forms to share material and present a range of assessments about what’s happening in DRC.  This is not focused on news-style accounts of victimhood and biblical-proportion disaster (you get plenty of that elsewhere) but on a plenitude of literature, cultural artifacts, historical accounts, and personal experience: I write, for instance, about a love affair between volcanoes gone sour, about the fact that grasshoppers are delicious, and how African fabrics are often used as the equivalent of American bumper stickers.  The chance to speak with you today excites me.  As a teacher, whenever I see an eager audience and a problem to be solved, I see opportunity, and Congo is a subject I’m especially passionate about.  I will feel I have succeeded today if you leave with some concrete information, some tools for analysis that transfer easily to other situations, and, ultimately, a curiosity to learn more.
Let’s start with the basic problem the “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference aims to address.  I think it’s pretty uncontroversial say in this crowd that, ideally, all products should be conflict free.  It is an ugly thing to know that the capacitors rattling around inside our x-boxes and cell phones and many other everyday items may be connected not only to a person’s mistreatment but to violence and death.  For those of us who value the principle of human welfare above profit, the fact that a label has to be given at all is deeply disturbing and indicates a systemic problem.  When we learn that our purchases may be connected to abuses, we naturally want to find out what’s happening and how to play a responsible role as consumers.  That’s why you’re here.
It’s true that our lifestyles demand raw materials and that this incentivizes exploitation of minerals in Congo; it’s also true that militias in Congo have seized control of areas and used mining as a source of funding.  It also seems reasonable that better corporate regulation is needed.  However, I want to equip you to think critically about certification as a response to this complex dynamic.  I’d like you to consider a comparison that may strike you at first as odd between ethical branding for electronics and eggs.  This helps us think about the ways language works in advertising and to recognize the structural gap between consumer and company interests.  When ethical issues are at the root of a certification push, the word “free” on a label is supposed to signify not only that something negative has stopped but that something positive has happened.  The word is meant to assure consumers that higher ethical standards have been guaranteed while distancing our purchases categorically from mistreatment or cruelty.  For people concerned about the ethical treatment of animals, for instance, the “cage-free” label on an egg carton conjures a vision of chickens free to roam about and cavort in sunny fields with full, rich lives and plenty of bugs to eat, just as many people who are concerned about the warring in Congo see the label “conflict free” and have in their minds the vision of happy Congolese, free to go about their business and live rich, full lives, with plenty of dinner parties.  That’s the fictional magic of branding.  But the truth is that the meaning of the word “free” on these labels is extremely limited: it means, very simply, “without.” “Conflict free” electronics means that the products were sourced without conflict in the same way that “cage free” means that eggs were produced by chickens without confining them to cages.
Why is that important?  Because we have to remember that corporations do not think like people.  They do not have ideal images in their heads of happy chickens or happy Congolese.  They are designed to function on a basis of cost-benefit analysis and there are only two things that can incentivize them to change their practices: the chance for bigger profits or the threat of lost profits.  In the case of “cage free” eggs, the bad press in 2008 about caged conditions led to a niche market that resulted in industry profits.  To use the label the companies had only to do one thing: eliminate cages; these chickens were still de-beaked, conditioned to remain in crowded sheds even when the doors were wide open, periodically starved to generate molting and egg-laying cycles, among other conditions that people concerned about the fundamental welfare of the animals hesitate to call “new-and-improved.”  My point is this: the label on the eggs was not a guarantee that either the objectionable conditions had ceased or that something essentially better had happened.  It meant only that corporations had found a way to profit from a shift in consumer consciousness.  People concerned about the welfare of the animals have a lot more work left to do.  

Corporations can and do regularly co-opt consumer optimism.  They accommodate consumer demands while failing to address or even further aggravating the ethical problem that led to objections in the first place.  Now, let's turn to  Congo’s mineral certification.  What’s happening now with the new “conflict free” push is that electronic companies, legally required to comply with the certification, have simply decided to source elsewhere and abandon Congo entirely.  This is the easiest and most cost-effective way for companies to label their product “conflict free.”  While this effectively breaks the link between the conflict in Congo and the ipod in the Apple store we patronize in the US, it does not automatically translate into solving the conflict in Congo nor does it automatically improve conditions there.  It does not concern itself with the welfare of the Congolese.  It simply means that our products here can be labeled “conflict free.”  In fact, the situation for artisanal miners has grown worse because they now have no one to sell their products to.  No companies want the “bad branding” associated with the Congo conflict.  It’s a good thing for us to become conscious about ethical consumerism. However, it’s a tricky proposition.  If we can’t say that “cage free” on a carton means happier chickens around the corner at so-and-so farm, how can we reasonably expect that “conflict free” on a piece of electronics means happier Congolese halfway across the world?  Regrettaby, we can't.

The only way we will know what's happening on the ground in Congo and whether or not our efforts have positive effects, is if we work very closely with Congolese civil society.  As the 2010 Pole Institute report “Blood Minerals” explains,

Even the modest direct impact of mineral trade reform is unlikely to be achieved if traceability, due diligence and certification schemes are not set up together with the local population and do not win local understanding and backing. The concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few is one of the underlying long term reasons for the persistence of conflict not just in Eastern Congo, but in the DRC as a whole. Most people in Eastern DRC's mining areas are disempowered in every sense of the word, yet in the end it is they who have to be able to implement these schemes in their everyday survival economy. If complicated new rules are only accessible to, and understood and implemented by a small and wealthy elite, this will exacerbate social tension and conflict by conferring international recognition onto this elite to the exclusion of everyone else.

Let me tell you a small history of the Congo’s early state formation that helps support the Pole Institute’s perspective that Congo civil society must be empowered and that helps us figure our own role in the US to help facilitate  positive developments.  The items on the shelves these days may be newfangled but the dynamic--the demand for products in developed countries fueling predatory extraction of raw resources in Congo--stretches back to the country’s date of colonization.  In 1885 the Belgian King Leopold claimed a territory the size of western Europe which he named the “Congo Free State” and he was anxious to profit from the territory's resources.  In the early days of his rule Leopold focused mostly on ivory collection.  The leisure class in Europe was absolutely gaga for billiard balls and piano keys, among other more practical products made of ivory, like false teeth.  Then, in 1887, Dunlop invented the pneumatic rubber tire.  All the well-heeled people were wild for horseless carriages (as early cars were called at the time).  When Ford started making these at factory speed, the demand for tires skyrocketed.  Leopold shrewdly cornered the market because Congo had a vast supply of wild rubber and he knew he could capitalize on this while most industrial competitors had to wait seven years for their rubber plants to mature before harvesting.  The Belgian King made a staggering fortune this way and his enterprise came at the cost of an estimated ten million Congolese deaths; the methods he used to terrorize people into harvesting rubber have been famously documented by literature and reports of the time.

 In 1899 Joseph Conrad published a novel I’m sure you’ve heard of: “Heart of Darkness.”  In this story, based on a diary he wrote while visiting the Congo, he called the trading practices he witnessed “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.”  Others echoed his assessment and began to raise the alarm in the West.  An astute shipping clerk by the name of Edmund Morel, for instance, noticed that the import/export pattern told a troubling tale: whereas ivory and rubber and other valuable items came out of Congo, only guns, ammunition, and chains went in (you might want to compare this to the current small arms trade relative to DRC).  In 1900, a British Consul named Roger Casement wrote to his office saying that “The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain…”; Casement was sent in 1903 by the British Government to investigate Leopold’s abuses and the result of his study, the 1904 Congo Report, led to the establishment of the first international human rights organization in history, the Congo Reform Association (CRA).  Now, CRA members were aware of what products were fueling the atrocities.  They had rubber in their tires like everyone else.  However, they did not approach Ford and demand that he ethically source rubber.  Instead, they advocated for peace and good governance, exposing Leopold's lies and bad practices.  They listened to and published the accounts of the Congolese, and they worked with investigators to verify the information and hold people accountable for abuses of power.  The CRA campaigned for political reforms and helped to create enough public attention and diplomatic pressure that, four years later, 1908, the colony was annexed by Belgium and King Leopold lost personal ownership.  We know that this wasn’t the end of the pattern of resource exploitation in the Congo, but it was certainly a victory for human rights activists of the time.  If they had been able to put the power back into the hands of the Congolese and they had been able to use it for the benefit of the populace, I believe we would be seeing a different story of its development over the last century, in which the Congo would have become one of the richest countries on the globe.

Today’s iphone is yesterday’s car.  Markets and demands can change very quickly.  Consider this: Congo is home to 60% of Africa’s forests.  A few years from now we could be having a similar conversation about efforts to certify “conflict free” wood.  Today I am wearing a pair of earrings made from wood by a Congolese artisan.  What would happen to his job and other artists and others like him (woodcarving is a serious business in the area) if there was a embargo on wood similar to the one on minerals now, as a response designed to limit corporate exploitation of the forests in Congo, which I assure you is well underway.  We need to find a way to help break the cycle that started in 1885 with Leopold’s exploitation, regardless of what the new market and end product may be.  We should train our attention not on the word free as it exist on a label but on the things that help guarantee Congolese freedom--their rights, expression, and representation.  The reality is that the best we can do with a certification approach is to encourage a "Do no harm" policy.  That's worth something for the company, and it may well be the best they can do.  But we are people.  And people would usually prefer go further than "doing no harm" and do some actual good.  The real solution to conflict in the Congo is to reduce Congolese people’s vulnerability to abuses of power, helping them get control of own affairs.  If we can help eliminate the sources of oppression and empower the Congolese, we will have struck at the root of the problems that we came here today to address and invested in making Congo conflict free, not just our electronics.

So, what does this discussion of branding, the early history in the Congo Free State, and the activism of the Congo Reform Association teach us?  How does it help us understand the current situation and how we can best respond to help break Congo’s cycle of exploitation?   What can we do from here in the US and as students?  This event marks an important point in your journey of becoming advocates for the Congolese who want peace and justice in their country, and here are some guiding principles to help you move forward with purpose as you determine what actions you want to take and whose efforts you want to support.

DRC Activist Checklist

  1. Educate yourself before mobilizing for particular policy reforms.  Informed activism is responsible activism; you’re here, so you’re already on the right track.  There are a lot of risk-free ways to contribute until you feel confident about helping push for particular policy changes.  You can host and attend events to learn about the DRC, show movies, have fundraisers to support and connect with young activists in DRC.
  2. Cultivate a healthy suspicion of ethical branding.  Remember that companies don’t share consumer interests.  Just because there’s the word “free” on the label, doesn’t mean that the ethical standards are higher.  The Congo Free State itself is the premium example of how the word “free” can be used as a branding attempt to deflect criticism or close scrutiny, when the conditions on the ground are actually gruesome.  If we are going to apply consumer pressure, we must always focus on the company practices and refuse to be satisfied with the packaging.
  3. Address the source of the problem.  The Congo Reform Association's history shows us that, instead of going to the end of the supply chain (Ford Motor Co., electronic companies), we should look at what happens at the beginning of the supply chain (rubber collectors, mining companies).  One thing you could do as students at Pitt is to find out if the University of Pittsburgh’s pension fund is invested in any of the mining companies identified by the UN report as looting the Congo or the Carter Center Report as engaging in odious contracts, and ask the school to divest.  This would incentivize individual extractive companies to reform their exploitative practices or risk losing support.
  4. Listen to the locals.   The Congo Reform Association started their activism by gathering stories from local Congolese.   Back then, the Kodak was considered a brand new form of eyewitness and people had to physically carry photos around to show an audience what was happening in the Congo.  Now we have access to a lot of information via the web.  We also have a lot of experts here in the US who can speak on the issues and give activists direction and support.  As part of a university, you have a lot of resources to invite local and  national experts, academics, and members of civil society to share their perspectives on the issues.  Involving Congolese voices is a necessary and fulfilling part of finding a lasting solution to DRC’s troubles, and, ultimately, to helping the Congolese live conflict-free.

 

The Obama Law

3 Aug

Once upon a time in the Senate...

Obama proposed a new law strategizing US response to the political morass in the DR Congo.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (PL 109-456), co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton and eleven others, began its life as official legislation in December of 2006.  That red carpet arrival to officialdom, I am sorry to say, was the most dynamic moment of its life so far; all of the law’s provisions enabling serious political engagement and diplomacy have lain, since then, mysteriously dormant.  I draw your attention to a summary of four sections which would demand relatively few resources and promise to make a positive impact:

Section 104 - …Expresses the sense that the Secretary should withhold assistance if the government of the DRC is not making sufficient progress towards accomplishing the policy objectives.

Section 105 - Authorizes the Secretary to withhold assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, other than humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counterterrorism assistance, for a foreign country determined by the Secretary to be acting to destabilize the DRC.

Section 106 - Directs the Comptroller General to report to Congress respecting progress made toward accomplishing the policy objectives, including an evaluation of related U.S. policies and foreign assistance programs.

Section 107 - States that the President should appoint a Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region to help coordinate efforts to resolve the instability and insecurity in Eastern Congo.

As you can see, all of these items reflect not only the US government’s commitment to democratic intitatives, but due diligence--ensuring that US funding does not prop up political corruption and abuses of power.  This is precisely what is called for and I am far from alone in my dismay at the government’s disuse of these needed checks and balances.  Many, many people have lamented the inaction and called for the law to be fully implemented.  First, it was the author himself expressing impatience, when Obama urged the Bush administration in 2007 to “stop ignoring the call by Congress to appoint a special envoy to the DRC, and strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force which is working to stabilize the eastern part of the Congo.”  Four years later such callouts to Obama get a resounding dial tone.  Nobody in Washington is talking about the refusal to send an envoy, despite a recent petition signed by 24,497 citizens, a letter from 16 members of Congress, and many other individual and institutional requests, like V-day's tireless advocacy.  Does this mean we need a different approach?  To us this suggests that the demand must grow even louder.  Eventually the silence must give from the pressure of American citizens demanding an answer.  We are doing this in several ways simultaneously.  In July Jeff approached our City Council member Bill Peduto about this issue and now Pittsburgh, too, has added its voice with a resolution adopted July 12th calling on Obama to fully implement the law and urging other cities to pass similar resolutions.  I am flinging my personal letter to Obama on top of the pile and sharing it with you here.  I hope our efforts will give you some useful language and argument as you develop your own voices on this issue.

Let me give you a better sense of why it’s important to raise our voices about this law and why now.  2011 is election year in Congo.  Last time, during the 2006 elections, 33 candidates tried to outpace each other in a "Race for Power" (as the Congolese painter Cheri-Cherin depicts above).  With the intense efforts of peacekeepers and much international aid, Joseph Kabila emerged marginally victorious without sparking off a 33-way war, though there was some violent resistance from Jean-Pierre Bemba in 2007.  Many expected all-0ut chaos at the time because it was the first multiparty election for DRC in 41 years, and the seat of power was still warm from Mobutu's long roost, despite his ouster a decade earlier.  There seems to be a powerful strain of longing for Mobutu's days both from would-be rulers and citizens alike.  Their reasons, of course, are different.  For the ordinary citizen, a casual conclusion can be drawn that "it was better then."  I had a very happy childhood in the eighties in Eastern Congo under Mobutu's rule.  In those days it was less generally violent, whereas, now, people’s standards of living expectation are so low that many express their greatest longing for “a good death.”  I’ll grant that “a good life” was something easier for Congolese to talk about in the eighties and that citizen deaths were, on the whole, less the direct result of violence in Mobutu’s days.  But, as I grew up watching my father's work as administrator and anesthetist in a rural Congolese hospital funded entirely by the West, I know from personal experience that many Congolese had their lives damaged or ended from the character of Mobutu's rule: prosperity for a few and neglect for the rest.  If some of the patients had been able to travel on passable roads, for instance, their stories would have ended better.  In short, before you're convinced that it really was better, remember that oppression can be mistaken for orderliness and such regimes’ effective control hides threatening dysfunction at the root of things.  

What looked like stability in Zaire was, behind the curtain, an iron boot on the neck of any presumed dissident and demands for devotion from everyone else.  It was laissez faire for the masses and no real provisions to make life easier. If you happily minded your own business, then things went well with you.  This was fairly easy to do wherever the president was just a photo in a local office or home, hung higher, by decree, than all others in the room, or when his disembodied head descended in the clouds like a demi-god preceding each new tv news bulletin.  He was an idea rather than a reality to most—a point of pride for many Congolese in the heady days following independence and a darling of the west in the seventies and early eighties; his propaganda and careful choice of allies ensured this remained the official order of things for nearly 32 years. 

The reasons why would-be leaders want more "Mobutu days" is simple and predictable: everyone saw what he gained from sitting in the seat of power as a happy kleptocrat, running a government he liked to call, by turns, “democratic” and “traditional,” but which amounted to a clever strategy of personal plunder.  Imagine you live in a country of 71 million people the size of Western Europe that has experienced thirty-two years of government neglect on top of a century of colonialism.  Imagine you realize how much of the nation’s wealth has been used for elites to live lavishly.  Imagine you know how much of the country’s resources are left to exploit.  The Scramble for Africa that began in 1881 with European powers has not lessened but gone viral in the modern context.  Violence in the east has been rampant for at least a decade over the issue of controlling mineral sources and the death toll for ordinary citizens clicks over as steadily as an odometer while tensions rise from the upcoming elections and politics heat up in the capital.

As campaigns get underway and slogans emerge, we see evidence that identity becomes a major tool for candidates to disavow opponents and gain a following; one needs only to think of Jean-Pierre Bemba's slogan in the 2006 elections, "One Hundred Percent Congolese," be reminded of how much of the individual's qualifications rest on questions of authenticity and opposition to "outsiders."  Unfortunately, election politics like these play directly into the kind of "cult of the personality" that continues to undergird despotism.  Many Congolese send out a cry for a "strong" leader, but the logic seems to suggest that someone powerful can restore order.  In my view, that's not possible.  While consolidating power into one person or a few may be  effective for a time, it carries an inherent vulnerability: it only works until someone more powerful comes along to replace it.  This model trends toward coups, as we know.  As I have argued briefly here, there is no system of order in DRC to simply “restore” unless you want more colonialism or oppression; a new system of rule must be built and developed painstakingly through institutionalization.  Ordinary people need good representation in government, which requires functional institutions to ensure due process, accurate reportage, and oversight.  Mobutu did little to develop institutions and infrastructure that would limit his power or hold him accountable; in fact, he strategically removed limitations the longer he ruled.  This January, similar signs of consolidating power emerged in Kabila’s administration, which pushed through a constitutional amendment giving the president an electoral edge as well as the power to arbitrarily dismiss officials elected by the people.  What has the US response been to the recent drama on DRC’s political stage?  Crickets.  Not cheering, not booing, just crickets.

Meanwhile, as recently as last week, Obama gave remarks on his meeting with African heads of state reconfirming the United States' role as "a stalwart partner with [African leaders] in this process of democratization and development.  Despite the impressive work of all these gentlemen, I’ve said before and I think they all agree, Africa does not need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions.  So we are working with them as partners to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected."  Yes.  A thousand times yes.  He devoted a whole law to articulate the need for curbing abuses of political power in DRC and to support such objectives.  So what does the silence on DRC mean?   It makes one wonder: is it strategic?  Lots of arguments have been proffered as to why the US is avoiding the provisions called for by PL-109-456.  Friends of Congo posted a 27 minute video on the “Crisis in the Congo” that gives their analysis and synthesizes a lot of expert opinion on the subject; I encourage you to watch it and begin educating yourself about the dimensions of this situation that never makes it into the mainstream media.

We're here to support your search for good information and bring you stories that both illustrate the problems in DRC as well as the imaginations of the Congolese in characterizing them;    stories can challenge us to stay flexible and receptive to new information, reminding us to put data in context and see the realities on the ground.  Too many narratives about DRC get used to create a singular effect: pity.  Tragedies are collected, interpreted and used as emotional leverage or a moral bludgeon without any serious and sustained inquiry into the root of the problems that caused them in the first place.  We value expressions by Congolese that can help us realize the need for action and support good questioning.  This is why  I included in my letter to Obama some drawings that children made at our friend Anita Paden’s New Hope Center for grieving children, like the one above.  You can find more in our flickr set grieving children’s art.  The photo’s text translates as follows:  "Explanation of death: Three military killed my father; me and my mother fled into the bush to hide and, after two weeks, the body of my father had deteriorated so that only the bones were left to bury."  We should feel not only sorrow but called to seek for context and detail: Why was the father killed—was he a special target?  Is this a broad pattern of violence or relatively isolated?  Who were these military persons?  Were they following orders?  What was their objective?  Who was responsible for their actions?  Why weren’t these citizens protected?  Is the government incapable of doing so or is the government complicit?  I have approached Obama with these photos to remind him of the need for good intelligence that would answer such questions and as well as the urgency of his administration's response:

The problems PL 109-456 set out to address are still acute many years later; they are perhaps worse.  Consider the attached drawings by children in an Eastern Congo grieving center which point to exactly the issues your law discusses: the DRC government’s treatment of its people and foreign governments’ destabilizing of the DRC.  Consider these children’s drawings troubling symptoms that are presenting themselves for more professional information-gathering and diagnosis.  According to PL 109-456, the Comptroller General is supposed to provide Congress with a detailed annual report regarding progress (or lack) towards achieving 15 U.S. policy goals, describing any impediment to those goals, and any destabilizing activities undertaken in the DRC by governments of neighboring countries.  The need for a careful, updated report is evident, but, even without one, the UN Mapping Exercise Report has clearly shown that Rwanda and Uganda have committed multiple human rights violations and destabilized the DRC, which, according to PL 109-456, gives grounds to the Secretary of State to withhold US funding.  Continuing to fund Rwanda and Uganda in the face of this information means we ignore our own law. 

I believe you saw the problem clearly in 2006, and that fully implementing PL 109-456 will significantly reduce the violence, chaos, abuse of power and dwindle the need for children to make drawings like these, allowing a new generation to reach its potential and avoid cycles of revenge and destructive frustration—but only if they can see that due process works, and that laws can limit the power of those who profit from harming folk.  We want you to support DRC’s democratic future and need you to prove the integrity of American law.  The American public is slowly rousing and recognizing Congo’s distress.  The tide of American citizens’ concern is rising, and I have heard people asking: “is PL 109-456 a law or a wish list?”  A great many of us eagerly await a response to the crisis in DRC, and our numbers are growing.  Whatever your thinking is, let us hear it and begin working together toward solutions, quickly.  The administration’s current silence on what’s happening to the Congolese people not only conforms to the age-old pattern of empowering strong men in Africa but emboldens old villains and recruits new ones by the hour.  Every moment of our passivity is a new act of negligence that flouts the integrity of US law and allows violence to grow deeper roots and go to seed in DRC’s environment of impunity.

What does hope for DRC look like?  For many Africans Obama is the very face of hope, and his presidency signals, for them, a new era of foreign policy that will support African development.  But, as I've already said, history shows that the cult of personality is not an effective tool for spreading lasting benefits to the masses.  It's not sufficient to trust in the symbolism of progress--there must be practical and tangible things happening toward that goal.  In the end, Obama is a representative of our political will as the American people; he is accountable to us, so we have our own roles to play in making good things happen through him.  The real source of hope in DRC is the Congolese people themselves and Americans who raise their voices are necesssary and welcome partners; to speak up is not just a human thing to do, but a responsible one, as we benefit immensely from the mineral exploitation fueling DRC's war.  A lot of people ask “But what can I do?”  I believe there are many ways to take meaningful action, and I encourage you to advocate for peace and justice in DRC in all the ways available to you.  Raise your voices through social media.  Invite speakers to your schools and places of worship. Spread stories that stimulate good questions while reminding people what's at stake.  If you're an artist, paint or draw something to engage your audience.   If you're a writer, write.  Whatever you do, seek to learn more about the situation in DRC, share what you know with others, and discuss productive ways to support Congolese visions of a better future--not just for the few, but for all.