The Red Card of Chaos

Jeremy Harding in Zaire

The West likes the Ebola story which, at first sight, seems to confirm our ‘continentalist’ views of Africa. The foreign pages in Britain aren’t teeming with reports from Kikwit by Zairois journalists. There are few, I guess, even in Belgian or French newspapers, despite the fact that Zaire is one of the largest Francophone countries in the world. There is no shortage of able journalists in Zaire, but they are working as baggage-handlers at the airport, driving cabs, trading up on petty merchandise for meagre profits. There are good doctors too, who have little to work with and nothing to lose, once the point of no return is reached, as it was in Kikwit before the World Health Organisation arrived. (In clinical terms, infected medics represent phase two of the outbreak, and there’ve been enough of them in the epicentre to suggest that health workers in Kikwit take their duties seriously.) Yet the Eurocentric view of African disasters seldom allows for non-European skills to play a mitigating role and, for this reason alone, the coverage of the Ebola virus, with its stress on the strengths of the hospital staff, feels different.

The virus is not like bad government or widespread hunger or ‘low intensity’ conflict of the kind associated with Africa. The real interest in the latest Ebola outbreak does not require it to take place in Africa. There’s a sense – alarmist perhaps – that what we’re seeing is a version of the future, a kind of fiction, and one which closes the distance with Kikwit. The exotic thing is the virus, not the continent. There’s no obvious moralism in the West’s account of this misfortune, as there was with HIV, which endorsed the idea of Africa as a continent of sickness and promiscuity – and it helps that Ebola doesn’t discriminate, as Aids was thought to do in the US in the early Eighties, when it was seen as a negative quota allocation, strictly minority, coming out of Africa, via Port au Prince, to Christopher Street. The WHO goes to Kikwit without any claims to a mercy mission; there’s no humiliation for local health personnel. This is not Ethiopia 1974 or 1984-5; there’s no famine, no genocide, no celebrities, no good works to be done: the issue is overwhelmingly medical – and respectably international.

The politics is there, however. If Zaire had not been plundered and disfigured for quarter of a century by the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, a large single party structured like an extended family under the big father, President Mobutu Sese Seko, the country would have a properly-funded medical research facility for haemorrhagic viruses, headed by nationals whose reputations were as well established as any of those in the WHO team in Kikwit, which includes only two (South) Africans. And it’s ironic that the West should find the beginnings of a common cause with Africa – parity under threat – in this withering dictatorship, where most parties were simply ingested by the MPR at the end of the Sixties or saw their leaders eliminated, all with the collusion of Washington (Mobutu was an ‘anti-Communist’); where millions of dollars were spent on illustrious projects and monuments in order for the President’s entourage, his ‘secretariat to the Presidency’, and the man himself, to cream off percentages; where the wearing of ties and miniskirts was discouraged as part of an ‘authentic’ Africanisation campaign; where the only candidate for the Presidential election of 1970 was Mobutu and the ballot consisted of two cards – a green one, ‘pour l’espoir’, and a red one, ‘le chaos’.

Things have changed a little since Mobutu’s third seven-year term of office neared its eat-by date in 1990, when the enthusiasm for multiparti was difficult to stem and the conflict in Angola seemed to be resolved. For twenty years, Mobutu had been an active friend of the MPLA’s rival movements and, in terms of supplies, landing facilities, safe passage and a conduit for smuggled Angolan diamonds, he has remained indispensable to Jonas Savimbi of Unita. Washington could find no further use for Mobutu in the Nineties and turned on him with a zealous impatience for democracy that has also seen welcome reductions in the bonanza payments from America (some ‘development aid’ and a lot of defence allocations) that were regularly shared out between the President and his senior appointees or used to boost the prestige of favoured army officers.

These shifts in regional and world politics could not persuade Mobutu to leave the dinner table while there was still a chance of another sitting. His plan for a multi-party state, declared in 1990, left him, and the Zairean security forces, at liberty to challenge any changes he deemed unacceptable. He was nonetheless forced to accept a transitional conference, convened in a climate of passionate anti-Mobutisme to formulate a constitution and encourage some serious thinking about a date for elections in Zaire. After an underpaid and disgruntled army led an impressive bout of looting in September, Mobutu persuaded Etienne Tshisekedi, the main opposition figure, to form a government. Tshisekedi is a Luba politician, but his party, the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS), has a broader support base than his own ethnic constituency and looked three years ago to be the driving force for change. But the appointments Tshisekedi made on assuming the premiership were not to the President’s liking. Hardly any of the President’s friends was called to office and Tshisekedi refused to pay the Army. He was dismissed.

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