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.

The following year the Conference created its own legislative body, the Haut Conseil de la République, an alternative to the National Assembly, whose term had expired with the President’s. Mobutu agreed that the Conference should elect a prime minister. Tshisekedi returned to office and – again – made almost no Mobutiste appointments; the MPR refused to co-operate. In 1993 Mobutu dismissed Tshisekedi, replaced him with a former UDPS colleague and called on the lapsed Assembly to come up with a transitional constitution of its own – a deliberate snub to the Conference. The Conference and the Haut Conseil pressed on with their own agenda. Almost a year of bicephalous non-government followed, with Mobutu’s strong-arm men preventing the HCR from meeting. There was an increase in detentions – opposition politicians, of course, and also journalists. In October UN mediation brought the Assembly and the Conference legislature together.

The transitional administration now consisted of all the deputies in the Assembly and all the members of the HCR. For three months things seethed along inconsequentially, but there was no agreement on the terms of transition, nor on the real prime minister or even the real administration. Last year, Mobutu declared a new round of dismissals, including Tshisekedi’s. It was a skilful gambit to redouble the confusion and to marginalise Tshisekedi. On the whole, it has worked. Tshisekedi refused to go; the cabinet refused to go: the process of non-government was turning to anarchy proper, the anti-Mobutistes were split and life in the belly of the Big Man was beginning to look like a national necessity again. The amalgam legislature had to cut its losses: it manoeuvred for another round of consensus politics in which the UDPS was weakened and Tshisekedi was indeed replaced. He and his followers still contest the dismissal on the grounds that the HCR/Assembly is not empowered to vote a premier in or out. There is now a transitional government headed by a ‘moderate’, but in Zaire, for the time being, those who work with Mobutu are quickly tainted with Mobutisme – their sacrificial realism is redeemed by the pickings most politicians enjoy – and those who do not are in danger of gathering dust.

There is now no state to speak of in Zaire. Elections have been promised but the most recent deadline, 9 July, was never practical; there can be no elections without registration and no registration without paid registrars and useable roads, but only senior functionaries in Zaire are reasonably paid – some sectors of the civil service have not received salaries for ten months – and there are no funds to repair the crumbling transport infrastructure: they’ve all been eaten by the chef d’état and his family. More than three thousand jobs have gone at the Office de Routes, and the World Bank, which was supporting a new road programme, pulled the plug on Zaire in 1993. Nobody knows how many people are eligible to vote, how more or less fraudulent an election is likely to be and whether a proper ballot would not mean the abolition of Zaire in a storm of regionalisms and secessionisms – a red card of chaos that Mobutistes are very fond of waving at anyone who thinks the country would be better off without the man who has held it in place and squeezed it, hard and profitably, since the mid-Sixties.

Circumstance, and the BBC, kept me at a comfortable distance from haemorrhagic fever – a few days in Kinshasa, but mostly way north in Kisangani, where V.S. Naipaul set his cruel little book, A Bend in the River – and away from Britain long enough to miss the arrival of Outbreak, the Dustin Hoffman film. Helping out on a documentary about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I could carry my creature comforts with me, in the form of a pocket edition of the novel and some good essays pushed my way by the director. A hundred miles downriver from Kisangani, on a sturdy pirogue with an outboard motor, I’d look up from the novel at the benign expanse of water and the steep banks combed with roots, and doubt even the imaginative truth of what I was reading. Dozens of adults breaking off from their business to wave genially from riverside villages as their children swim out to greet you, shouting and thrashing, all very much in the style of National Geographic, does nothing for your sense of an ‘implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention’, but it does establish that there’s more to Zaire than millions of helpless Africans at risk from Aids – ‘la chose’, as it’s called with a stoical sigh – or Ebola.

To grasp why it’s an effort to shrug off Conrad in modern Zaire, one has first to pass through the gate marked Mobutu Sese Seko into the huge domain of fact, myth and metaphor where everything refers to the President, everything says something about him, everything is, in one way or another, cast in his likeness or enacted in his name.

Basoko lies 150 miles downriver from Kisangani at the mouth of a handsome tributary known as the Aruwimi. The river is busy, fish is plentiful, there would be no malnutrition if there were useable roads, but there aren’t, and trade has fallen off: fishermen eat fish and, in the interior, cassava-growers eat cassava; there are dietary deficiencies in both cases, especially the latter. The Government gave up on education years ago; during the ‘authenticity’ campaign of the early Seventies it eased the Catholic missions out of teaching, but they’ve since crept back; throughout Zaire, the Church now offers most primary and secondary education. In Basoko, it also provides the only effective health care apart from faith healing and sorcery. The clinic is mostly full of new mothers and tuberculosis cases – TB, sometimes an opportunistic infection riding on HIV, is one of the big illnesses in Zaire, along with malaria, sleeping sickness and viral diarrhoea (‘diarrhées rouges’). The first outbreak of Ebola, in 1976, and the second, now, have caused nothing like the number of deaths that these diseases bring. Even malaria can be regarded as a disease of poverty. It strikes at the weak and under-nourished and is much reduced by simple, unaffordable precautions like nets and anti-mosquito coils.

It’s too simple to say that Basoko is poor in proportion as the President is rich, but there is a relation between the two extremes. And because the little town receives nothing from the public purse apart from a handful of state salaries, paid months in arrears, it depends on its own big men for civic improvements, which is how the politics of small-town Zaire operates. An important and not entirely hypothetical general is posted in Kinshasa but his home, the resting place of his kin, is Basoko. He gives the town a truck, opens a store and stocks it (bolts of printed cloth, a moped and, despite the lack of electricity in most of Basoko, a set of fairy lights). He starts a foundation in Kinshasa to enrich Basoko and bring it renown. His daughter is active in the capital on behalf of the Foundation. They print T-shirts with her photograph on the front; they do, indeed, raise some funds. They decide that Basoko needs more than fairy lights and embark on electrification. They might well be a force for local good, but no one in Basoko can gainsay them. They’re synonymous with the town. Anyone who wishes to call it by its own name, unhitched from the General’s family name, is liable to lose the advantages of the truck or eat in darkness. That’s Mobutisme – a stifling system of patronage and ostracism – regardless of whether the officer in question is a Mobutiste or an opposition sympathiser, a ‘good’ big man or a ‘bad’ big man.

Three months ago, in Basoko, the jail had several inmates. We passed it often, and the unappealing shifts that kept watch outside it, with their guns and dark glasses. We never once saw a civilian visit. This is unusual; in other parts of Africa, the family must feed detainees, as they do hospital patients, but no one was looking after the prisoners in Basoko. We were refused entry to the jail and we didn’t persist. It was one of the sisters at the Catholic mission who told us that the handful of men and women going unfed were accused of mutilating and eating the body parts of a man in the nearby village of Yalinonge. It intrigued her – Europeans, as Evans-Pritchard said, like anything that hints of cannibalism – but she’d been fifteen years in Basoko; she took it for granted that there was witchcraft in Upper Zaire, that the eating of human parts was a feature of some cults. It seemed to me that, as a confessed believer in transubstantiation, she had some sense of the issues here.

When Sister Marianne first spoke of her concern for the prisoners, I imagined her sweeping them out of the jail and off to France, where she would put them on a suitably punitive regime – Nil by Mouth – and reform them, but at that stage the story still seemed exotic, laughable almost, and it was a day or more before I grasped that she was seriously concerned for their survival. Sister Marianne was organising a food rota in Basoko for the accused, and this she managed by mid-March, when they had already been held for some time. The women of the parish of Basoko would prepare food and deliver it to the prison. If they were firm, they gained entry and made sure that it reached the prisoners. If not, there was no knowing the hunger, or even the greed, of the prison warders who took it off them with an accommodating smile.

One evening, a teacher from a fishing family in Basoko paid his respects at the mission. We fell to talking about the local cults and Monsieur B., a man in his mid-forties, spoke about a creek, further upriver, guarded by female spirits who tended the ancestors and also favoured certain fishermen by enabling them to drop their nets deeper than the rest. Propitiation was involved. There was another cult known as Fonoli – ‘très mauvais goût’, said B. – for dispatching tiresome relatives to ‘the other side of the water’, and a commercial cult called Basombo (‘une espèce de magie noire’) in which poison is procured from a herbalist and administered to a relative who then dies and goes ‘to Basombo side’ to earn money for the surviving family.

On Monama, B. spoke more respectfully. It was a serious thing, he said, and prevalent enough. You had to be careful your leavings – rinds, shit, detritus – weren’t picked up by someone with a score to settle. Monama initiates took leavings away to their homes and recited over them. You went down to the river in the ordinary way and never came back. Somehow you were abducted to the lodge, killed and divided among the members for incorporation, specific organs to specific people. The people in the prison at Basoko, he said, were Monamistes, which was the reason their families, horrified by the crime and afraid of guilt by association, refused to feed them. Sister Marianne concurred and, two days later, as we were about to leave for the long journey back onto the main river and upstream to Kisangani, she gave me a cyclostyled document from another small town a few miles away in the parish. It was put out by a group called SOS-Droits de I’Homme/Pacifique. Poorly printed on crumbling paper but elegantly written, it denounced the authorities in Basoko for failing to look into the allegations properly. Pierre Loanga, the cult victim, had been missing for months when his body was found in the river with the eyes and genitals removed. SOS/Droits de l’Homme agreed it was a cult killing: Fonoli or Monama – they thought these were the same thing. The stir in Yalinonge was so great that the village chief had been forced to act swiftly; he consulted a ‘charlatan’ who used magic to identify the culprits and four villagers were taken to the jail in Basoko to await a hearing before the local tribunal.

Loanga’s relatives caused trouble in Basoko. They brought his body to the Commissioner and demanded that the town take care of the funeral. When this was refused, they took it to the jail and called for the immediate execution of the Yalinonge detainees; they tried to break into the jail. A dozen soldiers were drafted in; the family retreated and, shortly afterwards, a detachment of guards set out for Yalinonge. When they got there, they found the village empty. Everyone knew there would be official reprisals for the fracas in Basoko and they had fled to the bush. The soldiers requisitioned their livestock (‘booty’, says SOS/Droits de I’Homme) and rounded up a handful of ‘suspects’ in the neighbouring village of Bomese, who were carted off to jail in Basoko. SOS/Droits de l’Homme, a modest organisation which also refers to itself as ‘our club’, had an ‘envoyé sur place’ in Basoko. He had written to the Commissioner and the local government doctor to enquire about the treatment of the prisoners. A list of detainees was refused. No date had been set for a trial, and that was more than four months ago.

This is a useful fable about Mobutisme, leading off with the element of cannibalism, which means nothing very clear when reported by Europeans about non-Europeans, but quite a lot in terms of the abuse of the body politic in post-colonial Zaire, where men of power surround themselves with mystique and, like the President, flourish by means of incorporation, appropriation, the mopping up of adversarial forces, the abduction and mutilation of friends and enemies and the re-embodiment of stolen attributes – stolen prowess – in themselves. For years, the most destructive, anthropophagic cult in Zaire has not been Monama, or Fonoli, but the cult of the President, until 1990 the repository of all political power, one of the richest men in Africa, and the main domestic obstacle to change in Zaire now.

A figurehead is needed to resolve a case like Pierre Loanga’s, but the Commissioner in Basoko may not be up to it; he may fear to act in case he is contradicted by a senior man, or merely a bigger man – the General, say, on one of his excursions from Kinshasa. It’s easier to refer up into the sullen reaches of higher authority, which is referring matters of its own elsewhere, and, having done so, to let the detainees rot in jail. In Basoko three weeks ago, I heard that the number of accused Monamistes had finally settled at five – most of the Bomese detainees must have been released – that two had died of ill health, a third had ‘escaped’ – disappeared, very likely – and that there were now two women left in a cell. Sister Marianne did not hold out much hope for them. If they had people of influence in their families, a little money for bribery (‘la motivation’), they might have had a chance. Their quandary, too, is all about Mobutisme. Finally, there is SOS/Droits de l’Homme, reasonable, under-resourced, raising objections to the politics of rumour and convenience from an isolated village in Upper Zaire. There are dozens of human rights groups of this kind and they, too, tell the story of Mobutisme – of its last days and the impatience for change.

Shortly before travelling to Basoko, the crew working on the Heart of Darkness documentary was arrested by plain-clothes officials for filming in the capital. One of the seven or eight authorisations to film specified only ‘Kinshasa’ and not ‘ville de Kinshasa’. The security men, half a dozen of them, belonged to the National Intelligence Service (SNIP). It was a Friday afternoon; they had already been drinking. I thought we’d dealt with SNIP; we had some stamped documents, we’d parted with some ‘motivation’, but this was a different clan within the service and it wanted its cut. The senior man on duty was offering to confiscate the tapes. After he’d rid the office of his staff, he asked for an explanation of the film. It was to do with a novel based on the river. What was the novel about? About a greedy man. What did he do? He overstepped the mark. Who was he? An agent of imperialism. Did I have the novel in translation?

We drove to the hotel in his jeep – he charged for the petrol – and he waited while I went up to retrieve my copy of Au coeur des ténèbres. We drove somewhere else. He had the driver park the car and sat, browsing the book for what felt like a good ten minutes. On the back was a quotation, possibly from Julien Green, something about the folly and excess of a man in the middle of nowhere whose avarice knew no bounds. We might have been all right, the SNIP boss remarked as he shut the book, if it weren’t for the ‘citation’ on the cover. ‘You tell me,’ he said, ‘that you’ve come to Zaire to make a film about a book, but it seems to me that you’re here to make impertinent allusions to our President.’ The President is not a European, I said. No, he replied, but he lives well; he has houses in France, he is as rich as any European. He’s not an imperialist, I said. No, but it was a dangerous and despicable fashion in Zaire to think of him as a man of the past, a figure associated with ‘une histoire malheureuse’. Our project would certainly need further investigation.

The Ebola virus was an international issue by the time we returned to Kinshasa from the north. SNIP was busy ‘motivating’ new arrivals from the foreign press and our own case was settled for $200, plus petrol, plus the transfer of the French translation of Conrad to the SNIP offices. (It must be obvious to SNIP readers that their duty officer had glossed the novel very well. If Mr Kurtz had held an election in his domain, he would surely have been the sole candidate and been returned with 99.16 per cent of the vote, as Mobutu was in 1984). Now, people in the capital were loath to shake hands in case the sickness could be transmitted by simple contact. They were starting instead to knock one another’s forearms in a gesture a little like a nudge. It’s the kind of greeting that should outlive this sickness and remain in place until the political transition is complete. To a European eye, at least, it would make an eloquent mockery of the conniving habits of Mobutisme for as long as they lasted, and signal a discreet confidence that they cannot do so for ever.

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