KIGALI, RWANDA, AUGUST 1998
Ernest Wamba dia Wamba was an unlikely candidate to lead a movement to overthrow Laurent Kabila. A quiet, unassuming man with a professorial demeanor, he had spent most of his life in academic institutions in the United States and Tanzania, far more familiar with the intricacies of existentialist philosophy than with revolutionary politics. When he became the president of the new Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) rebellion on August 16, 1998, it came as a surprise even to his family. His story illustrates the tragic state of Congolese leadership: Even when a man with pristine political and ethical credentials tries to effect change, the results are poor.1
Wamba had been fascinated by politics since he was a boarding student at a Swedish missionary school in western Bas-Congo Province, close to the Atlantic Ocean, in the 1950s. It was a turbulent time for the region. Wamba was born not far from the birthplace of Simon Kimbangu, a local Christian prophet and anticolonial activist who rejected the white clergy’s monopoly on religion. Wamba was from the Kongo ethnic community, which had made up one of Central Africa’s oldest and largest kingdoms and was at the forefront of the Congolese independence movement. While still a teenager, he was swept up by the weekly rallies and protest marches that embroiled the region. Even at Wamba’s high school, when the Swedish missionaries were out of earshot, the Congolese teachers would encourage them to chant:“What do we want? Independence!”
Wamba was a precocious student. He mined the school library for books on contemporary philosophy. “He wasn’t content with village life, with the state his country was in,” Mahmood Mamdani, a fellow political scientist and a close friend, remembered. Studying continental philosophy was a means of emancipating himself, of feeling part of something larger. Engrossed by Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, he sent the famous philosopher a letter when he was in his early teens. To his surprise, Sartre wrote back, and the two had a brief correspondence.
After graduating with high marks, he was one of three students from his school to receive a scholarship to study in the United States. He went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, about as far from his tropical homeland as he could imagine, where he wrote his senior thesis on French philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre and was admitted for graduate study at Claremont University in California.
As with many Africans in the diaspora, distance from his homeland catalyzed his interest in its politics. “ I was not radicalized about Africa until I came to the United States,” he later reflected. “ It is strange, but I became much more aware of what was going on in Congo in the United States than I had ever been in Congo.”2 He followed developments in his home country closely and became a strident critic of Mobutu’s dictatorship. He married an African American woman and became active in the American civil rights movement through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In academic circles, he was known as a pan-Africanist; he advocated a version of democracy more in tune with traditional African forms of government.
In 1980, Wamba returned to the continent with his family to take up a position at the University of Dar es Salaam, which President Julius Nyerere was promoting as a center of African learning, attracting academics and political activists from around the region. A year later, Wamba was arrested during a visit to Kinshasa, an incident that drew the attention of Nyerere, who helped get him out of prison. Nyerere then called on him for advice on Great Lakes politics, in particular the Burundian peace process.
When the war in the Congo started, the former Tanzanian president had been retired after several decades as head of state but remained closely involved in regional politics. Ugandan president Museveni had asked Nyerere to endorse Kabila, but the former president was skeptical. Nonetheless, Kabila was well connected, which was crucial: His right-hand man was married to the daughter of Nyerere’s former vice prime minister.3 Nyerere finally met Kabila in his rural hometown, and the Congolese rebel leader spoke passionately about self-determination and his vision for the Congo. Nyerere asked Wamba for advice. The professor was critical of Kabila, given his reputation as a smuggler and thug, but Nyerere was swayed by other leaders in the region. He authorized Tanzanian intelligence officers, trainers, and artillery to support the AFDL—and to keep an eye on Kabila. He even lent the rebel leader one of his personal bodyguards.
Kabila visited Dar es Salaam several more times, and each time Nyerere made sure that Wamba was on hand. The more he saw of Kabila, however, the more doubts he had. Kabila seemed aloof and stubborn, always friendly and charismatic in their private meetings, but unwilling to implement suggestions the Tanzanians made. On one occasion Nyerere organized a meeting between Kabila and several of his close friends, including Wamba, to help develop a coherent political ideology; the rebel leader stood them up. Wamba remembered Nyerere shaking his head. “He can’t even show up to meetings on time,” he told Wamba. “His deputy [Kisase Ngandu] was assassinated in mysterious circumstances. This is not looking good.” To top it off, Nyerere’s intelligence officers based in the field reported confusion and infighting within the rebel alliance.
When the AFDL took power in Kinshasa, Kabila invited Nyerere to visit. The elder statesman was deeply disappointed. Traveling in a presidential convoy from the airport, he sighed impatiently as he saw Kabila’s security detail chase other cars off the road and bring traffic to a halt. “That’s not how a president is supposed to behave,” he muttered to Wamba, who was accompanying him. Together they toured the capital, Bas-Congo, and a military base in the south, where Tanzanian officers were training the new army. There his men told him that the new recruits increasingly only came from Kabila’s own Lubakat tribe. In a private meeting, he warned Kabila, “Our support was not for you; it was for the Congolese people. If you don’t watch out, the same thing will happen to you as happened to Mobutu.”4 Before he left, Nyerere gave a press conference at his hotel, where he told journalists: “ I came to the Congo and saw its leaders. But I didn’t see a single new road, hospital or school.”5
The Congo war spun its leaders like a centrifuge; the more ruthless, politically adept ones managed to stay at the center and reinvent themselves through new business deals or political alliances. The lightweights, however, were flung to the fringes of political life. Dozens of these figures are scattered through Kinshasa’s suburbs, living off money they had set aside or real estate they manage. The revolution devoured many of its children, spitting them out when it had sucked what it needed out of them. Wamba was one of these pieces of flotsam: After the end of the war, he had obtained a position as a senator in Parliament, but soon he was unemployed. He had preferred to stay in his country, enveloped by memories of past achievements and friends, than return to the anonymous surroundings of Dar es Salaam. In 2007, during a research trip to Kinshasa, I managed to track him down. He appeared to have given up any political ambitions. When I told his former rebel colleagues that I was going to see him, they were all surprised that he was still in town.
“I would be happy to meet,” he told me over the phone, “but I live a bit outside of downtown, and my car has broken down. Could you come to my place?”
I hadn’t realized what Wamba meant by “a bit outside of downtown.” I drove about twenty miles through grimy suburbs, until the pavement gave way to sandy side streets lined by broken-down houses with fading paint and rusty, corrugated iron roofing. Wamba had given me a street address, but there were no numbers on the houses. I asked around, but nobody seemed to know a Professor Wamba dia Wamba. Finally, a matronly woman selling sugar and manioc flour on a piece of gunnysack recognized the name—“Ah! That old politician!” I had passed his house several times. In the courtyard, a scrawny dog barked at me. A polite lady showed me into the living room and asked me to wait—Professor Wamba was having a bath.
The living room was simple. A glossy, generic picture of a waterfall hung on one wall. The other had a picture of Wamba in a suit signing the 2002 peace deal in Pretoria, South Africa. The sofa was decorated with circular doilies crocheted in neon yellow and purple yarn. I leafed through several magazines on the table; there was a three-month-old issue of Jeune Afrique and the newsletter of Mbongi a Nsi, a Kongo cultural organization he headed. When I used the bathroom, there was no light or running water.
Several minutes later, Wamba welcomed me into his study, a small room lined with books and magazines. On the wall next to his desk was a series of A4-size laminated photographs of people. There was his son Philippe, who had died in a car accident in 2002; Rashid Kawawa, the former Tanzanian vice prime minister; as well as Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, and a row of fading pictures from the 1950s of Wamba’s family. As he began to speak, I mentally went over all the things I had heard about him from people who had known him in Dar es Salaam or during the rebellion, trying to reconcile the image of a misguided rebel leader, dressed in army fatigues and with a nine-millimeter pistol at his side, with this avuncular, soft-spoken man. How could someone invested for so many years in promoting democracy and civil rights have become derailed?
In early 1998, as the Rwandans began falling out with Kabila, Kigali began piecing together a new rebellion. Vice President Paul Kagame sent emissaries throughout the region and contacted others by phone in Brussels and the United States. When Wamba arrived in Kigali in early August 1998, most of the other future leaders of the RCD were already there.
Wamba was baffled when he arrived at the small guesthouse in Kabuga, in the suburbs of the Rwandan capital, where the prospective leaders had gathered. Former Mobutist ministers sat next to former AFDL rebels who had fought against Mobutu. Opposition politicians who had been imprisoned and tortured by Kabila sat next to Rwandan security officers who had been in charge of Kabila’s army. It was an alliance of malcontents; the only thing they had in common was their disdain for Kabila. How could they ever work together?
Despite the disparate backgrounds, many of them, like Wamba, had solid credentials. For example, there was Zahidi Ngoma, a former high-ranking official for UNESCO, based in Paris. Zahidi had been a long-standing opponent of both Mobutu and Kabila and had been arrested in Kinshasa shortly after the AFDL’s victory, beaten, and nearly starved to death in prison. Also present was Joseph Mudumbi, a human rights lawyer from South Kivu who had reported on abuses in the Rwandan refugee camps in the face of harassment and death threats. He had been awarded a prestigious prize by Human Rights Watch in 1995. Other members included Jacques Depelchin, a Stanford-trained historian who, together with Wamba dia Wamba, had drafted the African Declaration Against Genocide, and Etienne Ngangura, the head of the philosophy department at the University of Kinshasa. To western diplomats, they seemed genuinely bent on bringing about a responsible and functional government. Surely the idealism of these scholars and activists would help this rebellion to succeed where the previous one had failed?
And yet it was clear from the beginning that their independence would be severely limited by Rwanda’s influence. After all, it was Kigali that had brought them together and provided them with soldiers, phones, and houses. Indeed, by the time the besuited politicians met in Kigali, the armed insurrection on the ground was already two weeks old, had taken control of the border cities of Bukavu and Goma, and was advancing on Kinshasa. The political leadership of the RCD was attached as an afterthought, an appendix to the military machine. “We thought we would take Kinshasa within a month at the most,” Colonel Patrick Karegeya, one of the masterminds of the Rwandan offensive, told me. “We didn’t pay that much attention to the political wing.”6
Wamba could not claim that he didn’t know what he was getting into. Like the others, he, too, had been contacted by the Rwandan government. A few days after his arrival in Kigali, it was Paul Kagame who, in a closed-door meeting with the aspiring rebels, suggested that Wamba become president of the movement. Wamba had a good international reputation, the Rwandan leader argued, and had not participated in the previous rebellion, which could make him appear a neutral arbiter among the various other tendencies represented. Crucially, Wamba was close to former Tanzanian president Nyerere and, by virtue of his membership in the pan-Africanist movement, could also sway other African leaders such as Mandela, Museveni, and Graça Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique. “Any objections?” Kagame asked. Of course, there were none.
Wamba had his reasons for advocating a military rebellion. He had been a frontseat observer to the various resistance movements against Mobutu’s dictatorship. Over twenty-five years, he had watched the autocrat, with the help of the United States, France, and Belgium, skillfully crush and co-opt any opposition to his rule. At the end of the cold war, persistent protests forced Mobutu to accept multiparty democracy, and he called for a National Sovereign Conference, in which Wamba participated, to decide the future of the government. When the conference elected Etienne Tshisekedi as its leader, Mobutu simply ignored the verdict and imposed his own prime minister. Wamba didn’t see much hope for pacifist opposition to a regime that locked up and tortured its opponents.
The genocide in Rwanda finally ripped Wamba out of academic complacency: “[It] was the turning point, my road to Damascus. Here you are, a social scientist who has been theorizing about social movements, trying to understand how African societies work, how they might be changed for the better. Then you see that genocide is taking place right in front of your face, and you find yourself powerless to do anything.”7 When he received the phone call telling him that he could take the lead in a new rebellion and, without the hardships and improbabilities of grassroots organizing, play a decisive role in shaping a new, albeit armed, opposition, he didn’t hesitate.
In a speech to African philosophers, he obliquely justified his position: “Congolese academics talk of the Congolese population as being ignorant and President J. Kabila as knowing nothing. They are happy doing their routine theoretical work and not caring much about the fact that they are sitting in a sinking boat. I find this attitude deplorable.... Development can only be consciously pursued and not left to chance or to others.”8
Many others with similarly high ideals made the same deal with the devil as Wamba. After all, being a leader takes vision and charisma, but it also requires propitious circumstances. Hadn’t Che Guevara tried and failed, limping away malnourished and dejected? Hadn’t Tshisekedi, who had marched with tens of thousands against Mobutu in 1992, also been reduced to a marginal figure, with only a handful of diehard supporters heeding calls for protest marches? They had failed because the circumstances had not been ripe for them, whereas Wamba and his new comrades now did have the right circumstances: a formidable, time-tested military machine that could undoubtedly take them to the summit of the state. Change and power were being offered on a silver platter.
A total of twenty-six dissidents were ferried out to a small hotel in Kabuga, on the outskirts of Kigali, and spent several days debating the structure and composition of their new rebellion. As they debated, Rwandan army officers milled about outside in gumboots, toting machine guns.
“ It was a strange bunch,” Wamba remembered. He had a tendency to close his eyes for minutes on end and stroke his forehead when we spoke. “You had capitalists and socialists. You had Mobutists and those who had thrown them out of power. You had academics and people who apparently had never read a book.”
This amalgam produced tense moments, as at the beginning, when Kalala Shambuyi, a radical from the Belgian diaspora, stood up and pointed at Lunda Bululu, who had been prime minister under Mobutu. “ I will not be associated with Mobutists after all they did to my country!” He walked out, but was later calmed down and brought back in. On another occasion, the Rwandans showed the draft of a press statement to Zahidi Ngoma, the rebellion’s first spokesperson, who exploded, protesting, “ I am not in primary school! I can draft my own press statements!”
For most of those assembled, their differences of opinion didn’t matter much, as they believed they would be in Kinshasa in a matter of weeks or, at the most, months. Wamba found himself alone arguing for a “democratizing rebellion.” Military pressure for him was just a means to begin negotiations with Kabila. “Most of the people in that room hadn’t thought about strategy, how they would use their power to bring about social change. They just wanted military victory.” Some RCD leaders already began discussing which positions they would get when they got to Kinshasa. In the meantime, Wamba held forth in long speeches about Congolese history and their responsibilities toward the Congolese people.
Many in the group saw Wamba as out of touch with reality. “He was an old professor in sandals,” one remembered. “He knew a lot about Marxist theory and African history. But what did he know about governing? About leading a rebellion?”9 A Ugandan commander who was in charge of Ugandan troops told a leading member of the RCD: “Let the old man write his books, we’ ll get to work.”10
A Rwandan military escort took the group to its new headquarters in Goma, Mobutu’s former palace on Lake Kivu, where chandeliers and marble floors recalled the good old days before the pillaging and destruction. The Rwandans, in an effort to build team spirit, made the RCD leaders sleep together in the same house. This sparked indignation from some.
Rwandan influence was initially subtle. In the meetings of the RCD assembly, delegates sent from Kigali were often in attendance, but the Congolese debated freely and fiercely over the direction the movement should take. Tito Rutaremara, an old Left Bank Parisian intellectual who was an influential RPF ideologue, gave presentations on how to develop revolutionary ideology. But no one could impose cohesion and a sense of purpose. “ It was like herding cats,” Wamba remembered. “Most of the people in the movement were not sincerely interested in democracy.” They had learned from the Mobutu and Kabila school of governance: They thought power was developed through intrigue. Each leader developed his personal contact in Kigali. Diplomats became used to seeing the RCD leaders at the luxury Umumbano Hotel in Kigali each week, sitting at the same corner table on the terrace, meeting with Rwandan officials. All of the main leaders of the RCD had houses in Kigali, just a three-hour car ride from Goma.
“It was difficult to say who was in charge,” Wamba said. “Our executive council met once every two weeks and took decisions. But then I found out others were sending conflicting reports to Kampala and Kigali.” It was a typical case of traffic d’influence—using personal contacts as leverage behind the scenes to get what you wanted.
The cacophony became so bad that Vice President Kagame had to intervene on several occasions. Once he convened the leadership in Kigali and told them an anecdote about a king. “The monarch had a wonderful advisor who saved him many times,” he told his audience. “As a reward, one day he told his advisor that he could make one wish that he would grant him without condition. The advisor told him:‘I have but one simple request. When I want to tell you something, can I whisper it in your ear?’ The king, baffled by the request, granted it immediately. From then on, whenever there was an important decision to take, the advisor would go up to the king and whisper banalities in his ear—he talked about the weather or what the cook would make for dinner—and the king would nod. The advisor would then go and tell the court that the king had agreed with his recommendations regarding national policy.” Kagame then thundered, wagging his finger. “Some of you fools come and see me here in Kigali, just to say hello and ask about my family! Then you go and tell the rest that Kagame agrees with your decision on this or that matter.” He banged his fist on the table. “ I will have none of this!”11
But the Rwandans were not just innocuous bystanders. Approval for all major expenditures from the RCD budget had to come from Kigali. Both RCD finance minister Emmanuel Kamanzi and chief of staff General Jean-Pierre Ondekane spent most of their time in Kigali, making decisions without conferring with the rest of the RCD leadership. Major leadership changes were imposed by Kigali, and all military operations were led by Rwandan commanders in the field. The more the RCD’s disorganization became apparent, the more Kigali began to intervene. “ Were we dominated by Rwanda, or were we just very weak?” a former RCD leader asked rhetorically. “It wasn’t clear.”12
It quickly became obvious that Wamba was ill-suited as president of the RCD. He tired of Rwandan interference and the gluttony of his colleagues. From the first days of the rebellion, as their soldiers were blazing across the country, he called for a cease-fire and negotiations with Kabila, causing Rwandan commanders to grind their teeth in frustration. Finally, the height of impudence, he called for a financial audit of the rebellion and made its leaders declare their income and belongings. The results were embarrassing to the RCD: While their coffers were almost empty, many leaders were buying houses in South Africa. Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the military chief of staff who had a taste for diamond rings and used skin-lightening cream, had bought a sports car that he imported to Kigali. “How would he ever drive that thing on Goma’s terrible roads?” Wamba wondered.
“After just four months, things were so bad between us we wouldn’t talk much together,” Wamba remembered. The last straw came on New Year’s Eve 1998, when Wamba was scheduled to give a seasonal radio address. His colleagues were with family or friends, enjoying the holiday, when they heard him on the radio:“There is zero oversight of the leaders of the rebellion. This is why even the most notorious incompetence does not elicit the slightest reprimand. The professional relationships have been transformed into a nepotistic politicking: Scratch my back and I will scratch yours.” 13 Zahidi Ngoma, who was enjoying a glass of wine at home, rushed to the phone and called the radio station. “Cut him off!” he ordered.
Predictably, the RCD leaders were called to Kigali to explain their supreme disarray. Both Rwanda’s president, Pasteur Bizimungu, and its vice president, Paul Kagame, attended the meeting. Wamba complained that any initiative he undertook was blocked by others, in particular the Mobutists. Some Tutsi raised their voices to say that Wamba was excluding them based on their ethnicity. Then Wamba interjected, “I wasn’t even given a Christmas dinner! What kind of rebellion is this?”
The other members sighed, and an old Mobutist complained, “This debate has sunk too low. Christmas dinner!”
Bizimungu responded, “No! What the president is saying is important! How can you feed fifty million people if you can’t even feed your president?”
Kagame took the floor. “Your problem is that you don’t love your country. You need to suffer; you are living the good life. When we were in our rebellion, we were so poor that we didn’t have plates to eat out of. We took banana leaves and put them in a hole in the ground to eat our meals.”
The debate turned acrimonious, with Zahidi accusing the finance minister of signing contracts in his bathrobe at home and not even informing them, while Wamba was lambasted for having his head in the clouds. The Rwandans intervened to calm the group down, but it was clear that the rift would be difficult to mend. In early 1999, Wamba was toppled as the president of the RCD.
The rebellion was militarily successful. By the beginning of 1999, the RCD had seized over a quarter of the country, including the third largest city, Kisangani, and were headed toward the mining hubs of Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi. Under the strict guidance of the Rwandan army, the Congolese battalions performed relatively well, although they became well-known for pillage and abuse. Faced with aerial bombardments and artillery barrages from the well-equipped Zimbabwean and Chadian armies (the Angolans chose mostly to stay behind and guard Kinshasa and Bas-Congo), the RCD fought well on a shoestring, using guerrilla tactics to their advantage.
Politically and socially, however, the RCD was a disaster. Outside of the Hutu and Tutsi population of North Kivu, the movement was never able to convince the population that it wasn’t a Rwandan proxy. Spontaneously, local militias—focused on ethnic self-defense—were formed, claiming to be protecting Congolese against foreign aggression. The RCD responded with a brutal counterinsurgency, targeting civilians in response to attacks. Within the first four months, several massacres took place, in which over 1,000 civilians were killed. “At first I didn’t believe the reports,” Wamba said when I asked him about these massacres. “But then I started using my own, parallel channels of information and discovered it was true. But I had no control over the military, and by the time I had found out, I had already fallen out with the others.”
I pressed him on one massacre in particular, at Kasika, which happened just weeks after he took the helm of the RCD, on August 24, 1998. According to UN investigators, as well as witnesses I interviewed, at least five hundred civilians were butchered by Rwandan and RCD troops there.
Wamba looked at me in shock. “Five hundred? No, impossible.” I told him that I had been there myself to interview eyewitnesses. “No, no. That isn’t possible,” he insisted, shaking his head.
In his office in Goma, Wamba was isolated from the suffering of the population. The leadership created the semblance of a functioning administration, with an executive council and legislative assembly playing the role of executive and Parliament. Laws were passed, press conferences called, and budgets discussed, but all this was a sideshow to the military operations. “Sometimes it felt like the only thing we did was sit in meetings all day,” José Endundo, an RCD finance commissioner, remembered. “Meetings that went nowhere and had no impact.”
The organization lacked not only ideological vision, but also the means with which to implement it. One of Wamba’s largest frustrations was his inability to carry out any sort of social or humanitarian project for the population. According to one leader, 80 percent of the RCD’s $2.5 million revenues each month went to feeding soldiers and buying supplies for military operations.14 “ We had health and transport departments but no money to build roads or schools,” Wamba said. They had over 15,000 soldiers who were deployed in an area the size of France. They had to feed the troops and provide for everything from credit for the satellite phones to fuel for the vehicles and bullets for their guns. The RCD was a predator that sucked resources out of the population and provided next to nothing in return.
According to many of his former rebel colleagues, Wamba was never in it for personal gain. Even when I visited him, the collar of his shirt was threadbare; he complained that he had been threatened with eviction on several occasions after he was unable to pay the rent. When I asked him about a friend of his, he tried calling him, but realized sheepishly that he had run out of phone credits.
Anyone who has spent much time in the Congo can understand Wamba’s desire to bring about radical change through armed rebellion, given the lack of viable options. But his gravest sin was to have remained in the rebellion for so long despite its glaring flaws. A former colleague of his quoted a Swahili proverb to me: “Don’t get into a ship with a hole in the bottom; it will eventually sink.” He said of Wamba, “ I don’t think he raped or killed or stole, but he was part of a machine that did. He is guilty of that at least.”
Perhaps the only good decision Wamba could have made was to leave the movement. Instead, he stayed on and made increasingly bizarre choices. In July 1999, Wamba made a desperate effort to raise funds for infrastructure projects—he wanted to open up the hinterlands’ economy by rebuilding three hundred and fifty miles of road from Kisangani to Bunia, close to the Ugandan border. He signed a deal with the African Union Reserve System, a previously unknown company, to set up a central bank with a new currency, “for the advancement and economic development for the Congo.” The company would be financed by Congolese gold and diamonds and would remit 35 percent of profits to Wamba’s treasury, with a $16 million loan up front. The company’s owner was Van Arthur Brink, who presented himself as the ambassador of the Dominion of Melchisedek, a fanciful spiritual order that sold banking licenses in the name of a virtual state. Unsurprisingly, it was a swindle. The crook’s real name was Allen Ziegler, who was on the run from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud worth $400,000, and who had set up shop on the small Caribbean island of Grenada. The rebels, of course, never saw a cent of the promised money.
Suliman Baldo, the senior Human Rights Watch researcher for the Congo at the time, shook his head when I asked him about Wamba. He had been in touch with Wamba for years during the rebellion. The professor would call him frequently from his rebel base on his satellite phone to tell his side of the story. “Wamba became a farce,” he told me. “I would meet him in the bush surrounded by child soldiers, and he would tell me he is an advocate of children’s rights.”15 When dissent broke out within Wamba’s group, his soldiers repressed it harshly, beating alleged conspirators to death.16
Wamba’s theories had clashed with the brutal realities of Congolese politics. One period during the war epitomizes this. In August 1999, Wamba was cooped up in Hotel Wagenia, a run-down, colonial-era hotel in the middle of Kisangani, as the town descended into a bloody street battle between Ugandan and Rwandan troops. His Ugandan minders had told him that the Rwandans wanted to kill him, so he spent much of his time in his room, on a satellite phone or writing. His surroundings were not conducive to creative thinking. Not only were there the sporadic bursts of machine gun fire, but the hotel had suffered the same dilapidation as the rest of the city—the water, when it ran, was rusty; the electricity was unreliable; and humidity filled the walls, floorboards, and mattresses with a dank, fetid smell. The heat was unbearable, and the extreme humidity was only leached out of the air during the late afternoon thunderstorms.
Nonetheless, Wamba was prolific. Visitors to the hotel were sometimes turned away by the guards, who said, “ The president is writing.” The professor’s essays often seemed to have little bearing on the tumult around him. As the Kalashnikovs crackled outside, Wamba wrote an open letter to the Belgians, exhorting them to examine their rule in the Congo and to follow the visionary teachings of former colonial governor Pierre Ryckmans and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Other open letters followed, including one to the people of the United States and others to the population of Kinshasa and to the Congolese diaspora. Another letter from the time was—somewhat ironically given the context—a Maoist-inspired reflection on the relation between theory and practice within the rebel movement: “[The founding statutes of the RCD] should affirm that the individual submit himself to the organization, the minority to the majority, the subaltern level to the upper level, the whole organization to the political council.”17
A Congolese friend once described the curse of Congolese politics as “the reverse Midas effect.” “Anything touched by politics in the Congo turns to shit,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter if the Holy Father himself decides to run for president, he will inevitably come out corrupt, power-hungry, and guilty of breaking all ten of the holy commandments.”
His view was extreme, but there is no doubt that there is little trace of responsibility in recent Congolese politics. Wamba is not the only civil rights activist or university professor who joined the various Congolese rebellions. Dozens of others with solid human rights credentials joined and were soon plunged into the dirty world of Congolese insurgent politics. Wamba comes out relatively unscathed in comparison. As misguided as he may have seemed, at least he didn’t become involved out of self-interest.
Expatriate workers in the Congo are often heard to say, “You know how it is—they don’t have any ideology. The Congolese like fun and dancing. They can never stand up for themselves.” “ They would sell their sister for a Gucci suit and sunglasses; you can buy anybody here.” “They are like children; you need to teach them, kindly but firmly.”
This sort of patronizing attitude is common among expatriates—be they Indian, European, Arab, or American—in the Congo. Rarely do they ponder why these alleged traits have developed. The lack of responsible politics, is not due to some genetic defect in Congolese DNA, a missing “virtue gene,” or even something about Congolese culture. Instead, it is deeply rooted in the country’s political history.
Since the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when European and Arab slave traders penetrated deep into the country and captured hundreds of thousands of slaves, often in complicity with local chiefs, hastening the disintegration of the great kingdoms of the savannah that ruled from the Atlantic seaboard throughout the center and south of the country, the Congo has suffered a social and political dissolution. It was the victim of one of the most brutal episodes of colonial rule, when it was turned into the private business empire of King Leopold; under his reign and the subsequent rule by the republican Belgian government, the Congo’s remaining customary chiefs were fought, co-opted, or sent into exile. Religious leaders who defied the orthodoxy of the European-run churches faced the same fate: The prophet Simon Kimbangu died after thirty years in prison for his anticolonial rhetoric.
Under Mobutu, the price of resistance was so great that few ever dared to stand up and be counted for fear of being chopped down. Resistance to dictatorship in other countries has been most successful when it can call on strong, well-organized structures of like-minded supporters, such as labor unions, churches, or student groups. In the Congo, where in any case only 4 percent of the working-age population had jobs in the formal sector, there were few labor unions to speak of. In the early 1990s, fewer than 100,000 students in higher education were dispersed among dozens of universities and training centers across the country. Mobutu had tamed these institutions, consolidating all labor and student unions and forcefully integrating them into his ruling party. The country’s biggest institute of higher learning, Lovanium University, previously run by the Catholic Church, was nationalized along with several Protestant universities. Mobutu even forced the Catholic Church to accept the establishment of cells of his political party within religious seminaries.
Some Congolese leaders have courageously stood up in protest: Lumumba before independence, Tshisekedi during Mobutu’s reign, and the countless journalists, priests, doctors, and human rights defenders who opposed oppression and injustice. Once these individuals become members of government, they are confronted with two problems: the lack of a popular base and the abject weakness of the state. Unable to implement policy and attacked on all sides by rivals, they have been either co-opted, killed, or forced to quit.
If the fiercest ideology or ethics that can be found in the country is ethnic, that is because no other institution has been strong enough for the people to rally around. Unfortunately, ethnic mobilization is usually exclusive in nature and does not form an equitable or truly democratic basis for the distribution of state resources; also, given the manipulation of customary chiefs, even this vessel has been corrupted. It will take generations to rebuild institutions or social organizations that can challenge the current predatory state without resorting to ethnicity.
Wamba came to power alone and isolated. He didn’t have a political power base and had few allies in the rebellion he had joined. Most importantly, the organization was fractured into different interest groups and dominated by Rwandan interference. For a political scientist, Wamba had grossly underestimated the necessity of having a strong organization to implement the lofty reforms he dreamt of. Instead of leaving, however, Wamba retreated into the cocoon of his ideas and theories, writing letters and giving interviews to leftist American and African journals. He became a victim of his own idealism, reduced to irrelevance.