Category Archives: sunday telegraph

spectre of mobutu haunts congo poll

(KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo) In a drab, single-storey building in Kisangani, candidates for one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s many political parties are discussing the man who inspires them.

Mobutu Sese Seko led this vast central African state for 32 years, renaming it Zaire and ruling it savagely for his personal gain.

He would reward his friends, and himself, with proceeds siphoned off from the country’s enormous mineral wealth. He would have his enemies publicly hanged, if they were lucky. Otherwise they would be slowly mutilated, one body part severed after another, until they died.

Yet, nine years after the dictator was deposed, to the jubilation of many of his countrymen, and eight and a half years since he died of prostate cancer in exile in Rabat, Morocco, his memory is more than just alive – it is the driving force behind the Union des Democrates Mobutistes (Udemo).

One of his sons, Nzanga, 36, once his official spokesman, is its leader and hopes himself to become president in the country’s first free elections in July. “We would not pretend that Mobutu was perfect. He was a human being so he made mistakes,” said Udemo’s candidate for Kisangani, Christophe Enjimo-Ngado, immaculately dressed in a navy suit and tie despite the equatorial heat.

“But democracy means something different to Africans. What we crave here are strong leaders. Look at what happened to our country after we lost Mobutu – we have seen anarchy.”

Events since the elder Mobutu was forced from power have helped to obscure the memory of his crimes. In the power struggle that followed, the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted six years and led to the deaths of an estimated 3.2 million people.

The resurgence of the Mobutu clan is another bizarre twist in the country’s faltering progress towards its first democratic elections since winning independence from Belgium in 1960. The elections may yet be derailed by continuing instability in the east and an infrastructure almost non-existent in places, after years of war.

With campaigning officially under way last week, voters also face being overwhelmed by an excess of candidates.

In the rush to embrace democracy, 33 hopefuls have thrown their hats in to the ring for the presidential vote, including Nzanga Mobutu and the current president, Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – whose rebel army drove Mobutu from power in May 1997.

In Kisangani, the capital of the mineral-rich Province Orientale, where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the five parliamentary seats are being contested by no fewer than 157 candidates.

Located on the Congo river amid dense tropical rainforest, the city is also the centre of operations in the country for the United Nations, which is overseeing the elections and has been trying to raise voter awareness.

Tens of thousands of polling stations have been set up across this vast country – almost the size of Western Europe – with local people recruited to publicise the poll because large areas are cut off from radio and television. Some observers have accused the international community of forcing elections that have little chance of being truly democratic on a country beset by huge logistical and security problems. In last December’s referendum on a new constitution only 15 million, less than a quarter of the population, voted.

One UN election official, Ludovic Le Moing, said, however: “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic, but what they represent – a chance for this country to move forward, to create stability – is more important. There is a huge collective will here to see that happen.”

Although some rebel leaders have laid down their arms to contest the elections, 17,000 UN soldiers – the largest peacekeeping force in the world – remain ready for the possibility of post-election violence.

One senior UN commander said: “In the end there will be only one winner. What the losers decide to do is an unknown, so we are bracing ourselves for trouble.”

In the blazing afternoon heat, 64-year-old Lola Assani-Andre sat on the steps of his rundown hotel in central Kisangani. It provided refuge for families fleeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and was used as quarters for officers of the Congolese army, who stayed a year and left without paying their bill.

A parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming vote, he said: “We are sick of war here. If this election means a safe future then I want to be part of it.”

This was first published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 30 April, 2006

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driving out the devil is a ratings winner in congo

(KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo) The young Congolese woman lay screaming on the dusty ground, arms thrashing wildly as a white-gowned preacher gripped her head and prayed.

As she fainted, thousands of spectators in Kinshasa’s Tata Raphael stadium roared with excitement – yet another public exorcism was reaching its climax.

In the run-down arena that once hosted the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, today it is the battle to save souls that draws in the crowds.

Editing footage of the spectacle in a television studio, the Rev Augustin Betu, an impresario of some of Congo’s top devil-hounding talent, watched his colleague’s performance approvingly

. “The preacher is driving out the demons,” he said. “They have taken possession of her and only the power of Jesus can send them away.”

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo will next month hold its first democratic elections since its independence from Belgium in 1960, televised exorcisms rather than political debates are dominating the airwaves in a country where the majority of the population still believes in black magic, the broadcast networks are saturated with a dozen religious channels competing for converts, most of them owned by Christian cults led by charismatic preachers.

Mixing the razzmatazz and showmanship of American-style televangelism with traditional animist beliefs, the exorcisms are the centrepiece of most of the stations’ output.

At his television studio on a hillside overlooking the capital, Mr Betu – the manager of Radio Télévision De L’Armée Eternelle – was sifting through footage of various “miracles”, including a blind woman apparently being returned to sight and a disabled man, who seemed to regain the use of his legs.

“If someone is possessed by a demon, it is often because another person has put a curse on them,” he said. “Only prayer can drive out the evil spirit.”

All across the sprawling city of Kinshasa, shops offering protective fetishes against evil curses compete alongside churches run by the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Congregations gather daily in their thousands to witness exorcisms. Many are performed by self-appointed pastors, who are keen to distance themselves from traditional African beliefs and talk up their Christian credentials.

“The only tradition we are a part of is the Christian one,” said Prophet Naama Sikatenda, the head of the Church of the Living God, which claims to have 65,000 members at more than 200 churches across this central African state. “We are not interested in fetishes and witchcraft. We use only the power of prayer,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced. Willy Kabwe, the editor of the Congolese daily newspaper Le Potential, said many exorcists had switched to Christianity because it offered more potent powers of casting out.

“The irony is that many of these pastors were witch doctors who have embraced Christianity because the tribal beliefs are now seen as primitive,” he said. “Many of their congregations come to the church because it is seen as a more powerful ally if someone tries to curse you.

“They retain the same beliefs, but do it under the guise of Christianity.”

He pointed out that while most of their followers remain impoverished, in a country ravaged by decades of war, many television preachers had become wealthy celebrities.

The high profile of the television shows has finally prompted Congolese authorities to begin taking a close interest in preaching practices – after years of pressure from human rights groups.

One channel was shut down after its leader was accused of inciting his followers to attack members of another cult. And Prophet Sikatenda has drawn criticism for claiming to have cured Aids victims.

Human rights groups have long claimed that – away from the gaze of television cameras – exorcisms involve the abuse of orphaned children who have been thrown out of their homes, accused of witchcraft after the untimely death of a parent or other family hardship.

Joel Kabongo, the head of Radio Télé Sango Mala (Good News TV), a religious channel independent of the cults, said: “Whether what they are doing is magic or fabrication I don’t know. But they are exploiting vulnerable, naive people.”

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper 4 June, 2006


no lawyers but rwanda’s village courts could pass death sentence

(RUBILIZI, Rwanda) Inside the beaten-up shell of a building wrecked during Rwanda’s genocide, a local man rises nervously to address the village court.

He points at another villager, sitting with a group on wooden benches, and declares that the man had incited soldiers to rape a girl during the 1994 atrocities.

No sooner does he finish speaking than a woman in a headscarf speaks up, saying that she had seen the accuser looting the home of a genocide victim. He snaps back that she could know this only if she had taken part in the looting herself.

In the hamlet of Rubilizi, 20 miles outside the capital, Kigali, the true story of the genocide is in danger of becoming blurred by rumour and recrimination, as it is in so many communities in Rwanda.

Human rights groups claim that the village courts, set up in 2001 to deal with a crippling backlog of genocide cases, are being hijacked by villagers using the pretence of genocide allegations to settle land disputes and family feuds.

In the country’s Gikongoro province, a genocide suspect was brought to trial recently for raping a woman who, it later emerged, had falsely accused him because he owed her family money.

Known as gacaca – the Rwandan word for the grass on which many of these hearings take place outdoors – the courts combine traditional tribal practices with modern legal concepts.

Presided over by elected “wise persons”, no defence lawyers or prosecutors are allowed to take part in the hearings. Instead, the public can interrupt, either for or against the accused. Nevertheless, the judges, often relatives of suspects or victims, can hand down sentences of up to 30 years.

“Given the very basic legal background the judges have, and the enormous pressure they are under to get this process finished, the chances to abuse the system are very high,” said Hugo Jombwe-Moudiki, the head of mission in Rwanda for Lawyers Without Borders, the Belgian human rights group. With fewer than 13,000 people tried, out of an estimated 750,000 suspects, the government is pushing for results from the country’s 10,000 gacaca courts, which have been working only in a limited way but are about to operate fully nationwide.

In an effort to speed up the process, the government announced recently that it was planning to give the gacaca jurisdiction to try “category one” suspects, which include those involved in orchestrating the genocide.

The change in the law would give village judges the power to hand down the death sentence and has led to protests from Belgium – the former colonial power – and other European donor governments. A final decision on the law is expected soon.

“Victims want to see justice done,” said Mr Jombwe-Moudiki. “But if you force unprofessional judges to come up with results no matter what, it’s going to lead to the kind of mayhem we are already starting to see.”

Controversy over the possible use of the death sentence by gacaca judges has also stalled the progress of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The main suspects – those accused of masterminding the killing – are on trial in the neighbouring Tanzanian town of Arusha.

Since it was set up in 1994, the United Nations-mandated court has convicted just 20 people and acquitted three, but requests to transfer some of the trials to Rwanda to speed up the process have met opposition from defence lawyers who want immunity from the death sentence for their clients.

The gacaca courts have also been blamed for helping stir up the kind of ethnic tensions that fuelled the genocide, in which an estimated one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a three-month killing spree presided over by an extremist Hutu government.

There have been widespread reports of survivors being murdered to prevent them giving testimony, while clandestine groups aimed at discouraging Hutus from betraying the “genocidaires” are alleged to be operating in rural areas.

Hutus – the ethnic majority – claim that the courts are heavily influenced by survivors’ groups and are biased because they ignore atrocities committed by the Tutsi rebel army, which took power after the genocide.

With a national period of mourning beginning last week to mark the 12th anniversary of the genocide, many Rwandans are keen to put the past behind them.

But, with the trial process having barely scratched the surface, and the continuing fascination with Rwanda in the West – shown with the release in Britain, a week ago, of the film, Shooting Dogs, starring John Hurt as a missionary caught up in the genocide – it is likely to be a long time before the ghosts of the past are laid to rest.

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 9 April, 2006


‘sons of the mau mau’ direct hate at kenya’s corrupt elite

(NAIROBI, Kenya) Ducking beneath the tin roofs of rickety houses and past streams of raw sewage, a member of Kenya’s outlawed Mungiki sect acts as an angry tour guide to the sprawling slum of Mlango Kubwa.

A world away from the pristine office blocks of downtown Nairobi, just a few miles from here, it is a breeding ground for disease and resentment against the poverty-stricken nation’s ruling class.

“The Mungiki sect will clear all this up soon,” says the guide, who identified himself only as “Peter” for fear of arrest. “We must take pride in ourselves – that’s what our grandfathers in Mau Mau taught us.”

Half a century on from their bloody revolt against British colonial rule, the spirit that fired the Mau Mau is back – only this time its violence is directed not against white rule, but the black rule that replaced it.

Preaching a return to tribal ethics, the Mungiki – whose followers describe themselves as “the true sons of the Mau Mau” – are viewed as little more than a vicious street mafia by the Kenyan government, which points to their track record of murders, rapes and racketeering.

But their standing in their ghetto strongholds has risen in the wake of a huge corruption scandal that has rocked the administration of President Mwai Kibaki in recent weeks.

Documents disclosed last month by the country’s former anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, now in exile in Britain, have linked senior government figures to a series of suspect contracts designed to loot £150 million from state funds.

Public anger has been further inflamed by disclosures that apparatchiks have spent more than £7 million on fleets of new luxury cars since 2002 – money that could have helped the four million Kenyans needing food aid.

Peter is among up to 400,000 mainly unemployed Kenyans who have joined the sect in recent years. Born and raised in the slums, he believes that the cure for his country’s many woes is eschewing “degenerate” aspects of Western culture and embracing a simple, pre-colonial life.

“You must be pure and live cleanly like our ancestors,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.

“We are doing bad things: we have girls in prostitution, a government taking money from its own people and we have forgotten our past. God is sending drought to punish us.”

Like the Mau Mau, the Mungiki is drawn from Kenya’s majority Kikuyu tribe, whose uprising in 1952 over the appropriation of their farming lands saw them kill white settlers.

Although only 32 were murdered, the manner of the killings horrified Britain – a child on a tricycle was beheaded, while other victims were hacked to pieces with machetes. In reprisals by British forces, 1,048 Mau Mau were hanged. The four-year battle to stamp out the insurgency ultimately cost around 11,000 African lives.

Today, the Mungiki advocate a return to traditional customs – abstaining from alcohol, facing Mount Kenya to pray, and sniffing tobacco as their holy communion. The only difference is that to avoid arrest, they tend not to wear the Mau Mau’s distinctive dreadlocks.

In the Mlango Kubwa slum, where most residents get by on less than £1 a day, clan members make monthly collections in return for promises of security and keeping the streets clean.

In its quest to save Kenya from Western decadence, however, the group has also embraced much-reviled practices – such as stripping women of miniskirts and trousers in public and forcibly circumcising them.

Only last week, British High Court judges overturned a Home Office ruling to send back a 31-year-old women who had fled Kenya after being raped by the sect, upholding her claim that she could be circumcised if she returned.

Many commentators say the group’s ideological claims are just a smokescreen to mask its illegal activities, which include running protection rackets on private minibus routes.

One owner, who did not wish to be named, said it cost him more than £100 a day in bribes to keep his fleet of minibuses safe from Mungiki gangs armed with machetes and clubs.

He said: “My workers have been beaten up and we’ve had our windows smashed. It’s domestic terrorism, but it’s better to pay and keep safe.”

Public resentment at the extortion activities of the sect boiled over recently when five members were lynched by an angry mob in the Maragwa district north of Nairobi.

Last week, Kenyan police, acting on complaints from bus travellers, arrested more than 250 suspected Mungiki members after a four-hour operation in the capital’s slums.

On Thursday the leader of the group, Maina Njenga, was also detained, following a declaration of “all-out war” on the sect by Kenya’s security forces.

Father Joachim Omollo Ouko, a political commentator who has followed the group for the past five years, said: “The young men who are joining are just poor slum kids who can’t find jobs.

“It may be that they are attracted by a certain ideology, but if this group really believed what they preach they wouldn’t go around robbing and stealing from people.”

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 5 February, 2006