Congo: a conversation with the deaf

14 Aug

In the past few months diplomatic activity in our region, mainly linked to the violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been very intense. As with other fields, diplomacy has its peculiar vocabulary. Dialogue is one of them – frequently used, but as often misused.

In the language of diplomacy, dialogue means a discussion between two groups, countries, organisations and so on aimed at reaching common ground. In ordinary language it means a conversation. Whether you use dialogue or conversation, the essential thing is that more than one person or group, presumed to be equal, is involved.

Dialogue or conversation becomes necessary because people have different viewpoints about an issue which must be appreciated. Appreciation of alternative points of view – some of which may be disagreeable or outright wrong, others right or may turn out to be right seen in a different light, and many more that range between the two extremes – requires that one listens to them. That’s the essence of conversation and what makes it worthwhile.

Incidentally, the above is also an important element in the definition of democracy. Ultimately democracy is the ability to make a choice from different alternatives based on available information. This, too, requires listening to other views.

I have gone to some length to define dialogue or conversation because it seems to me that its chief ingredients are missing from some of the discussions on Congo (and Rwanda, which is always blamed for whatever goes wrong in its western neighbour).

Conversation on Congo is one-sided – which means no conversation at all. One side, the one with the wealth and power, does the talking; others must listen but not respond. This one-sided conversation, also known as monologue, comes to us from governments of powerful countries, international organisations, foreign media and NGOs – all of which have appointed themselves custodians and defenders of international morality, even when the very word is unknown to them.

For instance, an ideologically biased UN Group of Experts comes up with a shoddy report by any standard blaming Rwanda for the latest outbreak of fighting in Congo, and all the above groups pick it and compel the whole world that to believe it. Voices on the ground in Congo and in the region say it is not, but cannot be heard. The government of Rwanda makes a detailed, systematic rebuttal that cuts the report to shreds, but that, too, cannot be heard.

None of these become part of the conversation. It is like they were never said. All the groups that were shrill about the Group of Experts’ report are suddenly silent about evidence to the contrary and the rebuttal like someone had put a heavy hand on their mouths.

So, the monologue continues in what amounts to: “You have to listen to what we tell you, but do not expect us to listen to you – not because you have nothing of value to say, but because we choose not to”. Another word for this attitude is arrogance.

Inevitably, in this sort of conversation, there are casualties, the main one being truth. Truth becomes what those doing the talking decree it to be. Forget it being that which is an objective fact. In other words, those who arrogate to themselves the right to speak but deny others the right of response, create their own truth, or select what elements constitute truth and trash what does not fit into their one-sided conversation.

And so, the Group of Experts, foreign NGOs, media and Western governments can clearly see M23 rebels, but find FDLR genocidaires invisible. They create and therefore can see Rwanda’s hand behind M23, but are totally blind to a Congo government that cannot keep its word, or protect its people, or their own historical role and continuing interest in keeping Congo impoverished, disunited and its government incompetent.

They choose the lie of recruitment, training and arming of rebel soldiers by Rwanda over the truth of rebel ranks being swelled by deserting government soldiers and large quantities of weapons left behind by the fleeing Congolese army that has no will or cause to fight. They elect to see crimes allegedly committed by M23 rebels, such as rape, abduction and murder of civilians and plunder of minerals. Never mind that it does not make sense for M23 to commit such crimes against their own people and in an area it seeks to raise support.

Instead, they refuse to see the same crimes actually committed by Congo government troops, FDLR and a host of other criminal outfits, even its own UN force. And as President Paul Kagame has consistently pointed out, they find the supposed recruitment of child soldiers a worse crime than the murder of those children and their families.

If you reject the terms of the one-sided conversation, or refuse to be party to it, you will be whipped. Now, the horrors of the kiboko (whip made from hippo hide) are well-known in Belgian-run Congo and Rwanda and Burundi. In Congo, when the kiboko was not persuasive enough, Belgian colonial and commercial interests made sure their will was obeyed by chopping off  limbs, lips and ears, or burying their Congolese victims alive. The Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony obviously learnt that lesson very well.

In modern times, you will be whipped with the aid stick and threat of prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

The only speakers permitted to be heard in this non-conversation (if they were from Africa, they would be called dictators) will do everything to make sure that only what they have decreed to be truth is heard. They will create such a cacophony as to drown all other voices. The media will bombard us with inaccuracies and outright lies; spokespeople and all manner of experts will issue reports of dubious quality and questionable intentions. 

And all this from the preachers of democracy and champions of various rights and freedoms. The one-sided conversation imposed on some of our countries sounds like an argument with the deaf. You can’t get far.

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