Not Following the Story–For Now

My original plan for this summer was to split my time between Kampala and Kinshasa, DRC. The Democratic Republic of the Congo had long been a haven for Indians. Their origins in this part of the world had been a bit more of a mystery to me. Kinshasa was on the opposite coast from India, and as we’ve already learned, Africa is for lazy indians. Then, DRC had never been a British colony. The official language was French. Save for a few enclaves such as Pondicherry, India had very little French influence. Finally, Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA-backed dictator that took over the DRC from the democratically elected leftist Patrice Lumumba, had not fond of foreigners. At least in the form of petty traders, which many of these Indians were.

Upon seizing the throne, Mobutu had set upon a program of recreating a ‘true’ Congo. He changed the name of the country to Zaire, demanded that everyone referred to each other as citoyen or citoyenne and fabricated a national cultural costume complete with his trademark leopard skin pill box hat. Until Mobutu came along, all of these changes were unknown to Congolese. The man had crafted an entire national identity from thin air and along with that national identity came ardent nationalism that sought to push out foreigners, an easy ploy to gain popular support.

V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian-born Indian author, wrote the book “Bend in the River” about this specific juncture of Zaire’s history. The novel depicts the life of an Indian man in Kenya whose family is forced out by the Uhuru movements of the times. Uncertain of his ties to his ethnic birth land and his adoptive yet unaccepting homeland, he chooses to venture deeper into the African continent rather than return to India with his family. He takes up his uncles store deep in the Congo and sets about developing his business and lives through the tides of Lumumba, Sese Seko’s rise, and Sese Seko’s nationalism.

In any case, I’ve decided against going to DRC. At least this summer. Let me explain.

First off, there’s an election slated for August. And as we’ve seen before, elections aren’t exactly the best times for a country. In this case we have the incumbent Laurent Kabila who took over after his father was killed in his sleep by one of his guards. This is the dynasty that has ruled the DRC following the second civil war was as close to a continental conflict as Africa has ever seen. He’s had a pretty bad track record with human rights and hasn’t fared much better handling the economy either.

Kabila has been cracking down hard on dissenters, sometimes with deadly force, and has taken every pain to delay the elections for as long as he can. Kabila’s seen just how sour an attempt at a constitutional amendment for a term extension can go — check out Burkina Faso and Burundi. So instead he’s turned to more mundane methods of creating new voter lists, conducting censuses, etc. It’s unclear if the elections will even take place next month.

On the other side we have the billionaire soccer team owning Katumbi who, as most opposition politicians tend to be, is condemned by the DRC courts and sentenced to a prison term in absentia. The courts nailed him for charges of attempting a coup when it was discovered that he had hired American ex-special forces mercenaries as body guards. He’s since fled the country, claimed the charges are bogus, and that he’s still running. We’ve heard it a thousand times.

As I learned from Syed Shah, elections don’t make for the best time to study the behavior of businessmen. Given the instability such an election entails, most investors tend to pull their money out a year or two before and wait until the dust of the election results to settle before reinvesting. It’s why Syed is now packing his bags, shutting down Shadows, and planning on going back home to Pakistan to hunt bats on horseback instead. It will be much the same case in DRC, where things have been known to get very nasty. Many businessmen will likely have left or be too afraid to say much to be of much use to my study.

Perhaps the most significant factor that’s played into my decision to skip the DRC for now is that my initial assessment of the economic of the landscape was a bit misguided. I had planned my trip to Kinshasa to talk to entrepreneurs that had been doing dealings in the East Kivus, on the other end of the country where more than 40 rebel groups have laid claim to different tracts of land to capitalize on the regions rich ethnic divisions and resources. But as it turned out, from my asking around and doing a bit more digging, Kinshasa is almost entirely economically divided from the eastern regions because of the poor infrastructure and high volatility of the region.

The pattern had actually began under Mobutu Sese Seko. While the Cold War raged, Mobutu was on top of the world. He had limitless arms and funding coming in from the United States and was given a hero’s welcome to Washington DC on multiple occasions. Sure he had quite a bit of blood on his hands and didn’t exactly represent anything akin to democracy but he was a valuable asset against Communist backed Angola. He used the patronage to rule the entirety of the country with an iron fist, employing a huge military and secret service to weed out dissidence and ensure conformity. But the system came tumbling down rather quickly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was little reason to keep propping up the regime when communism stopped presenting a threat to the world order. Mobutu began scrapping branches of his government and swathes of his civil servants when he could no longer afford to keep up his patronage networks. Bureaucratic capacities were pawned off to war lords and Seko instead focused his efforts on maintaining the central circles of his government, based in Kinshasa. Quite quickly the eastern, resource rich, portions of the country fell out of contact with the seat of power. And after almost 30 years and two civil wars, that’s how it remains.

To study the role of Indian entrepreneurs in the East Kivus would require my going to the East Kivus. Given the incredible fluidity of the situation there, the ongoing violence, the poor infrastructure, my lack of contacts and understanding of the war, and Duke’s restricted regions list, it doesn’t seem to advisable to make the trip. I’ve heard tell of some wealth Indians that have a side gig running precious metals out of the rebel held areas of DRC so I’ll keep follow that. Just one step more sketchy than Kikuubu Market. But in the meantime, following up on South Sudan from Uganda continues to be fruitful and given that the nation seems to be on the brink of returning to war, it seems like this is the place to be.

Rajiv Golla is a T’17 Alum.

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