Congo

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:51 pm on 3rd April 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 8:51 pm, 3rd April 2003

My Lords, we owe the right reverend Prelate much thanks for initiating such an important debate. What pressure can the UN and the world in general exert on the African Union, I wonder, which purports to represent the African countries and to have its own humanitarian organisations—all the stronger, no doubt, because Libya, by the act of the African Union, has become head of the UNHCR? What about its organs devoted to the promotion of good governance in NePAD? What, in particular, should the UN be urging both President Gaddafi and President Mbeki to do to end President Mugabe's monstrous exploitation through the Zimbabwe army and, indeed, his ministers, of the Congo's assets? What should the UN and the AU be saying to them, and, of course, to Uganda and Rwanda, about the impact of the plunder of a country on the people?

Where, I wonder, do the French stand? They have longstanding local interests, and longstanding local pressures. I have seen very little reference to them in the report. I find that interesting, and shall return to the issue.

I am also concerned about the desperate need for us to address the humanitarian crisis because the displacement of millions of people in that vast country has been internal: they do not count as refugees. Because the UN presence there has been largely to observe and negotiate, there is no safe environment for NGOs, although that has not stopped Medecins Sans Frontieres and Merlin, among others, from operating.

I must declare an interest as the patron of a very small charity, Action Congo, which succeeded another, International Care and Relief. For some years, the latter ran a hospital and an agricultural scheme teaching 200,000 Africans to grow food, as well as a primary school—all in a desperately poor area in Manono, a former mining town. There was no work there, no public services, and no infrastructure whatever.

I went to the Congo first in 1959 accredited as Consul to both the French and the Belgian Congo, as it then was. I served there until 1961. I was there for independence; I was there for the mutiny and the collapse of the country. Why, you might ask, was a vast, rich country so wholly unprepared for independence and so utterly without any infrastructure? It is because the Congo was ruled by the Union Miniere, the para-statal bodies, and the Catholic Church. The Union Miniere wanted only workers able to read and write at primary level, so primary education up to the age of 11 was good, though Flemish was perhaps a strange choice of foreign language for a country bordered by anglophone and francophone countries.

There was not one indigenous civil servant when I went to the Congo in 1959, no doctors, no lawyers—indeed, no professional people. There were not even senior NCOs in the Force Publique, which controlled the country and put down fairly frequent tribal wars. The only thing that the Belgians taught effortlessly was corruption. So when after the mutiny the Belgians fled the country there was no infrastructure, no public service, nothing but warring tribes and shifting allegiances.

I had many friends among the leaders, from Lumumba to Mobutu, then a young, brave and honourable man. But successive Congolese governments were like rows of front doors with no house behind. So when the locusts came in numbers, after years of disorder and loss of hope, the people had no protection, and still do not, other than tribal leaders, each with his own cohort of unpaid and ruthless soldiery only good for despoiling their own people, not protecting them.

I have had a story from missionaries in the Katanga about the return of the brave Congolese army to a particular area which had been devastated by the Tutsi. What did the army do? It was welcomed by the people. It gathered them together and made them take off all their clothes, what they had left to wear. It burnt the clothes, laughed and went away. That is what it did for its own people.

It would have seemed quite natural to Kabila to join with Mugabe and his generals to despoil his own country, so a solution to that problem has to be found. Can the UN do it? Can it, with the EU, force the African Union to do something for good governance and against organised pillage? It sees to me that the Congolese Government is where we have to start. I doubt it, but we must urge the necessity.

It will not be enough to identify all the chief robbers, if they are allowed to continue. For what will be the point of the UN and the EU investing money and resources at one end while the country's life blood is systematically draining away at the other and that continues unchecked? It will not be easy to create an efficient and honest public service after 43 years of chaos. For when the Belgians went in the 1960s everything collapsed. There were no public services. The Congo is a vast, rich and diverse country, with some wonderful people—and some who are irredeemably violent and corrupt.

What has all this to do with the very full and terrible UN report, the follow-up to the first? My object is to urge that, although the report is extremely valuable in identifying the individuals who have conducted the systematic pillage of another African country, we must also consider and fear the long-term effect on the countries which have perpetrated this. I think, for instance, of the Zimbabwe army, which has come to believe, thanks to this experience, that pillage, corruption and brutality are normal, with terrible consequences for its own people when it returns home.

I hope that the men and the organisations named will be publicly called to account, both in the UN and in the EU—and, indeed, in the Commonwealth. The report should leave European governments no excuse not to sequester their assets where possible. Again, I say that the French are the big question mark.

What action do the British Government intend to take to curtail, if not end, the activities of British subjects and companies? I do not know whether the UN report is based on sufficient proof for action. The UN is in a slightly odd position in that it can freely say things without having to answer for them. That may be a problem. But the UN report appears to be based on sufficient proof for action, and the detail is careful and convincing, particularly in its identification of elite networks and its recognition that there has been, apparently, a great deal of criminal activity.

Will it be possible from the Congo end, I wonder, to make it a condition of any UN or EU help that the new contractual arrangements set up—I refer to paragraph 17 of the report—to continue in the longer term shall be abrogated? For the Government of the Congo are at least as guilty of harming the interests of their own people as the Zimbabwe Government and the Uganda Government. A daunting feature of the report is the complicated international network of companies, involving even Mauritius.

I hope that another area, that of the environment, given the destruction of the valuable timber forests and the impact on animal life, will not be neglected either.

I fear that I am not optimistic about the country's stability, nor about the political will of the outside world—it is a very large task—let alone the local players and their chance of achieving peace. It is not easy to create a public service from nothing. But it is encouraging that the UN has grasped so many nettles with such vigour, and I hope that it will do all Africa some good.I should like to read to your Lordships an account which the intrepid director of Action Congo, who has twice been back to Lubumbashi, once at her own expense, and into the interior, received from one of the workers in Manono. This is an account of what happened in May 1999 when the war came to Manono. The children were on the way to school, the parents on their way to work. Others had left to cultivate their fields 17 kilometres or more out of the city.

"As the war escalated the children on their way to school were not able to return to their homes, and in the same way, their parents were unable to return home to get their children. Parents and children trying to reach their homes were killed by the Rwanda Army and Mobutu rebels fighting with the Army. Others, who found themselves wakening at home, fled naked. The people who were consoling the families whose members had died, left the dead bodies as they were at the entrance to their homes.

The old persons who were not sufficiently strong to flee were abandoned, as were the blind, while the sick who were hospitalised and those who had been operated on the day before the war started, who had not been collected by their families, tried to flee also . . . one blind woman managed to walk more than 400 kilometres, and finally was helped to arrive at Lubumbashi 750 kilometres from Manono. In view of the Rebels and the Army having taken Manono completely, the military of Zimbabwe, pitying the little children, the old, the blind and the deaf (about 3,000 people in all) took these children and the elderly, etc, and put them into a large Catholic school for their security. The Rwandan military arrived and found the children and the old people in the school. Immediately, they started firing with their heavy guns into the school, and burnt down the school with everyone still living inside it.

Large numbers of the people who fled fell dead on the road from exhaustion, for the lack of food, medicines, shelter and clean water, and on account of sickness, such as malaria".

I shall not continue, but the director received another note a year later. She notes:

"A few months ago, some of the Manono people being desperate to grow food for themselves and fearful of likely death in the Lubumbashi, as well as finding the Lubumbashi cold and therefore causing illness, walked back to Manono (800+ kilometres). The Rwandan Army there killed them all".

That is what life is like in that large, rich, potentially wonderful country and it is an utter disgrace.

As there is just time, I might tell your Lordships two stories. When I was in the Congo at the independence celebrations, we had representatives from Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya. I arranged for them all to meet the Congolese ministers. Two nights after they left, when they were facing their future which was still quite rosy, three of the ministers came to see me in the middle of the night. They said, "We wish to become a British colony". I said, "That is rather difficult, because you have now become members of the United Nations and you are an independent country. Why do you want to become a British colony?". They said, "Well, because we have talked to all those others and they have organisation. They have been taught things, they have a government and they know how to run their lives. We have none of that, so we thought we would like it. Will you please ask for this?". I need hardly tell your Lordships that it was not feasible.

Since I am in the business of paying tributes to the British—and why not, passionately believing, as I do, that we were good colonisers?—the country was beginning to get a little uneasy. People were beginning to realise that the future was going to be difficult and strange. The vice-consul in what was then Stanleyville and is now Kisangani sent me a message to say that I was urgently required there and would I go up. So I flew up and it turned out that a delegation of shopkeepers, Cypriots who had fled from Cyprus having committed crimes against the British Army and murdered a few people, had settled in the Congo and were leading a happy and fruitful life because as well as being shopkeepers they were money lenders. They were therefore not popular. They said to me, "We would like you to make representation to arrange to take over this country as a British colony". I asked, "Why?", and they said, "Well, the British know how to run independencies and they know how to run African countries, so we would like you to do this instantly".