HIV Originated in 1920s Kinshasa During 'Perfect Storm' for Pandemic

Dispatch From Kinshasa

I was a consultant in London. Now I am a freelance journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Or rather, I am a simulacrum of a freelance journalist based in the DRC. What makes me a freelance journalist in the DRC is pretty meagre. Other than that I currently live in the DRC and have had several articles published, it consists of a letter of accreditation from the country’s media ministry and a natty press pass issued by the United Nations’ mission here in the Congo. The first of these golden tickets was obtained by transferring $500 to the ministry’s cabinet secretary… in cash… via Western Union. (This is standard practice — all the press agencies and papers do it.) The second is available to anybody in possession of the first.

But I am only masquerading as a journalist. I might become one. I hope that I do. Right now, though, I am no more a journalist than a dog with a passport is a human being. I’ve simply paid for it. My right to call myself a journo, a hack, a newshound is founded on little more than a $500 investment and a piece of paper on which my name is “Madame William Clowes”. (The cabinet secretary assured me that my gender was unimportant, dismissing me with a lugubrious flick of his wrist.

Now to work. How does one become a journalist? Well, one has to write stories. More than that, one must find someone to buy and publish them. I’m in the DRC, I have reassured myself. It can’t be that hard. I mean the country is gigantic. It’s the size of Western Europe and its history is beyond fascinating. What’s more, the characters that populate the Congo’s history are luminous. They are magnificent, horrifying and absurd.

The Congo endured an unusually callous form of colonialism. The Belgian king and later the Belgian state imposed a system of total exploitation on their gargantuan territorial possession. Colonial administrators and commercial interests institutionalized methods such as forced labour, hostage taking, mass murder and the co-optation of local elites, all in the pursuit of extracting the Congo’s abundant natural riches. Between 1885 and 1908, the years the Congo was King Leopold’s personal possession, its population halved and as many as 10 million people lost their lives. Congolese can lay much of the blame for what befell their ancestors between 1885 and 1960 at the feet of two men. First, there is Henry Morton Stanley, who grew up in a Welsh workhouse and spent his entire life attempting to purge every trace of his lowly provenance. Having reinvented himself as a wealthy American and, in 1871, located Dr. David Livingstone, Stanley then forged the Congo Free State, as the colony was pitilessly named, for King Leopold II of Belgium. This mercurial explorer wrote enthusiastically, “In every cordial-faced aborigine I meet, I see a promise of assistance to me in the redemption of himself from the state of unproductiveness in which he at present lives. I look upon him with much the same regard an agriculturalist views his strong-limbed child; he is a future recruit to the ranks of soldier-laborers.” There is not a scintilla of equivocation about how Stanley foresaw the Free State’s “glorious” and profitable future.

Then there is Leopold himself, the vain and manipulative monarch of a small and insecure European country. He controlled the Congo Free State for 23 years from 1885 as his personal possession. Yet, despite the tremendous wealth he derived from it and the immense suffering he imposed upon it, the king never once stepped foot in his fief, 80 times the size of Belgium. Preoccupied by his country’s puniness and bitterly jealous of the colonial domains accumulated by other European kings and queens, securing and exploiting an empire consumed Leopold’s life, and those of countless millions of his African subjects. Despite the moralistic veneer with which he coated his ambitions in the Congo — the promise that he would free the benighted forest dwellers from the fear of the Arab slavers’ yoke and nourish them with the boons of western civilization — Leopold, much like Stanley, was unembarrassed about his baser motivations. Turning to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to grumble about the march of European democracy, he once whined: “There is really nothing left for us kings except money!”

The Congo’s transition to independence in 1960 was explosive and unpredictable and, at this point, Leopold’s great-nephew, King Baudouin, deserves mention. There was nothing especially noteworthy about the last Belgian ruler of the Congo. Rather, the manner in which he gracelessly ceded control of the territory to Patrice Lumumba, the DRC’s first prime minister, tells us a great deal about the myths Belgium constructed and why even now the country has scarcely begun to face up to its colonial legacy, which amid plenty of competition is abnormally poisonous.

Standing before assembled Congolese and Belgian notables, the 30 year old monarch produced a performance of preternatural haughtiness. Possessed of a comical dearth of self-knowledge, Baudouin compounded the insults his country had dispensed in the Free State by patronising the black faces sitting before him in Leopoldville’s Palais de la Nation and requesting that they show gratitude for their 85 year-long humiliation. The king solemnly intoned that: ‘It is now up to you, gentleman, to show that you are worthy of our confidence. The independence of the Congo constitutes the culmination of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II, undertaken by him with a tenacious courage and continued with perseverance by Belgium’.

Baudouin demonstrated how little he had learnt as he continued to bloviate: ‘For 80 years, Belgium has sent to your land the best of her sons – first to deliver the Congo basin from the odious slave trade which was decimating her population, later to bring together the different tribes which, though former enemies, are now preparing to form the greatest of the independent states of Africa. These pioneers deserve admiration from us and acknowledgment from you.’

Despite Baudouin’s lofty words, the DRC’s severance from Belgium was so unforeseen and had arrived with such pace that there were not enough university graduates to fill the country’s first cabinet. This lack of preparation was fatal and the charismatic Lumumba managed to hold together the newly independent nation for a grand total of five days before the army mutinied against its Belgian leadership and the infant country descended into bloody chaos. Two resource rich provinces — Katanga and South Kasai — seceded from the DRC with Belgian encouragement and were forcefully brought back into line.

It is necessary to pause here on our whistle-stop tour through the recent history of the Congo and focus a little on Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese we have met in this pantheon of individuals who forged today’s DRC. That is no surprise given the extent to which the Belgian administrators excluded Africans from political participation, making use of them solely as tools of economic extraction. But Lumumba has the distinction of being the only Congolese leader who has, even if only for a brief flicker, successfully presented a truly national vision in this land of hundreds of ethnicities, languages and dialects. In the general election of 1960 his Mouvement National Congolais was the only party to win votes throughout the whole country. It won the most seats in parliament and Lumumba became the Congo’s first prime minister.

An unalloyed illustration of what made Lumumba exceptional, and ultimately doomed, is provided by his reaction to King Baudouin’s patrician grandstanding. After a short and unremarkable speech from Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the Congo’s inaugural president, Lumumba rose to his feet and cleansed the formal atmosphere of its euphemistic stink. His words are worth quoting at length:

“For eighty years … we have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, or to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us. We have known ironies, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes. Who will forget that to a black one said ‘tu’, certainly not as to a friend but because the more honorable ‘vous’ was reserved for white alone? We have seen our hands seized in the name of allegedly legal laws which in fact recognized only that might is right. We have seen that the law was not the same for a white and for a black, accommodating for the first, cruel and inhuman for the other. We have seen that in the towns there were magnificent houses for the whites and crumbling shanties for the blacks, that a black was not admitted in the motion-picture houses, in the restaurants, in the stores of the Europeans; that a black travelled in the holds, at the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins. Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown?”

Two further quotes attributed to Lumumba – one likely apocryphal, the other probably real – underscore the erratic and idealistic prime minister’s allergy to consensus or charting the safer course. The quotation of more dubious authenticity has nonetheless become part of the Lumumba mythology which makes it significant regardless of whether he uttered the words. While there is no evidence of the remark in the transcripts of the Independence Day speech which are available on the internet, for many it is not doubted that Lumumba ended it with the declaration: ‘We are no longer your monkeys!’

Second, he allegedly told a friend ‘If I die, tant pis (so what). The Congo needs martyrs’. For Lumumba this was not mere bravado. Lumumba was arrested by Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, his 29-year-old former secretary who he had elevated to lead the armed forces, and, in January 1961, handed over to Katangan secessionists. On the flight to meet the men who would murder him, Lumumba was beaten to a pulp by Luba soldiers, whose tribesmen had been massacred by the Congolese army the previous year. Having arrived in Katanga he was shot by a firing squad commanded by a Belgian officer.

The Mobutu era began in earnest in 1965 when, fed up with the political squabbling beneath him, the army chief assumed command of the state and would not relinquish power for 32 years. For most of his rule “The Leopard” managed to hold the fractious country together and amass extraordinary wealth through a mixture of ruthlessness, charm and cunning. Yet, in his three decades of kleptocratic rule, he and his apparatchiks — “les gros légumes” — cannibalized the DRC’s means of wealth production, sucking dry and leaving to rot first the foreign-owned businesses, then Katanga’s enviable copper and cobalt mining industry, and lastly Kasai’s diamond trade, all the while using the central bank as a private trough.

Born Joseph-Desiré Mobutu he would become Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. The self-aggrandizing name change was part of Mobutu’s short-lived flirtation with a state ideology, a mantra known as ‘authenticité’, which encouraged a clean break from the legacy of European colonialism and a reassertion of ‘traditional’ values. Many of the reforms Mobutu introduced were superficial and sometimes silly. In 1971 he renamed the country Zaire. He urged the population to abandon their Christian names and adopt Zairean replacements. He introduced the abacost, a short-sleeved suit often worn with a cravat, as Zaire’s national dress. He wore his trademark leopard skin hats, presenting himself as the traditional chief of the nation.

Mobutu was many things but he was not a pan-African philosopher-leader in the mould of Senegal’s Leopold Senghor or Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Mobutu’s ‘authenticité’ was organized haphazardly and constructed on flimsy foundations. On closer inspection his tinkering does not appear to have been at all authentically African. Zaire – the very word Mobutu chose to give expression to his nation-building project – is thought to be a Portuguese bastardisation of a Kikongo name for the river which Diogo Cão “discovered” in the 1480s. The abacost was Mobutu’s personal invention and inspired by a visit to Maoist China. His hats were made for him by an upmarket Parisian couturier. Indeed, there was nothing particularly African or traditional about his predilection for buying French and Belgian chateaux or building an airport capable of accommodating a Concorde in his ancestral village or stocking thousands of bottles of pink champagne in his wine cellars.

The economic plank of ‘authenticité’ was known as Zaireanization. In 1973 Mobutu announced the nationalization of all foreign-owned assets – farms, plantations, shops, factories and the mining industry. The mass appropriation proved hugely lucrative for Mobutu – who, among other choice morsels, selected 14 plantations for himself – and the ‘gros legumes’ but was calamitous for the long-term prospects of the Zairean economy. The Belgians, Greeks, Portuguese, Italians and Pakistanis swiftly disappeared and took their ‘savoir-faire’ with them. The Zairean elite feasted on their juicy cuts but had neither the intention nor capacity to run them as viable businesses which would support and enrich the majority of the population. The state mining company Gecamines performed creditably for a while but by the 1990s was managed so poorly that it was no longer economically viable or operationally possible to get the country’s world-beating deposits out of the ground. For Mobutu, Zaireanization meant little more than institutionalizing a kleptocracy. For him and his sycophants: European castles, private jets and Swiss bank accounts. For everyone else: live on your wits, hustle, debrouillez-vous. ‘If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way’, Mobutu once advised his people in a televised address.

By the 1990s Mobutu’s grip on the Congo had become precarious. The state had eaten itself. Where it had not disappeared, it was either decrepit or insidious. Mobutu was ripe for a fall and, in 1996, the bloated Laurent-Désiré Kabila led a rebellion which swept with alarming ease through the DRC from the east. Bolstered by the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, within a year this former Marxist guerrilla and one-time comrade of Che Guevara was the president of the DRC. The ailing Mobutu sulked off to a Moroccan exile and quietly expired. In 2001 a bodyguard shot Kabila in the head as he sat at his desk but the new president had already fallen out with his erstwhile Rwandan and Ugandan friends. In 1998 they had launched a second war, this time against the leader they had created only a year before. This conflict is sometimes called the Great War of Africa — and with good reason. It lasted nearly five years, directly involved nine African countries and led to the loss of 5 million lives.

Kabila’s 29-year-old son, Joseph, succeeded his father and, despite his youth and an introverted demeanor, has proved a surprisingly resilient and autonomous president. The DRC lawless east is still littered with militias which bear arms in the name of various causes and the pursuit of a slice of the riches beneath the ground — but Joseph Kabila Kabange has seen off many threats. He brought the war to a close in 2003 after reaching an agreement with the main rebel groups and forming a Transitional Government. He overcame his principal rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the rebel leader-turned-prime minister, in the 2006 presidential elections. (Bemba is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes relating to the actions of his soldiers when he sent them to support the president of the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.) He won a very messy and much disputed second election in 2011 and is widely suspected of manoeuvring himself towards a bid for a constitution-defying third term.

Neither of the presidents which have come after Mobutu have possessed comparable chutzpah or bestrode the international stage with such brio. (Mobutu was indulged and afforded considerable leeway by the realpolitik of the Cold War.) Yet, the Kabilas –père et fils – did swiftly put the stricken leopard, atrophied by cancer, out of his misery, then emerged triumphant from a conflict of hellish dimensions, and continue to hold the best cards in the pack. Old rivals – such as the detained Bemba and the octogenarian Etienne Tshisekedi – have been vanquished or are dwindling.

Yet, new adversaries – whether the charming and wealthy former governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, or re-energised youth movements – present themselves. Next year, in 2016, despite widely-held suspicions that Kabila is preparing a pretext for a postponement, the DRC is scheduled to hold presidential elections, from which – if the constitution remains in its current form – he is barred from standing. I have learnt a few things quickly in this country. Among them: No one has a clue what is going to happen next year but few think Kabila will simply depart meekly. This January thousands took to the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, to protest plans to amend the constitution. More than 40 civilians, mostly angry young men, were killed by the security forces over the course of several days.

Much is unclear, but one thing seems apparent. If President Kabila seeks to delay the election or put himself forward for a third time, he will be playing with fire. Presidential efforts to tinker with constitutions against the popular will have already provoked backlashes which have undone Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campaore and almost unseated Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza. Those confrontations were doubtless nasty but this is the DRC and would be on a different scale altogether.

How can I struggle to unearth stories in a country with a past such as this, still reeling and smarting, recovering and reasserting itself?

For further references please see the following books:

“In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz.” by Michela Wrong
“The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith
“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

Yes, I want to sound marginally more intelligent: