Archive for January, 2012

The Frontpage

January 29, 2012

Wade crows – the country burns. Best front page the day after the Constitutional Court confirmed Wade’s candidacy for a third term and the young went out and out burning tyres on the city’s thoroughfares, and went wild in at least six other cities around the country. We have, unfortunately, not seen the last of this yet.

More in-depth stuff here. 

Senegal’s football crisis

January 25, 2012

Two games in the African Nations Cup and one of the favourites can start packing their bags. What’s wrong with Senegal? I can’t be the only one thinking that I have not seen two football games but two theatre pieces. Here were eleven and a few football players trying very hard (and in my view not succeeding) that they cared about national pride on the football pitch.

I can’t lay my finger on it yet but the way the Senegalese squad were playing – bar a few moments – looked decidedly…disinterested. Word in my restaurant, here in Yoff: it’s all about the money and for that they go to Europe. Another word in the restaurant: it’s all the coach’s fault. Might be – but both don’t seem to cover only a part of the story.

So I don’t think we have heard the last about this debacle any time soon. But something’s not right. Oh and by the way: Football Federation’s building is around the corner from here. I’ll go and check the windows…

Fifty years of independence – pull the other one…

January 22, 2012

Venance Konan is an Ivorian writer, journalist with an acute knack for satire. This he applies in spades in a book that came at the very end of an entire year of earnest celebrations. Independence – 50 years ago. From Kinshasa to Mogadishu via Bamako, Dakar and Abuja; everyone had a thing or two to say about how things went, could have gone better, who’s to blame for the state of play – and so on.

Konan, whose own country also celebrated 50 years of Independence, has decided to rain a little on those earnest parades. His offer: the Afro-sarcastic chronicles. Mostly Francophone.

You see, France and Africa live together like a big family in a lovely village. It was founded in the early 1960s by France’s post-war president Charles de Gaulle (whose biggest achievement, Konan writes, ‘was that he made the whole world believe that France had helped defeat Germany’) and his special Africa advisor Jacques Foccard, whose job it was to make sure that the ex-colonies would take on board ‘the very good idea of staying friends with France’.

Now, all big families go through spots of bother. There are a few bad apples, some people decide to leave the village (bad), there are family plots and family gossip and family in-fighting, lots of people get killed (unfortunate) but most of the French-African family have stayed together in their lovely village. In fact, the village has grown. Former Belgian Congo has joined, for instance. They also tried to wrestle Biafra from Nigeria but that didn’t work. Neither did Rwanda.

Konan walks us through the French-African village and tells us wry miniature stories about the one party state, money, soldiers and coups. He also touches on the Holy Grail of Development. ‘That means, living like White People,’ he asserts, ‘and having snow in your country.’ He notes that the comrades from the former Soviet Union took this very literally by shifting a bunch of snow bulldozers to that unhappy country called Guinea. Guinea, you see, left the French-African village before it had actually properly been built and some say it is still paying the price for its deviant behaviour.

Two former pillars of La Françafrique. The late president of Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba (right) and Jaques Chirac (left)

Development – that also means having to work with NGOs. They’re nice, those NGOs, Konan writes. They teach us how to breastfeed, how to work, how to shit, how to make love with our wives, how to organise elections… Also nice, he notes, are the Chinese. They sell us crap, build cheap roads and stadiums and palaces and give us money. And in return (because we’re nice too) we have given them our forests, fish, minerals, oil, even our women. Strangely enough, he concludes, the Chinese don’t want our women. Maybe that’s because they bring their own brothels too…

The village has seen many prominent inhabitants come and go. Konan portrays a whole bunch of them. Not all of these mini-biographies are good (Mobutu for instance) but others work very well. Take Sarko, the one who celebrated his victory in a night club, ‘divorced his wife to marry one that looked better’, tried to get his son a prestigious job. Could have been one of us, Konan concludes but then he ruined it all with that idiotic speech he made in Dakar in 2007. Dakar is, of course, home to Abdoulaye Wade, who on New Year’s Eve 2011 bored the nation to death with an address that was both inaudible (he’d lost his voice) and interminable. Konan says of Wade that he’s ‘got ten thousand ideas every day. Most of them bollocks,’ he continues, ‘but because he’s the president nobody can tell him that…’. On New Year’s Eve Wade promised the exasperated Senegalese – wait for it – driverless trains…

For me, the best part of Chroniques afro-sarcastiques is the series of personal dramas that befall ordinary people. Kipré, the ultranationalist who sees another ultranationalist friend come back wearing very nice clothes. He’s been…to France. Kipré decides to give that France a try after all. Kadidiatou, a lovely nice and very determined girl who uses the internet café in search of a white husband. She receives humiliating treatment online. Or Dagobert, the young man who has an affair with an elderly French female who then sends him money and a ticket so he can be in the sweet company of his lovely Djenéba who lives in another town in France. I’m not going to tell you all of them. Buy the book!

Personally, I’d love to have seen Venance Konan have a go at that ultimate do-good icon of the French-African village, Bernard Kouchner but he does make short work of another bleeding heart, Dakar-born Ségolène Royal (and ex-wife of presidential hopeful François Hollande). Another highly obvious job – and most welcome too! – would have been putting the weekly magazine of the French-African village, Jeune Afrique, through the grinder. But he does a good job of ever-so-gently demolishing the village’s radio service, RFI.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed these Chroniques afro-sarcastiques and am looking forward to Konan taking aim at the next crop. Apart from Kouchner and Jeune Afrique, may I suggest logistics chief and West African port collector Vincent Bolloré, Guinean president Alpha Condé (big buddy of Bernard Kochner), Ivorian president Allassane Ouattara, Christine Ockrent (until last year a very Big Shot in France’s state media and partner of – sorry, there he is again – Bernard Kouchner), France Télécom, the International Criminal Court, Air France (nicknamed “the taxi” in Conakry), oil, José Eduardo dos Santos, oil, Idriss Déby Itno, oil, the child abductors of L’Arche de Zoë – and of course the next president of France. And why not – Jacques Chirac! Does Bono speak French? Then please throw his sanctimonious ass in here too, grand merci M. Konan!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – conclusion

January 18, 2012

Godwin’s descriptions make your heart wrench. What makes The Fear hit home so closely is of course that this time, the violence Mugabe and his generals unleash may have happened to people I have known personally. Or – there is no room for illusions here – may have been perpetrated by people I have known personally. There are literally thousands of these criminals crawling the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. From the local ZANU-PF village leaders who burnt down one man’s house and sent his wife and child scampering for safety, to the ZANU-PF Members of Parliament who were seen participating in atrocities against the people they are supposed to represent, to the vigilantes who burnt the house of the newly-elected mayor of Harare, murdered his wife and traumatised their small son…all the way up to ministers and generals like Perence Shiri and Constantine Chiwengwa who co-organised this orgy of violence, as they did the last one.

Heroes' Acre, Harare. Pic: MastaBaba on Flickr

Like the president, they have visions of themselves lying in one of those special burial places reserved at the bombastic North Korea-constructed national shrine, called Heroes’ Acre. But if there is a God, there will be a special place in Hell for all of those who destroyed thousands of lives and made the lives of countless more a living hell – on earth.

I read this book in Dakar, home to another octogenarian who thinks he is larger than God and in possession of the divine right to govern until eternity. He also got the North Koreans to construct a monstrosity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance  and nobody is any the wiser about the deals he has made with the late Kim Jung Il and his friends.

To be sure, Senegal is as different from Zimbabwe as Finland is from Portugal and president Abdoulaye Wade lacks the degrees in violence that Mugabe so proudly boasts of. Yet, as a presidential election edges nearer in which Wade stands for a highly contested third term, the nation’s Criminal Investigations Division has “interviewed” editors, journalists, website owners, political activists, human rights advocates. One of whom has gone on record saying that said Division ‘is becoming more and more like a political police’. And a campaign manager told me that he was keenly aware of the lengths to which the ruling party was prepared to go, in order to ensure victory. No, certainly not The Fear but these are sinister signs just the same. Lord, deliver us from megalomaniacal gerontocrats!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part two

January 17, 2012

‘There is a green hill far away,

I’m going back there one fine day…’

Glastonbury Song, The Waterboys, 1993

The Eastern Highland village of Chimanimani used to be my sanctuary. Take a bus down from Mutare, the prettiest town in the world, and after hours of twists and turns through a magic forest landscape you’d arrive on a large open space, mostly quiet. There was an eland sanctuary close by and a large hill overlooking the town. It is not the one The Waterboys sing about but it always enters my mind’s eye when I hear the song.

Not exactly green but in my memory it was. Pic from

Chimanimani boasts an old colonial hotel and my most vivid recollection is this: a group of Zimbabwean teachers sitting around the fireplace in the evening, outdoing each other in citing lengthy Shakespeare soliloquies, from memory. Teachers used to be able to afford hotels like these. I know, because I was one. I went to Chimanimani for my Zimbabwean holidays. Peter Godwin spent some of his childhood not far from here.

Yes, I was one of those volunteers that he describes “pouring in from around to world” to help Zimbabwe attain the highest literacy rate on the African continent. In fact, at 92%, it was the envy of the world. I worked in two different schools. Work, optimism, dedication, triumph, tragedy and – more work. All in plentiful supply.

I was vaguely aware of the terror that Mugabe had let loose on the southwestern part of this new nation, a terror Godwin has described in one of his other books, Mukiwa. When I entered the country in 1988, the Unity Accord had just been signed, between Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – People’s Front, or ZANU-PF. What I understood only later was that this created a de facto one party state. There was no unity. This was Mugabe’s victory over his greatest political rival – a victory that came at the price of 20,000 deaths and many more lives scattered.

Fast forward to December 2011. Robert Mugabe’s party endorsed him to run for yet another term as president. He will be 88 this year and can live until he is one hundred. If the elections take place in 2012, then reading The Fear will give you an idea how he intends to win yet another term in office. The Fear deals with the elections of 2008.

This was the second time his God-given right to rule was seriously challenged. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), roundly defeated him in what, unfortunately, was just the first round of the presidential elections.

Very few in the world can match Robert Mugabe’s skills of political survival. He is on a par with the late Gnassingbe Eyadema (immortalised in Ahmadou Kourouma’s seminal novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages). He has the crass power instincts of the Birmese generals although they seem to be loosening up these days. But most of all, he understands power in the way his mentors understand it, the ruling parties of China and North Korea (the one that recently lost its “Dear Leader”). All have used a mix of political manoeuvring, election fraud, intimidation, lies, vicious propaganda and violence on an industrial scale in order to stay in power. Peter Godwin describes how these ingredients were applied to keep one octogenarian autocrat in power in Zimbabwe.

The first round results were doctored, to make a second round inevitable. This bought the president and his henchmen enough to time to organise a huge wave of systematic political violence. The scenarios were ready; the organisers were ready. In fact, the organisers were the exact same people that still have to account for the massacre of the amaNdebele in the 1980s. In exactly the same vein, they set about, literally crushing the political opposition in 2008. Godwin documents their victims’ stories.


The patterns emerge: people who have “voted wrongly” in the first round have their homes firebombed; their bones are broken, the soles of their feet and their buttocks are whipped until they are raw and become septic; their skulls receive heavy blows. The means are crude and effective: iron bars, wooden clubs, whips, ropes, rocks, fists. And no-one is safe: men get targeted but women and children too. Even the elderly are assaulted: Mugabe’s thugs have no problems breaking towering cultural taboos. And the schools? The places where young and eager children once learned to read and write and discuss literature and debate and do sports? They became torture bases. Difficult concept for this ex-teacher to get his head around.

(Third and final part to follow shortly)

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part one

January 17, 2012

This book is about a country where I lived for almost four years. And even though I am now working from an entirely different corner of the continent almost 20 years later, it is easy to revive the image of my former home. Neat houses sat behind hedges that somehow managed to grow from the sandy soil, there was a shop run by my namesake, a man as generous as he was grumpy. ‘Yes, come and bring your bloody money tomorrow…’. The mill for grinding mealies would growl into action a couple of times per day and then fall silent again. And, of course, there was the inevitable drinking den known as “the bottle store”. Perched on top of a hill close to the river, it was run by a woman who managed to be friendly and imperious at the same time. She lived with her son in a modest compound. When she felt like it, the bottle store was open. When she decided she couldn’t be bothered today, it was closed. No amount of pleading or cajoling or begging could sway her. You just had to find another drinking spot.

There was no other drinking spot.

A dirt road ran right through the middle of this quiet place. Twice every day, this deep, mostly sun-drenched rural silence would be shattered by the arrival of The Bus From Town. Its habitual stop was under a tree almost in front of the bottle store. There it is, engines revving. Passengers pour out of the ageing vehicle and they start pointing at the roof. That one? No! That one, yes, over there! Young guys have climbed on top of the bus and are tearing the sacks and cardboard boxes and huge multicoloured plastic bags loose from the roof rack that runs the entire length of the bus. All done, the driver impatiently revs the engine and then begins the slope down to the river, spanned by one of those small concrete bridges just wide enough for a bus or a truck to pass. He’s gone. Silence reigns again.

Nyautare, Zimbabwe. Incredibly, I found this digital picture of my old house at St. Monica's Secondary School. The picture came from this website:

The vehicles almost always made it across those brigdes. But sometimes, it went horribly wrong. Once, while negotiating the many twists and turns of the road in this mountain-strewn part of the country in a rented car, I came across something unusual. A crowd, looking at a troop transport vehicle known as a  “Hippo”. It was lying on its side, had missed the bridge. Having taken lifts in these vehicles I knew that there had almost certainly been drinking and dope smoking going on inside. It appeared that there had only been two soldiers on board. Were they dead? No, but badly injured certainly. They were on their way to the nearest hospital, 50 kilometres down the road.

Having read The Fear, Peter Godwin’s harrowing book on president Robert Mugabe’s ultra violent 2008 re-election campaign, I was left wondering if the soldiers, torturers, murderers, arsonists, thugs and rapists were taking mind-altering substances when doing the head of state’s political bidding. It certainly was the case in Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The boys who did the killing and raping during the West African wars told me they remember nothing and that this was due to a cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and hashish they were fed before being sent on their murderous ways. What did Mugabe’s goons have to ingest, for them to commit their crimes?

There are a few characters in Godwin’s book who can reliably be described as bona fide psychopaths, the ones that can always be relied upon to surface in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship. Godwin describes the actions of one Joseph Mwale, who smashes the car windows of two opposition activists, douses the insides with petrol and watches a young man and a young woman get out and stagger to their flaming deaths. Mwale resurfaces a few more times, overseeing torture. In his final appearance, Godwin spots him on television, licking his “homicidal fingers” at one of Mugabe’s lavish birthday dinner parties…

part two will follow shortly.

A tale of betrayal

January 11, 2012

A must-read called The devil that danced on the water, written by Aminatta Forna.


A girl grows up in a family. Her father is a doctor from West Africa, Sierra Leone to be precise. Her mother is from Scotland, born and raised in a rigorously regimented home. They met when he was an overseas student and got married, quite against the wishes of the girl’s Scottish grandfather. They start a family and move to Sierra Leone, where he starts a clinic in a remote part of the country that has been deprived of medical services. The move to West Africa does of course also mean that the Fornas are immediately immersed into the elaborate and complicated fabric of African family life.

That is, in and of itself, already a fairly remarkable story. Most peoples’ lives do not reach much beyond village, neighbourhood or province – let alone country. But then, Dr Mohamed Forna, father to Aminatta Forna who wrote this family biography, decides to get drawn into politics. And everything changes.

It was the time of the advent of Siaka Stevens and his All People Congress (APC), a cause that Mohamed Forna supported, at considerable risk to himself. But the greatest risk did not come from his political adversaries. It came from the man he supported and who then turned against him. Many believe that it was Siaka Stevens who pushed Sierra Leone into the abyss from which it is falteringly emerging. Stevens also killed one of Sierra Leone’s most gifted politicians, Aminatta Forna’s father.

The devil that danced on the water is a wonderful and terrifying book that homes in on two aspects of the author’s life. The first, and most obvious, is how active politics devastated family life. (The only other impact that can be regarded in a similar way is a disintegrating marriage, followed by divorce. That happened too, by the way.)

Early on, she describes the way her father is taken away from home by two menacing state security officers who are also expert torturers. The separation is final. He has been charged with treason – falsely, as she finds out later. She will not see him alive again. The book details how little by little the fabric of family life is torn apart by threats, arbitrary detentions, hasty flights to Britain when things get too dangerous – up until that fateful moment returns and Mohamed Forna is taken away to his death, after a show trial.

The second thread of the book is related to that treason trial. Aminatta Forna wants to find out how and why her father was betrayed. Because the whole treason accusation and the trial that followed were a farce from start to finish. It was clearly designed to silence a man who had briefly shone as a political star but who had his fill of altercations with an increasingly predatory Sierra Leonean political elite.

Ms Forna does not find all the answers but she has an explanation for the betrayal. She calls it: moral vacuum. That is the environment in which lives mean nothing, words can be retracted at will and bent judges can be relied upon to return a verdict that will be pleasing to their political masters. It was the environment Siaka Stevens created and Mohamed Forna fought against.

Although she was small when all this was happening, Aminatta Forna relives the events closely. But here is what makes the book so poignant: the style is precise, the observations and descriptions very detailed; the prose has an almost detached feel to it. So when the anger comes through, as it does, it is all the more striking. There is anger at the people who betrayed her father but also at the way he held on to his belief that the mighty inside Sierra Leone state system were basically decent and trustworthy and that they would just leave him alone to run his private affairs – even when almost everyone told him otherwise. There is disappointment at the way her country has turned out but also a little hope that one day, maybe, things will go the way her father had imagined them.

Getting to see the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen

January 10, 2012

He has the fastest selling newspaper in Senegal – it says circulation 85,000 which is massive considering that it’s in French and not everyone can afford a newspaper every day.

He also has the biggest tv station in the country, in a well-designed building in Almadies, not a part of Dakar that I normally care about. But hey – if you want to interview Youssou N’Dour you go the extra mile.

TFM it’s called. Smooth media operation in a cool building. You wait a little in an actual waiting room, while a torrent of people walk in and out and through. You may have luck today but then again you may not. Time once put him on the list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And this is home. So – Youssou N’Dour is busy. Very busy. Even more so when you take your family obligations seriously, as well you should.

And now he is going into politics. Which is why I want to see him.

On my third trek to the TFM building I have a polite conversation with the secretary who tells me that, er, he’s not there at the appointed hour. So, back to the waiting room. But then, a quick phone call and a mad rush to a large house nearby. Pfff. Thank the stars that it isn’t hot.

Lovely garden and he casually strolls in.

‘Salaam aleikoum.’

‘Maleikoum salaam.’

Follows almost fifteen minutes of recorded conversation with the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen.

And even this congenitally sceptical journalist cannot help but be impressed by someone who has to cram a 48 hour program into a 24 hour day and has the capacity to sit on a bench, in a tracksuit, and explain his presidential ambitions to you without ever giving even the slightest hint that he really surely definitely must dash off to appointment number XYZ today.

That, in my book, is class. I am not sure if he’ll make and I can’t even make up my mind about whether he should be doing this. But I wish him good luck. Oh and thanks for the interview…

Which you can read very shortly on


(book reviews will resume shortly)

Congo in books (2)

January 6, 2012

(continued from Thursday January 5)

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz also takes us to more worrying examples of “muddling through”. Take the nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the result of a deal struck between a Belgian priest and the United States, still grateful for the Congolese uranium that enabled them to produce the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Michela Wrong describes a howling lack of security in and around the reactor, run by a professor who has lost all touch with reality and thinks nothing of running an ageing nuclear facility near a landfill on a hill that shows signs of serious erosion.

In the end, though, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz is also the chronicle of the chaotic end of the once-mighty Mobutu. He was already withdrawn and tired and ill when next-door Rwanda exploded once again in 1994, triggering a wave of violence that would prove fatal to the Old Leopard. Just three years later, he ended up as yet more historical debris. His successor, a little-known highwayman, drunkard and womaniser called Laurent Kabila simply carried on where Mobutu had left off. As long as “free access to the Congo Basin” was guaranteed, nobody outside the country really cared very much.


‘The trouble with us – is us.’ It’s a favoured saying of a Liberian friend of mine as he launches into yet another criticism of the failings of his fellow countrymen and women that have led his country so far astray. And he does have a point: Liberians have been living in their own independent republic since 1847 and since nobody in the whole wide world paid any attention they could have built paradise on their shores without anyone bothering to interfere. But to my friend’s chagrin and frustration, his fellow countrymen and women elected otherwise.

The Congolese, by contrast, would be entirely justified in saying “the trouble with us – is them.” Belgium, France, the United States and latterly Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, China… The list of those wanting “free access to the Congo Basin” and its riches keeps growing. They have all left the country poorer while they can show off back home. Flashy mobile phones all over the world. Zimbabwe’s fat cats, gorging on their mine concessions. And most of all, Belgium’s ostentatious if soulless capital. Michela Wrong describes the hallucinatory architecture of the Hotel van Eetvelde, built on Congolese riches, and, of course, the colonial museum at Tervuren, just outside Brussels. To be fair, Wrong’s description dates back to the late 20th century and the museum has since changed its shameless pro-colonial stance for something more realistic.

But the thing that strikes the author most is the almost complete absence of any sense of responsibility and guilt for the disaster the world has wrought in Congo. Hardly anyone shows any remorse, not in Belgium, or the United States, or in the spotless offices of the IMF and the World Bank, whose loans, issued from the sterile safety of the Washington bell jar kept the economically illiterate Mobutu afloat. Even in the Congo itself Wrong finds self-justification and the passing of bucks. Same old, same old. Hochschild reports in his book that King Leopold II took personal offence when reports started coming out about slave labour and the reign of terror of the “chicotte” the cruel and often deadly hippopotamus-hide whip in “his” Congo. Ludo De Witte’s book proved once and for all Belgian complicity in Africa’s premier political murder. It provoked a spluttering of debate in Belgium (he wrote it in Dutch) but apparently it was all too embarrassing.

All this unacknowledged history has a tendency to produce the kind of predatory political class whose fat bulk sits on the Congolese people’s collective necks today. Criticize them all you want – but don’t forget where they came from.

(There are many more excellent works on the Congo available in many languages, including the wonderfully evocative books from lifelong Congo traveller Lieve Joris and an enormous tome by David van Reijbrouck, simply called Congo, which became an unexpected bestseller in 2010.)

Congo in books (1)

January 5, 2012

The 20th century is the era of mass murder with Congo at either end. The reign of King Leopold II between 1885 and 1908 sits on one side; the wars from 1997 onwards sit on the other. The Belgian monarch caused an estimated 10 million deaths, as the historian Adam Hochschild states in his seminal book King Leopold’s Ghosts, a must-read for anyone trying to understand why the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the dysfunctional place that it is. Congo is the product of arguably the most catastrophic colonial enterprise in history, the symbol of which is the deranged Kurtz, whose reign of terror is the real Heart of Darkness in Joseph Conrad’s short novel. Kurtz demonstrates the moral corruption that was the core of the colonial enterprise in Congo. Conrad, who served as a riverboat captain in Congo for six months called Leopold’s rule “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

‘Free access to the Congo Basin. That has been the cornerstone of every single foreign intervention in our country.’ A few short years ago, I heard this dry assessment of a Congolese journalist as we sat in a beer garden, not far form the city centre. Sweet Congolese rumba played in the background. Yes, there were radio stations in Kinshasa still playing the nation’s signature music non-stop, even though its apogee had been about two decades ago. Rumba, or soukouss – it’s one of the wonders of the world. How can a country with such a cruel history produce some of the sweetest music on earth?

But back to the journalist’s main point. It can, in fact, be refined even further. Foreign meddling in the Congo has always been about free access to the riches that the Congo Basin offers to the world – at the lowest price possible. This was the guiding principle of King Leopold’s rapacious involvement in the 19th century and it can be no surprise that the practices based on this principle have spawned one of the most venal political classes on the planet.

The symbol of that political class is without a doubt the late president Mobutu Sese Seko and one book, written by Michela Wrong (a former Financial Times correspondent in Kinshasa) portrays his life, the country that produced him and the country he left behind, in a poisonous symbiotic relationship.

It is called In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz. Yes, quite ominous that title and it has the same rollercoaster qualities as Conrad’s novel. Except that the figures in Wrong’s book are real.

She walks us through Mobutu’s life. Born in precarious circumstances, basically adopted by whites and then sent to school. Character and destiny formed in the army where has was sent as a punishment for not showing up at school. Dabbled in journalism for a bit when in Belgium. Befriended Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic first Congolese prime minister in whose murder the Belgians, Mobutu and the CIA all played their miserable parts while the United Nations looked the other way. Belgian sociologist and researcher Ludo de Witte laid bare his country’s eternal shame in his meticulously documented book The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

The rest is history. Mobutu, the new king with the leopard skin bonnet, went on to bleed his country dry in a way that would even make King Leopold II envious. First the plantations, then mining, then the diamonds and finally the Central Bank. For the second time in less than a century, one man left this country behind like a rattling carcass. How many lives does Congo have?

Many, as it happens, but then you have to turn away from the broad sweep of history and get underneath the country’s skin. This is what makes Michela Wrong’s book, published in 2000, so extraordinary. You get a snapshot of a country on its knees with a population that stubbornly refuses to keel over and die.

Take the gangs of handicapped men and their impressively voluminous tricycles. Polio victims, almost all of them. Thanks to a law that allowed them cheap passage from Kinshasa to its neighbour Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River, they used their tricycles (built-to-order) to set up an elaborate transport and smuggling organisation between the two Congos. They also ran a protection racket for the boutiques and stalls in town. If you paid them, they would leave you alone. If you didn’t, they would smash your place up. Next time you look adoringly at a concert of the handicapped singers and musicians of the formidable band Staff Benda Bilili – this is where they come from. And this is why they are mightily pissed off with even the slightest whiff of patronising compassion. ‘Article 15 – that’s us,’ one of them tells the author matter-of-fact like.

“Article 15” is the unwritten extra article of the nation’s Constitution. The phrase, as Michela Wrong tells us, was actually born in the short-lived tumultuous (Belgian-backed) republic of South Kasai. Its quixotic leader, Albert Kalonji, fed up with the endless requests for government support told his people “You’re at home – just fend for yourselves” – in French: débrouillez-vous. And that is what an entire nation has set about doing: fending for yourself, sorting yourself out by hook or by crook. There are millions of instances of “débrouillez-vous”; the cripples in their tricycles are simply one of the most compelling cases.

(to be continued)