Friday, June 19, 2020


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Monday, June 8, 2020


Sunday, May 19, 2019


I wrote this in 1993, perhaps, in a two-bedroom house where I lived for a year on the outskirts of Lawrence, Kansas, a half-block from Haskell Indian College. It was the first of a four-part series on the history of the Congo: The others were on the Red Rubber Campaign, the assassination of Lumumba, and Mobutu's kleptocracy. I never succeeded in interesting a publisher in any of them and I've since lost the other chapters, as well as a fully footnoted version of the manuscript, during a transition from one computer to another. 
I wonder what the scholarship has done since to the story as I told it here. A lot has been written, but much of it, it strikes me, having to do more with intramural debates within the field than with disagreements over the historical facts. I'm no longer up on the literature. FWIW, I was reading and rereading Ian Frazier's Great Plains at the time--still one of the most shockingly good books I've ever read--and though I suppose every gardener imagines himself a Capability Brown,  there are sentences here I wouldn't entirely disown.


And the Rise of Black Slavery in the Atlantic

In 1482, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cao set sail from Lisbon harbor in search of a passage to the Indies. In a three-masted caravel, Cao traveled in a broad arc past the Canary, Savage, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands; rounded Cape St. Vincent and Cape Nao in the Maghreb; suffered his sailors’ puns—“He who reaches Cape Nao will return or nao (not)”; revictualed at Arguin, a slave entrepot above the Senegal River, at Fort Mina, an armed post flush with gold dust from the trans-Saharan trade, and at Cape Santa Catarina below Africa’s bulge, until then the outer limit of the known world. Then, trimming his lateen sails to navigate against the prevailing headwinds, he sailed into the Southern hemisphere, in whose unfamiliar skies neither his astrolabe nor his almanacs availed him further. Soon he came to the effluence of a river whose discharge sent sweet red water and clumps of grass and bamboo for miles into the Atlantic, so he named it the Powerful River, or Rio Poderoso. Thinking it might lead him to the fabled realm of Prester John, he coasted into its mouth on an afternoon breeze. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses lay stunned by heat on banks of brilliant orchids. Flocks of parrots chattered at sunset from tangles of mangrove. Eagles wheeled overhead.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The General in his Resort

I went boating with the alleged war criminal General François Olenga a few weekends ago (in August, 2017), at the riverside resort he built on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Olenga is President Kabila’s former top military advisor, and since June, 2017 has been under sanctions from the US Treasury. Troops under his command allegedly tortured and raped detainees and arbitrarily executed opposition figures; on several occasions they fired live rounds into crowds of protesters, killing dozens. Local human rights groups say he killed a street kid who supposedly stole his phone. The Treasury froze any assets Olenga might have in the US and made it illegal for Americans to do business with him.

If those sanctions are having an impact, it’s not evident. His resort, Safari Beach, which was also sanctioned, appears to be thriving. I visited on a Sunday. You pull off the cratered road west of the airport to a clean strip of asphalt lined with dwarf coconut trees. The lawn is manicured. There are red-tiled paillotes and yellow cottages and white marble statues that might be Greek or African. The main building overlooks the river, which is blue in its broader expanses rather than brown, and astonishingly under-exploited. In the six hours we sat on its banks I saw perhaps two commercial boats pass by, a flat-bottomed fishing boat and a barge heaped with boxes. This, remember, twenty navigable klicks upstream from one of the world’s biggest cities. By late afternoon there were a hundred or so guests, mostly African, but a fair number of whites, drinking and dining on the terrace overlooking the river. The cocktails were the bright plastic color of playground equipment. A band played old Congolese rumba hits. Parties of guests were taking motorboats to picnic on a sandbank. A handful of Chinese were working on a dry dock below; tools lay about.

General Olenga was the chief of the Maison Militaire, or Military House of the President, which oversees Kabila’s praetorian guard, the Garde Républicaine, the successor organization to Mobutu’s feared Division Spéciale Présidentielle.  Educated at the University of Paris, Olenga spent years in Germany before joining Kabila’s father in 1997 in the Rwandan-led invasion that toppled Mobutu. He proved useful; he knew people in eastern Europe with arms for sale; Kabila named him head of logistics. He rose through the ranks, remained close to the son on his father’s assassination, cycled in and out of top positions. His response at being sanctioned was to point out, not unreasonably, that none of the other military and police chiefs had been proscribed. Also, he asked, why sanction Safari Beach? Its facilities were open to the opposition for meetings and retreats; they were as welcome there as the government. Sanctioning it was uncalled for.

At one point we were invited to join the general on his speed boat. He wore a pea jacket and Mammut army cap.[1] He is late middle-aged and scowly, but intelligent-looking. His daughter and her German fiancé joined us. They and the general conversed fluently in German. She wore a floral print scoop dress and a crucifix on a delicate gold chain. He had photochromic glasses, dark in the sun. The boat was bright metal red and the interior was a creamy leather. We moseyed up and down the river and then the engine cut out. The general spoke into his phone and a canoe puttered out to us with a jerrycan of gasoline. I thought to myself: I would not want to be the guy who was supposed to have topped off the general’s tank. The general yelled at the guy, but no more than your average mogul might have done. We reached the dock and the general and his daughter walked arm-in-arm off the gangplank.

Although we hadn’t interacted much on the expedition, we joined the general at his table. He mostly spoke to his business manager, in a pink dress shirt and slacks. The general spoke better German than he did, the fiancé told me. At one point he complained about the band. The lead singer was flirting with his fiancée, he said. We clicked through the pictures I had taken on the boat.  He asked if I could send him one, of the two of them. There was a breeze. Perhaps the band leader didn’t understand who he was dealing with, said the German. There was an edge to his voice. We could take him around back, there were soldiers here who could help us, a dozen or more, easily summoned. I asked him about his wind farm. He swore me to secrecy and told me details I promptly forgot. His English wasn’t very good, and I was mostly nodding. It was a 2013 Riesling.  

In announcing the sanctions against Olenga, John E. Smith, the director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said, “This action against Olenga sends a strong message that continued acts of violence, aggression, and suppression by the Congolese military against its own citizens are unacceptable. The United States is prepared to apply additional sanctions against those who undermine the DRC’s democratic or electoral processes.”

Three weeks later I saw pictures of the couple’s wedding. She wore the crucifix. He wore the glasses. They were clear and his eyes are green.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

African Poverty Numbers Grow, as World's Decline

This gif, showing African poverty numbers growing as the rest of the world's decline, is sobering.

Poverty shrink

Here's a link:

And here's a similar data set, presented in graph form:

From: Shanta Devarajan, Celestin Monga and Jim Cust

Even as the global long-term picture is amazing:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Story--or at any rate, one of them

Many years ago, when I was young and harbored the dream of becoming the next George Orwell, I lived for a year in a shanty town in eastern Congo--then Zaire. The idea was that I would gather the life stories and daily experiences of some of the town's residents, throw in a few of my own impressions and feelings, add a sociological note or three, and--voila, the next Road to Wigan Pier. So, for example, I spent a few weeks with a cart pusher, one of those fellows who work with three or four others pushing out-size wheelbarrows loaded with 50-kilo sacks of manioc or twenty-foot iron rods up and down the town's hilly roads. Those roads are steep. The landscape of the region is all rounded peaks and valleys, like the inside of a corrugated egg container, and colored an emerald green streaked with dusty roads that after the rains turn into grinding rivers of rust-colored mud.
My cart pusher was an uncomplicated person, somewhat baffled by my interest in the minutia of his daily life, and like many physically imposing men he gave off a feeling of great gentleness. I remember thinking one evening as we labored to account for the $5.75 or so he had earned that day--this much to the cart owner, that much to his laborers, a small amount for the cart-pushers association, and then his family expenses, the food, rent, school fees for his younger siblings, and some 10 to 15 cents left over most days for a smoke--that as long as he had his health and those tendons and muscles of iron he would be OK. I also remember thinking that it was a shame he had to spend 50 cents a day renting the cart when he could have bought it outright for 50 dollars; today, of course, we know all about micro-credit, but it wasn't on my radar screen then or I'd have lent him the money to buy it.
My own plans didn't work out, of course, and within a few years Bukavu itself would go from being a palmy, Graham Greene-ish backwater to the epicenter of Africa's world war, without ever losing its seedy, backwater feel. Sometime before then, around the time of the Sovereign National Conference, when it was briefly possible to be hopeful for the Congo, I wrote the following: A Game of Hearts. The story's details are true, or mostly so, but the way I tell the story bears evidence of how young I was; here and there you can hear the squeaks of my voice changing. From time to time I've thought about re-writing the piece; I would be harder on myself; play it more for comedy; but then it wouldn't be a true bill of the experience. I wrote it over a month of stops and hesitations, like an inchworm flailing forward, looking for the next bit of leaf to secure itself to, never quite sure what I could ask the reader to accept. It is my ur-story, such as it is.
This was published in a magazine called DoubleTake in the Winter of 1997, five years or so after being consigned to a drawer in my desk. Doubletake was an immensely ambitious, coffee-table fine art magazine, published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University under Robert Coles and Alex Harris. The magazine folded after a decade's work; the sincerity it exuded was not part of the zeitgeist, and if the age hadn't killed it the Internet almost surely would have. I remain grateful to them for publishing one of my earliest attempts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

An Unpublished note to the Intercept

The Intercept published a long, not especially well-informed piece on Trump's proposed roll-back of the conflict minerals provision. I promptly fired off this note, which seven hours later still hadn't appeared in their comments section, although all sorts of profanity has.

[Update: Lee Fang, the author of the article, has promptly written to me to say he's looking into the matter. Update to the update: Yes, it's appeared.]

Here it is, FWIW:

A stopped clock is correct twice a day, and this is one of the rare times when the generally repugnant Trump regime has the facts on its side.
Advocates of Dodd-Frank 1502 said it would help end the conflicts in the region by depriving militia of the profits they derive from the "conflict mineral" trade.  What they won’t tell you is that virtually every serious scholar and journalist to have visited the region opposes the law, and that some of the most reputable organizations, like Human Rights Watch*, have silently withdrawn their support for the campaign, while others, such as the Center for Global Development, have written in forceful opposition to it.

For a round-up of the scholarly literature, see here:
For a round-up of articles from journalists who have actually gone to the region, see here:

Four key points:
1) The law hasn’t ended the conflicts because they're only secondarily about the minerals. Neither of arguably the two worst militia, the FDLR and M23 (originally known as the CNDP) is in it for money, and both have access to other sources of revenue.
2) By pushing the mineral trade under ground, Dodd-Frank actually drove it into the hands of the very militia the law was meant to hurt, earning them windfall profits (think what prohibition did for the mafia).
3) Advocates failed to disclose that nearly all local knowledgeable civil society groups opposed what they were doing and warned them of the harm it would cause their communities. By framing the issue as brave advocates versus rich multinationals, they effectively silenced the very people they were ostensibly championing: the Congolese themselves.
4) Most importantly, the subsequent embargo of the region's minerals has come at a tremendous cost to the miners and their families. This can’t be emphasized enough. Once the law came into effect, in April of 2011, the local mineral exporters shut down. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of artisinal miners, already among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, were suddenly deprived of their livelihoods, all-but overnight. When I visited their villages, in the summer of 2011, they were angry and desperate: They blamed "Obama's Law," as they called it, for the fact that they could no longer afford school fees for their children or medical care for their pregnant wives. By December of that year, some of those villages were reporting outbreaks of Kwashiorkor.
One more point: As far as I know, none of us who oppose Dodd Frank 1502 on humanitarian and intellectual grounds has any criticism to make of Dodd Frank 1504, which mandates disclosure of payments by resource extractors. On the contrary, we repeatedly warned the advocates that 1502, with its manifest cruelties, would be used as a cudgel by corporate interests to make the broader case against reform.  This is, of course, exactly what has happened. Why else did the incoming acting chair of the SEC make this provision the subject of his very first official statement?
Let me conclude by citing some of the Congolese who have been affected by the law, and whose voices have been all-but-ignored in the debate:
Serge Mulumba, president of the mining cooperative CDMC, in a letter to the SEC:
"We can not give you exactly the number of lives that are lost each day following the cessation of artisanal mining in the DRC and yet even if a child died or who is hungry or do not go to school because his father digger lacked money, this is a tragedy, it is a sad news that should challenge our humanity."
Pastor Raymond, in an open letter posted on Fair Jewelry Auction:
"Please listen attentively to our cries of weeping and anguish. Our families and us will be doomed to death if you do not hear these cries of alarm. Do not wait to rescue us when we will be already in the grave. Act in time to avoid the humanitarian catastrophe that would arise from the consequences of your suspension to purchase our minerals."
Heads of three South Kivu mining associations, in a letter to the SEC, begging them to reconsider DF-1502
"What is the refuge of all the Congolese jobless, around 85 % of the population. Is it to make peace or to trouble the peace, when the life is stopped for a population? No job, no life. Please imagine the consequences…"

Oh, and here's what the Intercept is publishing:

*HRW internally debated this issue some four years ago, and decided to drop it. But I see just now that Ken Roth, perhaps uninformed about that debate, just (2/9 roughly 7 pm) tweeted his condemnation of the possible repeal. That's a shame. HRW's better than that.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Origins of AIDS

This is a draft of the first part of an abandoned two-part book review I wrote a while back about three books about the origins and spread of the HIV virus. They were Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin; The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin; and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest, by David Quammen.

In the first or second decade of the 20th century, in the forested, southeastern corner of what was then the German colony of Kamerun in central Africa, a hunter killed and butchered a chimpanzee, nicking himself in the process. That event, as trivial as a papercut, as incidental as the flutter of a butterfly's wings, set in motion one of the great catastrophes in human history: The global AIDS pandemic, which has killed 30 million people to date and continues to infect some two million more each year. (The only disasters that exceed it in scale are the Black Death of the 14th century, the 1918 Spanish flu, and World War II. In deaths, it exceeds the First World War by a factor of three.) At each step in the spread of the disease entirely contingent circumstances came into play, many the result of well-intentioned medical initiatives, that amplified the pandemic when it might have burned itself out. These books tell two stories: One is the story of the origin and global spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV); the second is the story of the dedication, ingenuity and sheer pluck of the scientists who figured it all out.
AIDS, like the flu or Ebola, is zoonotic, that is, it passes from animals to humans. Variants of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), from which HIV derives, have circulated for millennia among the primates inhabiting the tropical rainforests of west and central Africa. In fact, on at least at least eight separate occasions in the 20th century a far less transmissible strain of the virus, the HIV-2, passed to humans from a species of monkey called the sooty mangabey. The mangabey, memorably described by science writer David Quammen as looking like an “elderly chimney sweep of dapper tonsorial habits,” inhabits the canopies of coastal west Africa, some two thousand kilometers from where the vastly more dangerous strain of the virus, HIV-1, emerged.
HIV-1 has also infected humans on multiple occasions—at least four that we know of, three times via chimpanzee and once via gorilla. By far the most lethal variant is known as HIV-1 Group M--with “M” standing for main. This is the strain responsible for 99 percent of AIDS deaths worldwide, and because its simian counterpart is concentrated among the chimpanzees of southeastern Cameroon, scientists believe it almost certainly originated there. Figuring that out took intrepid work. Chimpanzees are an endangered species: Killing or even tranquilizing them to secure blood samples is unacceptable. Scientists had to develop new ways of testing urine and faeces to determine if they contained SIV antibodies. Early on, a distinguished AIDS researcher wounded himself in the forest chasing down the animals’ excrement and died of malaria after he was medivac’ed to England.  (Incidentally, it was once thought that chimpanzees had evolved a tolerance for the virus, as the mangabeys have. In fact, research at Jane Goodall’s Gombe ape preserve would later show they sicken and die from the virus as humans do.)
HIV-1M in turn has spawned an array of subtypes that have become endemic to different regions of the world. That there are so many global variants of HIV is a function of the speed with which the virus reproduces and the frequency with which it errs in doing so. The virus evolves a million times faster than people, meaning that in a mere decade it recapitulates the ten million years since humans, chimpanzees and gorillas last had a common ancestor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Price of Bad Governance

How much does the legacy of Mobutu and Kabila cost the people of DR Congo? One way is to compare the infant mortality rate to other neighboring countries. Here is a chart, drawn from UN statistics:

Click for full-size

You can see right away that the Congo is an outlier: It started the 1970s with roughly the same mortality rate as sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, but gradually lost ground. The Congo loses 109 children per 1000 live births, compared to only 64 for Africa as a whole.

But what do those numbers translate to in terms of real human beings? About 2,660,000 babies are born every year in the DRC. If some 116 out of every 1000 of them die[1] , that means roughly 309,000 perish each year. If DRC's infant mortality rates were the same as SSA, it would lose only 194,000--or roughly 114,000 less. Compared to Kenya, DRC loses roughly 149,000 infants. And if the DRC performed no better than Nigeria, it would still lose 70,000 fewer babies each year.

[1] I am using 2005 statistics rather than 2010, which are projected, not actual.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Quote of the Day

 From remarks John Kerry gave at the LiveAtState virtual press conference:

“What is the U.S.’s interest in South Sudan? And what’s the way forward for peace to prevail?”
We also feel deeply committed, given past lessons, to try to prevent the chaos and the genocide that too often comes of the violence that can occur if things break down. We all have an interest – and everybody has an interest – in not letting that happen.

So here we have this new nation that is already in extremis, and we helped give birth to it. We feel this is the part of our responsibility. And we don’t want this to cascade into a more violent repetition of the past. So that’s why we’re committed. We believe this is part of the defining of the future of Africa, and we will remain deeply committed and personally engaged in an effort to try to help the people of South Sudan define their own future in peace and prosperity, hopefully.