The Old Block

John Kerry greets Nguesso
US Secretary of State John Kerry greets ROC President, Denis Nguesso. Courtesy Wikimedia.

While you were distracted by the U.S. election primaries last week, some knives came out – and also guns – in the Republic of Congo (ROC). Eighteen were killed. There, in Brazzaville, one of the Methuselahs of African politics claimed a gazillionth victory in the presidential elections.

Denis Sassou Nguesso had first been president in 1979 (the previous century, that is) and stayed in place more or less ever since. He took a leave of absence only in 1992-97, while the country unraveled in a brutal civil war. We who lived in ROC used to call him “Denis Sans-le-Sou,” or “Penniless Denis.”

He came back as de facto transition leader in 2002 after leading the military charge against one rival, Pascal Lissouba, who happened to be president at the time. Then Denis SLS took up his old post of de jure president in 2009.

The ruckus resumed in March-April, 2016, when Sassou ran to succeed himself and go into a twentieth year as leader of his diminutive country. Or, if you want to count his in-and-out presence in the national political scene, let’s call it 35 years.

Mind you, ROC is a lovely little country with lively and humor-filled individuals who love a joke – unlike the apocalyptic Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) across the River. Sassou benefited from Soviet assistance during the Cold War, then from a modest but steady stream of oil revenues in the period following. Nice place to be in charge.

This past month some dustups occurred on April 4, as a Jeffersonian opposition group called “The Ninjas” attacked a military post in the capital and killed a half dozen Congolese military and over a dozen civilians caught in harm’s way. Amnesty International says that the Ninjas used rape as an instrument of political power, and targeted civilians in its military operations.

The leader of this uprising was election runner-up Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who has since called for peace, and said on April 5, “I accept the Constitutional Court’s verdict [giving victory to Denis SLS], however questionable…I nonetheless invite President Sassou Nguesso, the declared winner, to be humble in victory because this election has been marred by all sorts of irregularities.”

Nice outcome, but for the civilian and military victims of a contest between the Bad and the Worse. Guy Brice was “Parfait,” but in some ways imperfect.

At a youthful 73, Sassou SLS may last another ten to twenty years if he’s lucky. Kolélas’s party, the MCDDI, is not “One Thousand One Hundred and Twenty-one” as the Roman numerals would suggest, but the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development.

I knew Kolélas’s father, Bernard. He was briefly mayor of ROC’s capital, Brazzaville, in the mid 1990s, and even more briefly prime minister of the country during the 1997 civil war. Horatio, I knew him.

Bernard Kolélas was one of the more noble individuals I have met. If he had been born in France, he would have been a Dadaist or at worst, a Surrealist. He spent time in the slammer in 1969-71 for mounting an unsuccessful coup against 1970s president Marien Ngouabi.

Later he went back for a prison post-doc, 1978 to 1980. He served as head of something called the National Mediation Committee during the brutal civil war of 1997, then went into exile until being sentenced to death in absentia in 2000. Sassou SLS allowed Bernard to attend his wife’s funeral in Brazzaville in 2005, then the National Assembly gave him amnesty in 2005. He went a bit gaga and died in Paris in 2009.

I met Kolélas Père one steamy summer evening in Washington in 1984. He had come with his organizing committee for a run at presidential office, and was looking for moral and financial backing from the rich Outside.

The committee consisted of three members – himself and two others, one of whom was Sony La’bou Tansi, the notable Congolese novelist. As political operatives they were lacking in refinement. In sincerity and singleness of purpose, though, they exceeded others, and certainly any of the current pretenders for the U.S. presidency at this time, April, 2016.

They presented their case to me and asked for any support I could muster. I knew I was a Nobody, but they didn’t want to take my word for it.

I said, “Well, there is the Socialist International and the Liberal International. So, which one would be your kind of group?” I was thinking of the way Europeans divvy up the world and assist political initiatives in poor countries, as our own National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute do in our own country.

The delegation of three looked puzzled, and had a brief consultation in Lingala or whatever language they shared and I didn’t. I tried to assist: “So are you more or less a left-of-center party, or right-of-center?” This confounded them even more, and led to more Lingala palaver.

After a brief interlude and rapid consensus, Bernard Kolélas said to me, “We don’t know if we are right or left. We know only that we are in favor of the full flourishing [“épanouissement”] of the human being.”

There they had me. I thought, but perhaps did not say, “I love you, I champion you, I will do anything for you. I am yours, and forever.”

The campaign for presidency did not go well, but Koulélas got to be mayor of Brazzaville, which in a Congolese context is not tuna fish.

His little son the Ninja did rile up some street fights and got some innocent people killed last week. But then he got down to business and defused a potential civil war in his country, I would like to think, under the influence of his kindly and harmless father. Viva Kolélas and political ineptitude, it may well be our best hope for a benign future even in our complicated and cumbersome United States.


Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

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