And I'm sitting in Brussels Airport on a layover after a week back in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was two and a half years since my last visit. Not much seemed to have changed. There's a new business hotel -- the Fleuve -- which is pretty nice, viz., it's actually a functioning business hotel without weird stains on the carpet or stuff falling out of the ceiling. (Built by Chinese, and a lot of Chinese staff behind the scenes.) What else... I guess the traffic may be a bit worse. Otherwise, seems much the same.
I'm working with the US Department of Defense, which is interesting in its own way. Topic for another post, maybe. I did get to visit some interesting places! The Congolese Ministry of Defense, for instance, which sits on a hill with a spectacular view overlooking the city and the river. The country's main military logistics base, which was interesting if a bit depressing. Lots of ancient machinery -- including some fascinating old machine tools from the colonial era -- and hundreds of broken vehicles, mostly trucks.
Oh, and Mobutu's Cadillacs. Mobutu Sese Seko, who was absolute dictator of the Congo (then "Zaire") for nearly 30 years? His black stretch Caddies with the bulletproof armor. Well, what was left of them. They're junk -- flat tires, gutted engines. Still damn impressive, though. Henry Kissinger rode in them, back in the day, and Mohammed Ali. I guess they're still official government vehicles, and you never know when you might need a part from an old Caddy.
In my last post, I mentioned that I'd been researching US assistance to the Congo and Zaire. There used to be US troops in Zaire! A few hundred of them. "Trainers". Their mission was called ZAMISH and it lasted several years. No lasting effect, and almost completely forgotten today. Makes you thoughtful.
What else. Well, munitions and ammunition are not stored very well in Congo. That's a problem across a lot of Africa, actually. There have been some spectacular munitions explosions in the last few years. One of the worst took place just last year, in 2012. It was in Brazzaville -- right across the Congo river from Kinshasa. It was big enough that it broke windows in Kinshasa, even though the river is over half a mile wide there. So, it's a fairly pressing issue.
(There's a theory that these blasts happen because there's a lot of pilfering at the arms depots, and when an inspector or someone gets close to the truth, someone decides to eliminate the evidence. The Brazzaville blast killed at least 250 people, so I'd kinda like to think that wasn't true. No way to know for sure.)
Hm, what else. Learned a lot about Congo's state of military readiness, but I probably shouldn't talk about that. Let's see... well, there's a big east/west divide in Congo's military right now. (This is public knowledge.) Mobutu didn't have a professional military -- ha ha, no -- but his Force Armee Zaire, or FAZ, had a lot of guys who had been trained in the US or Europe. FAZ's senior generals were all kleptocrats who had no interest in anything as gauche as fighting a war, but at the middle-officer level there were a fair number of guys who were, by African standards, pretty competent. When Kabila invaded from the east in 1997 (with Rwandan support, which is another long story in its own right), FAZ fell apart like wet tissue paper; most troops hadn't been paid in months or years, the ammunition and supplies had long since been stolen and sold on the black market, and there was no will left to fight for an utterly corrupt and discredited regime. But that doesn't mean there was no value in FAZ; as noted above, there were some guys who were competent-ish and willing to do their jobs. Just, not enough of them and they weren't allowed to do much.
So the east-west thing: FAZ was dominated by Lingala-speakers from western Congo. But Kabila was coming in from the east, where he'd spent more than thirty years (!) in the bush or across the border in Uganda or Rwanda. And in the east, they're all Swahili speakers. So when Kabila took power, he installed Swahili speakers from his army in all the key positions. And they -- and in some cases their sons; it's been a while since 1997, after all -- are still there today.
The Swahili-speaking guys were, at best, competent guerrillas. (At worst they were thugs.) None had any idea how to run a modern military. So that echelon of lower and middle level FAZ officers was kept on, because they were the ones who could actually make stuff work. Many of them are still around today, though they're getting old. So if you want to find (say) a professional logistician in the modern Congolese military, good chance it's some FAZ guy who has been a major for the last 20 years. And who is going to retire soon, so someone really should be training up some new ones.
There's more to say about the Congo, but they're calling my flight to Frankfurt. (Five and a half hour layover in Brussels airport, done. That's the second time this year I've slept on an airport floor.)