Mobutu’s Country and Other Places
WHEN I WAS TOLD I WAS GOING TO KINSHASA as the Indian Ambassador, I had no illusions about the place. I remembered the efforts my colleague in Rabat had made in 1967 to avoid going there. I vaguely remembered from the days I was a college student the names of Lumumba, Kasavubu and Mobutu, and the outlines of the Congolese crisis of 1960. I had read, in 1961, Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case. But Greene’s novel is not about politics and unlike Conrad’s book or André Gide’s account of his journey in the Congo contains no memorable descriptions of the landscape or of the river Congo. His Congo, as he said in the prefatory note to the book, was a region of the mind. A colleague, when he learnt of our move to Kinshasa suggested I read Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which I did before going there. Later, during my tour of duty in the country, I read Rajeshwar Dayal’s book about his experiences as Dag Hammaskjoeld’s special representative, D.N.Chatterjee’s book about his years as the Indian Ambassador there, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and I skimmed through a volume of essays published by an American university which were very critical of Mobutu and of U.S. policy towards him. I also remembered from Paris the extensive coverage in the French media of rebellions in 1977 and 1978 in the Shaba province of the country—a rebellion with the potential to destabilize the Mobutu régime and possibly other places in southern Africa. French, Belgian, Moroccan and Senegalese troops had been airlifted and the USA had extended logistical support for this international intervention to shore up the Mobutu régime—Mobutu’s own soldiers had shown no stomach for fighting. These fragments of acquired knowledge combine with my own direct experiences to make up my picture of the Belgian Congo which at independence was named the Republic of Congo, rechristened the Republic of Zaire by Mobutu in a spurious drive for African ‘authenticity’ and again renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo by Laurent Kabila in 1996 presumably as a reminder of his ‘socialist’ past. For the sake of simplicity I call the country Zaire, for that is how it was known during our stay there.
Some places attract writers, journalists, adventurers, travellers and explorers more than others. They get written about and in the process acquire a stereotypical image. Zaire is one such. Over a little more than one century and a half it has attracted different kinds of people even when they have found it uninviting. From the days of Leopold II, the country has been associated with ugliness, disorder, rapacity, moral decay and unknown forces of evil. Kinshasa, known then as Leopoldville, seen from Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo looked hideous to André Gide in 1923 and yet was full of energy. Kinshasa seen from anywhere looked hideous to me in early 1982 and yet was full of energy. Literary, journalistic and academic descriptions of the country have not even partially come to grips with the exploitation and the suffering of the people. It is only recently that some historical works seeking to describe the ruthlessly exploitative nature of Leopold II’s régime have been published. Successive Belgian governments were not much better. The Mobutu régime was in direct line of succession from Leopold II, in fact and in spirit. Until about 1990 the tendency in West Europe and the USA was not to discuss the sinister nature of the régime. Such accounts as there are of the death and destruction caused by the civil war that brought Laurent Kabila to power, are fragmentary. Laurent’s son Joseph has yet to bring peace to the country. Such thoughts crowd my mind now when I think of Zaire, about two decades after our stay there. In the rest of this narrative I shall try to keep my remembrance of my thoughts and impressions then separate from my thoughts now.
When on Christmas Day 1981 we arrived in Kinshasa, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga was at the height of his dictatorial powers. This was going to be our first direct contact with sub-Saharan Africa—in addition to Zaire I was to be accredited as ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), the Central African Republic, the Republic of Gabon—all part of the former French Equatorial Africa—and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, formerly a Spanish possession. On the way to Kinshasa we had stopped for one night at Nairobi, between two flights. The part of Nairobi where our hotel was located looked pretty and the city centre looked neat and smart. Kinshasa, the next day, looked ugly and untidy—not only the drive from the airport to the city but also the boulevard—in fact the main boulevard of the city—on which the Embassy Residence was located. With time we discovered that in the days when the Belgians ruled the country, it was forbidden for any black man to be seen walking on that boulevard or on the streets in its hinterland after sunset. This had been the ‘white’ part of the city. After independence this, the main boulevard, had become ‘non-white’. There, even in the eighties, was a reduced white area, the riverfront. Our second discovery was of the advantages of dictatorship. Since, in the early to mid-1980’s Mobutu was in full control, there was near perfect order in the capital or, indeed, the provinces. Electricity, water and fuel supplies were normal in the capital. Mobutu, having tried Idi Amin style ‘nationaliztion’ and failed, had abandoned it. By the time we arrived in the country, free market capitalism and the greed of people around Mobutu made sure that there was no shortage of any of the consumer necessities of rich Zairians, diplomats or foreigners, imported freely from Europe, Japan or South Africa.
PEOPLE OF INDIAN ORIGIN living in Kinshasa were for the most part Gujarati Muslims, either Ismailis or what called themselves Sunni Patels. There were some Gujarati Shi’a Muslims, called in this country by their historically more correct name of Ithn’ashri—which can be translated as Twelvers. The most prominent of the Shi’as was a Pakistani national but no less friendly to us than the others and an important source of Hindi movies on VHS cassettes, pirated copies or otherwise. The head of the Ismaili community was a person whose family still had roots in Mumbai. His wife was from Mombasa. Having lost all their business assets and possessions during the 1964-65 Kisangani rebellion, they had moved to Kinshasa and started life anew and prospered through the many vicissitudes of the economic history of Mobutu’s Zaire. To me his career resembled so much that of the protagonist in A Bend in the River that I lent him my copy, as I wanted to know what he thought of the book. He never told me what he thought nor returned my book. He and his wife remained good friends throughout.
Another wealthy Ismaili had started as a humble trader in Rwanda from where he had progressed westwards to Kinshasa in stages. When we first went to his house he showed a line near the swimming pool and said no black man other than domestic help ever crossed that line. He said he did not wish to excite jealousies by showing his black business associates how well he lived. There was among these people a Sindhi Hindu businessman who operated on behalf of a Sindhi business concern in Lagos, a doctor couple, Jains, who had come when the Indian Army operated in Katanga as part of the UN Peace Keeping Force, and had stayed on, and a Sikh doctor who had migrated from Uganda. Outside Kinshasa there were one or two Gujarati Muslim families in Kisangani and Mbandaka and a sprinkling of Gujarati Hindu traders distributed in distant eastern and southeastern towns of Kindu, Goma, Bukavu and Lubumbashi. All these people knew very well how to survive and prosper in the gray world between legality and illegality in the Zaire of those years. I doubted if help from Government of India or the Indian ambassador in any circumstances ever figured in their calculations. We were nonetheless welcome among them.
I was told it was being said among the Kinshasa community of people of Indian origin even before we arrived there that in Bangladesh I was one of those who had organized the assassination of President Zia-ur-Rahman. I was curious to find out who could be behind this attempt to upgrade me from a minor subversive in Dhaka to a big time special operations man. Among these people of ‘Indian’ origin, there were two Bangladeshi families. One of them was originally from Lucknow where some of their kinsfolk lived even then. At partition they had gone to Pakistan. At the emergence of Bangladesh they were at Jessore where the gentleman ran a jute mill. Both husband and wife took Bangladesh nationality but had got for their two sons Indian citizenship and passports, as they were both born in Lucknow. Between parents and children they probably possessed fifty Bengali words. Some time in the mid-1970’s the family had moved to Kinshasa where the gentleman ran another jute mill, part owned by a Belgian, resident in Brussels. They became good friends with whom we often played bridge. In the same jute mill as this gentleman there was another Bangladeshi at a lower level, a Bengali from Komilla. I heard that it this man who had told people that I had organized Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination.
I never asked the man from Komilla or his superior, the Lucknow Bangladeshi, taking this talk as lightly as I had earlier taken the wish of the Bangladesh Government to expel me. But later as I became familiar with the anatomy of intrigues and manipulations within the diplomatic corps in any capital, I wondered whether the Bengali had, in idle gossip, merely retailed some rumour he had picked up in Dhaka or if someone had deliberately used him to spread this story about me. Later, a parallel came to my mind. Two years into our stay in Kinshasa, there was a new Soviet ambassador there. A few West European ambassadors made sure that everyone knew that the man had been expelled from London where he had been minister-counsellor in the Soviet embassy. He had been suspected of espionage. I do not know how many checked up the story about the Soviet ambassador. I for one did not. I simply accepted it as truth.
BEFORE LEAVING FOR KINSHASA, I was not told much by people at the Ministry of External Affairs about what I would be expected to do in Zaire or in any of the other four countries. An under secretary told me of an old debt of a few thousand gold francs to the Indian Postal department owed for the carriage of mail during the time when Indian troops were operating in the country against the secession of Katanga. The Ministry of External Affairs had taken this debt over from the Indian Postal department, and if we got paid, the money was to be used to finance some of the expenses of the Indian Embassy in Kinshasa. Both at the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce they told me of a buyer’s credit extended in the mid 1970’s by one of the new export credit institutions of India to the Zairian Government to finance the purchase of some forty Indian made Leyland buses. That loan had remained unrepaid for a few years as the country sank deeper into external debt. It was denominated in Indian rupees and with the progressive depreciation in the external value of the rupee, it had become a diminishing asset. This credit had been extended to Zaire at a time when India extended similar or cheaper credits to many countries in Africa either with the intention of pushing up exports without regard to the capacity of the concerned country to repay or as political gestures, forgetting that trying to make political capital by giving financial credits is tricky business especially when the credit in question forms a miniscule proportion of the total external receipts of the country. Many of the loans given by India to countries in Africa during the 1970’s and the 1980’s remain unrepaid even at this time.
I was told at the Ministry of Commerce that the African market held promises for the export of Indian manufactured goods. When I pointed out the problems of payment, I was told we should try barter arrangements with the countries of Africa—more a loose general statement than a carefully devised country specific solution to the problem of increasing our exports. The secretary in the same Ministry told me with unusual candour, at a luncheon where I had an unplanned encounter with him, that the main problem with export promotion was that our industry was not competitive. He could well have added, which he did not, that India had no real exportable surpluses of manufactured goods other than textiles, cotton yarn and jute cloth and bags. At the state owned Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation of India (MMTC) they told me of Indian imports of non-ferrous ores, particularly zinc and copper, from Zaire. I learnt later that such imports were organized through agents in London as I also learnt of periodical allegations in the press that some of the operations of Indian state owned trading organizations belonged to the twilight world of funding political parties. I had nothing to do with this part of Indo-Zairian trade.
They told me at the MMTC of their interest in importing rough diamonds from Zaire for the Indian diamond cutting industry. One person even said that the problems that had led to the departure—very temporary as it later turned out—of De Beers from diamond mining operations in Zaire presented us with an opportunity to enter into an arrangement with the Zairian government for importing rough diamonds directly. I decided not to do anything about this suggestion. I had known that much of India’s trade in gems and jewellery took place without much help from government. It took me two or three more years to understand how misleading, foolish and unrealistic the hope of making inter-governmental arrangements for the purchase of rough gemstones from Africa was.
Expressing such a hope meant serious ignorance among those whose business it was to know, of the rough diamond purchases by Indian diamond cutters and polishers from the Central Selling Organization, a De Beers subsidiary, ignorance of the various networks, based on ties of kinship or personal friendship, stretching from London to Antwerp, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Surat and New York which operated the Indian diamond cutting and polishing industry, ignorance of the way Zaire produced and marketed its diamonds and ignorance of the strength and position of De Beers in the field of diamond mining and marketing, the world over. Two years later the Mobutu government gave permission to anyone who paid an initial license fee of sixty thousand and an annual tax of fifty thousand American dollars to open a counter for the purchase of rough diamonds from Zairians from the countryside who turned up in the towns with pocketfuls of these stones. All manner of people, Lebanese and other Levantines, Portuguese, even an Indian Ismaili from outside Zaire, whose counter I visited to see what these stones freshly dug out of alluvial strata looked like, opened counters in Kinshasa. No Indian company, not even the MMTC was interested.
I called on Indira Gandhi in her Parliament House office before leaving for Kinshasa. It was a cold December day which had been difficult for her. There were some problems in Assam. She had met the Governor of Assam just before I was ushered in. As I took my seat, I thought I should wait for the Prime Minister to open the conversation, but all she did during the first few seconds, which to me seemed to be minutes, was to keep looking at me. I had the very uneasy feeling of being scrutinized the same way a biological specimen might be. To end the silence I made some remark which elicited a distracted half sentence of an answer. I said something else at which she asked me how well I knew French. Then she said that in Africa most of our contacts had been with the former British colonies but it would be desirable to widen our relations with French speaking Africa. My observation that in their former colonies the French were spread so thickly on the ground that it was not easy for outsiders to make inroads drew from her a spirited response: ‘Oh the French are all right. It is the British who keep on interfering everywhere.’ When I said that Mobutu had met her twice and I wondered what she thought of him, all she said was: ‘He seems an able person.’ I was probably being foolish to think that she would say anything more. President Sanjeeva Reddy, on the other hand, was dismissive of Mobutu. Commenting on his habit of travelling with an entourage of eighty people or more, he said that he probably travelled with all those who might overthrow him if left behind.
I saw that I had to devise my own agenda of work in what was in effect the heart of Africa— Kisangani in Zaire or a spot not far from it is reputed to be the geographical centre of the continent.There was not much prospect for enhanced trade as long Zaire’s difficulties in paying for its imports continued. More buyers’ credit from India was ruled out as long as the earlier credit remained unliquidated.There being no Pakistani embassy in Kinshasa or any of the other four capitals I had to deal with, and there being no newspapers in the country other than the daily cyclostyled bulletin of the government owned news agency AZAP, there was not going to be the staple of Indian diplomatic activity of countering Pakistani propaganda or stating the Indian case on Jammu and Kashmir to occupy me. In fact my tour of duty in Kinshasa was one where I had to talk the least either about Pakistan or about Jammu and Kashmir.
There was nothing in my brief to suggest I should be promoting the doctrines and ideals of the Non-aligned Movement except when there were instructions about making some specific point. The Yugoslav Ambassador there, an old Delhi hand who became a good friend, was the real apostle of Non-alignment—and yet Non-alignment did not keep him busy, for he and his wife, to ward off boredom, watched movies on VHS cassettes, sometimes four or five in a day. Besides, Mobutu’s Zaire despite being in the African forefront of the American defense of the ‘free world’ was nominally non-aligned, so much so that after the collapse of Iraq’s plans to host the Non-aligned summit of 1982, it was worried about the future of the movement. Some time in 1982, Mobutu’s Foreign Minister of the time summoned me. He said that India, a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement, had provided wise leadership to it. At that juncture when the Movement was facing a crisis India should once again assume its leadership. He was saying in other words that in the face of questions about the suitability of Baghdad as the venue for the next summit of the Movement, India should offer to host it and consequently take over the chairmanship of the Movement for the three years to follow. I could see that behind this initiative of Zaire, which otherwise treated the Movement cavalierly, was the anxiety that the longer there was uncertainty about the venue and the date of the next summit, the longer the chairmanship would remain with Cuba. Whether the Zairian government took this initiative on its own or on the prompting of others, I could not tell. I suspected the latter, because in the Western catalogue of political rogues active in the region at that time Cuba oscillated between the second and the first positions.
At least one Zairian—with possibly some others behind him—thought my mission was to buy uranium. He approached a second secretary in the embassy two or three times to say that he had a few kilogrammes of the metal in his possession, which he wanted to sell. I had it told him that we were not interested and refused to meet him. When he approached us the next time I conveyed to him the same answer but wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs to ask. I was told that our Atomic Energy Commission did not need to import uranium and that it was always able to import the metal through legitimate channels whenever it needed. Quite clearly helping India’s atomic energy programme forward through unofficial imports of the yellow cake was not part of my brief.
I concluded that I would concentrate on two activities: collecting the money the Zairians owed India and show my presence and thereby—to briefly yield to bombast—mark the presence of India as widely as possible in the countries to which I was accredited. For our dues, I decided to pester people. I made it part of my habit to talk about them in every meeting I had with the Foreign Ministers—there were several because of Mobutu’s habit of frequently shuffling his pack of cards—and to the Secretary of State for International Cooperation, Lengema Dulia who held that position during most of my stay in Kinshasa and who had held that position off and on since 1961, and I talked about our suppliers’ credit once to Mobutu too. I collected the postal dues and a letter from the Governor of the Bank of Zaire laying down a schedule of repayment of the suppliers’ credit along with information that the first instalment according to that schedule had been paid. Among my boasts I could add another, that I had literally earned for India more than my keep in Kinshasa.
MOBUTU HAD THE HABIT of giving three or four receptions every year at the grandiose Chinese built and Chinese run People’s Palace at which the Heads of Diplomatic Mission were invited. After the official part such as speeches, formal presentation of people, there would be cocktails and Zairian music. Mobutu would stand in the middle on one side and people invited there could go up to talk to him—this is something he seemed to enjoy. On one such occasion in early 1983, I went up to him and said I hoped he would go to Delhi for the Non-aligned summit adding that at that critical juncture the Movement would benefit from the wisdom of senior, experienced leaders like him. He said he would certainly like to go if Mrs. Gandhi invited him. I said I had an invitation for him from Mrs. Gandhi and had requested for a meeting with him. He told me I would soon hear from his office and gave some instruction to one of his aides. One week or so later I got my meeting at which, after delivering the letter I talked of the grand issues dealt with in meetings of the Non-aligned Movement. At the actual summit, Mobutu’s Prime Minister, Kengo wa Dondo participated. The Zairian television prominently telecast a picture of Kengo calling on Indira Gandhi.
Foreign Minister Mokolo, a former Chief of Security, who, in spite of his previous job with all its sinister associations in a country like Zaire, wore an easy smile and a child like impish glint in his eyes, went to Delhi to participate in the meeting of Foreign Ministers preliminary to the Non-aligned summit. He was back within three days and asked me to meet him. There were no smiles and no glint in the eyes. He was annoyed that he had not been allowed to enter India for want of a valid certificate of inoculation against yellow fever. He said he had actually forgotten his certificate and said as much to our authorities. He also said that he had stopped at Paris for a day on his way to Delhi and had had no difficulty entering France even though he had no inoculation certificate with him there. He was particularly unhappy that his word as Foreign Minister of a friendly country did not mean anything to our government. When I reported this conversation to Delhi, I was told that our rules were inflexible and, more unctuously, that we did not wish to expose our population to the dangers of another infectious disease.
My argument that in Zaire or elsewhere in the Third World including India such certificates without actual inoculation could be had for a small payment and therefore for a Foreign Minister we could have shown some flexibility was thought unserious. In fact later in 1983 on home leave journey to India I discovered in Nairobi that I had left behind in Kinshasa my perfectly legal and valid yellow fever certificate issued by Indian health authorities. To get around this difficulty I got another, backdated certificate—false but with genuine stamps and signatures—in Nairobi with the help of someone in the Indian High Commission there. On another occasion, in 1973 or 1974, a colleague in the Ministry of External Affairs arranged, with the help of an airline, for a false inoculation certificate for a Government of India minister who had to travel abroad on short notice and who neither had a valid certificate nor the time to get himself inoculated the mandatory six days before the actual date of travel. Also, during this Mokolo episode I could not help remembering how, barely five years ago, on instructions from the same Government of India, I had asked the French government not to insist on inoculation certificates in the case of Prime Minister Morarji Desai who was visiting Paris, because he had objections to taking inoculations of any kind.
While on leave in Delhi I talked about the Mokolo episode to the concerned additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. He told me that no exceptions were made to our rules about inoculation certificates but then, in the same conversation he added that some of the entourage of Sékou Touré of Guinea who had come on a state visit to India did not have yellow fever certificates and would not be allowed in. When he heard of this, Sékou Touré said he would not leave his aircraft unless all members of his party were allowed entry. The difficulty was resolved when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a waiver. I wanted to tell this man that he either did not know all about our actual practices or was being hypocritical.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Democratic Republic of Congo—the former French colony of which the capital is Brazzaville—was the only one of the five Heads of State to whom I was accredited, who attended the Delhi summit. He had keenly wanted to have a bilateral meeting with Mrs. Gandhi but I was clearly told there would be no such meetings. The other three countries sent much lower level representatives. None of the five showed much enthusiasm for the Non-aligned Movement or for the issues that engaged its attention. That was one tenth of the membership of the Organization of African Unity, which is the largest single group of members of the Non-aligned Movement.
MOBUTU WAS GREATLY REVILED, even despised, in the media and other circles, particularly in the West. He was criticized for having enriched himself and members of his family at the expense of the state treasury—it used to be said that at that time Zaire’s external debt and Mobutu’s personal wealth were both around US$ 4 billion—, for running a kleptocratic régime which had impoverished what was possibly one of the most resource rich countries in Africa, for gross violations of human rights, and for having allowed such infrastructure by way of roads, power generation, school education and health services as the Belgian government and Belgian missionaries had left behind in the country to waste and crumble. One of his former Prime Ministers, who later, after reconciliation with him, became Prime Minister again, had fled the country just in time to escape arrest in 1980, had been sentenced to death in absentia, had been speaking to members of the Congress in Washington D.C. and to the media with detailed accounts of Mobutu’s misdeeds. In those years criticism of Mobutu in sections of the US Congress was sharp.
Yet Mobutu, for whom the Reagan White House had a great deal of time, quite nonchalantly ignored all the criticism. A Congressional group, members of which were concerned about much that was wrong in Zaire, visited the country almost every year. During one of those visits, a small group of Zairians opposed to and critical of Mobutu, led by Étienne Tshitshikede—a man who had once been part of the Mobutu system but who in Mobutu’s twilight years became an icon of democracy—had a meeting with the members of the US Congress at their hotel, the Intercontinental. Mobutu’s security men pounced upon these Zairians as soon as they came out of the hotel and boxed and kicked them for several minutes almost within sight of the members of the US Congress. It was whispered in the diplomatic community in Kinshasa that Mobutu had asked for and obtained the removal of US Ambassador Robert Oakley who did not exactly overflow with admiration for him. Oakley went to Somalia after a stay of more than three years in Kinshasa so that his move could also plausibly be described as ‘normal’. None of the criticism nor any of the mismanagement came in the way of periodical financial bailouts by the International Monetary Fund or by the debtors’ clubs of London and Paris. Nor was Reagan’s America the only country to mollycoddle Mobutu.
Until 1980, we were told, Zairian television programmes started with a view of Mobutu floating down from the clouds. In 1980 the Pope came on an official visit to Zaire. Mobutu, himself a nominal Roman Catholic, had at will imprisoned or threatened with torture bishops and priests who had criticized him in sermons to their flock. A Zairian archbishop had been living in exile in Rome for many years. Mobutu wanted the Pope to bless his 1980 wedding to Bobi Ladawa, already his companion of a few years. For the Papal visit Mobutu agreed to remove from the television the picture of him descending from the clouds and to drop all charges against the exiled archbishop. He was delighted with the visit of the pontiff, as he could interpret it to the largely Roman Catholic population of his country as a mark of Papal blessing to him and his régime. Clearly, for the Vatican, the pursuit of its state policy of ensuring that the Church flourished or at least survived in Zaire was more important than the moral well being of Mobutu and the Zairian ruling group. It did not matter that Mobutu made sure that in his régime the hierarchy of the Catholic Church remained complaisant.
Ever since the election of François Mitterand as the French President, French socialists had been expressing their moral disapproval of Mobutu. There had been talk in France of shifting the venue of the France Africa summit of 1983 away from Kinshasa. It was said that Mrs. Danielle Mitterand’s aversion to Mobutu was especially strong. In time all the French moral disapproval of Mobutu gave way to raisons d’état. The summit of 1983 was organized on time in Kinshasa, with full participation from every country which was invited to these gatherings. François Mitterand and Mobutu expectedly were the star performers. Zaire was described as the largest Francophone country outside of France. No one wanted to spoil the party by talking of democracy, human rights and responsible government.
Others who came on state visits to Zaire during my time there, were President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Crown Prince Akihito (now Emperor) of Japan and his wife, Prime Minister Zhao Zhiyang of China, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophie of Spain, Presidents Eanes of Portugal, Arap Moi of Kenya, Obiang Guema of Equatorial Guinea, Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Samora Machel of Mozambique after the March 1984 N’komati accords and the passage of his country under the tutelage of the World Bank and the IMF and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. The Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were more frequent visitors. Some of these visits were of symbolic importance and others for transacting serious business. In some cases the business could be personal as for example a visit to Portugal during which the most important business transacted was the purchase by Mobutu of a country home and its adjoining park. Mobutu, in addition, was able to make short, business like trips to Washington D.C., Paris, Brussels and Beijing often enough. Negative image notwithstanding, he managed to be quite engaged internationally.
Many people who did business in Zaire did so by and large undisturbed, happy with the relative calm and order in the country, unconcerned with questions about the goodness or the evil genius of the Mobutu régime. One of them, a German gentleman, headed the Unilever Plantations in Zaire known by the acronym PLZ—these palm oil plantations were among the oldest operations of Lever Brothers in Africa, going back to 1911 and with an annual production of around 450,000 tonnes of palm oil were the second largest enterprise in the country after the state-owned mining company, Gécamines. He and his wife were good friends—she a Roman Catholic from Bavaria and he, a rarer kind, a Roman Catholic from the very Protestant Saxony. At their house one evening I met Larry Devlin. His name figured in many writings about Zaire as having supposedly been in 1960 and the years that followed, the CIA operative in Kinshasa who had not only adopted Mobutu but had ‘overseen’ his development and advised him during his rise to power. I was aware of Devlin’s reputation when I met him and was curious. He used to live at that time in France but was a frequent visitor to Gabon where he had business interests and occasionally came over to Zaire. He told me he had a longish private meeting with Mobutu whenever he came to Zaire. Then, without any provocation he went into a long eulogy of Mobutu, his abilities, his mental faculty, almost as if Mobutu was the best thing that could ever have happened to Zaire. Devlin was urbane, soft-spoken and talked persuasively. For fear of starting an unpleasant discussion at a quiet evening I could not screw up enough courage to ask him if he really believed in all that he said about Mobutu.
A latter day Mobutu admirer was the filmmaker wife of a West European Ambassador. She was converted to the Mobutu cult after his official visit to their country where the main business transacted was the purchase by Mobutu of expensive real state. She and her husband had accompanied Mobutu on that visit. Ever since their return to Kinshasa she simply gushed about Mobutu. A Rumanian Ambassador who, because he was quite a compulsive liar, I did not much care for, often at the gathering of other diplomats went into high praise of Mobutu as if what he said would be carried to him and help him in his diplomatic enterprise.
I had a total of four tête à têtes with Mobutu, including the one after the presentation of my credentials and the one for taking leave. There was not enough content in India’s relations with Zaire to warrant more than the other two meetings I had. Mobutu, articulate as he was, with his attentive eyes and expressive face, came across as a very impressive presence. He exuded self confidence—only Omar Bongo of Gabon among the other four Heads of State I was accredited to, had that quality—and carried with him an aura of being fully at ease with himself. Whether these qualities were native or had come from the long exercise of unfettered power, there was no telling.
When I had finished with the formal part of my valedictory meeting, he looked at his watch and turned to me to ask if I had time. I said that I certainly had more time than him. He, his foreign minister and I went to a balcony adjoining his office, overlooking the Congo at the starting point of the cataracts extending westwards over a hundred-kilometre length of the Congo. On our right, as we faced the river from the balcony, was Pool Malebo or Stanley Pool, a vast body of Congo waters whose deceptively placid surface hid powerful undercurrents, a symbolic representation perhaps of the country ruled by the man I was talking to. A bottle of champagne was opened and we chatted as long as the champagne lasted. We talked of the beauty, the power and the potential of the river. We talked of the places I had visited in Zaire.
At one point Mobutu mentioned the Sultan of Brunei and his wealth. I said—I think in retrospect, quite irrelevantly—that no matter how wealthy a tiny place like Brunei was, it existed on a plane totally different from that of large and diverse countries like his or mine. Mobutu then said that he had heard of an Indian holy man with special spiritual powers whom the Sultan of Brunei consulted and asked me if I knew anything about him. I told him truthfully that I did not. Concern for social form prevented me from adding that I neither believed in nor had much time for such people.
I had not yet heard of Nemichand Jain otherwise known as Chandra Swami or of his exploits. It was still some years before I read a book called ‘From Zero to Hero’ brought out for private circulation by Tiny Rowland of Lonrho—Adnan Khashoggi, Mohammad El Fayed, Chandra Swami and his secretary Kailashnath Agarwal feature prominently in it—which someone gave me in New York, or before I heard that two prominent Indian politicians both of whom later became Prime Ministers of India were Nemichand Jain’s acolytes. If I had heard of Chandra Swami or read the book, I would have established a connection in my mind with Adnan Khasoggi who some months earlier had made a highly publicized visit to Zaire as Mobutu’s guest—he had been presented as the potential source of hundreds of millions of dollars of badly needed investments in the country. I would then also have seen the meaning of Mobutu’s interest in distant Brunei. I have wondered since then whether Mobutu ever became Nemi Chand Jain’s disciple or whether Jain’s high ranking Indian and foreign disciples formed some kind of fraternity of likeminded people with similar beliefs and values—after all in India followers of the same guru look upon each other as brothers or sisters in faith.
A Belgian Ambassador to Zaire explained to me his country’s policy—or the policy which his country officially would have wished to pursue—towards Mobutu’s Zaire but concluded what he had to say with the wistful remark that it was easier for an industrialist to see the Prime Minister (of his country) than for an ambassador accredited abroad. There were no doubt considerable business interests behind the benign attitude of a number of countries towards Mobutu. In these calculations the real interests of Zaire or Zairians did not figure.
A notable example of foreign business activities was that of the Inga-Shaba transmission line. At Inga in Western Zaire, a few kilometres upstream of Matadi on the Congo River, a dam and a hydroelectric power station with the installed generation capacity of something like 6,000 megawatt had been constructed. Nearly all the electricity produced at Inga was transmitted at 1,000 kilovolt DC to Shaba some 2000 kilometres away. It did not matter that Shaba and its mines had already all the electricity they needed and some to spare. It was equally immaterial that this electricity could not be used at any intermediate point between Inga and Shaba without the installation of expensive equipment for converting high tension DC current to lower tension AC current—power from Inga was useless for the large swathe of power starved territory traversed by the transmission line. For the Inga-Shaba power transmission line and its ancillary equipment Zaire owed to the American Exim Bank some 2 billion American dollars, or roughly half of Zaire’s total external debt at that time. Mobutu was also perceived with justification as ensuring the unity and stability of this country in the heart of Africa bordering on nine of its neighbours. Stability in Zaire and its natural resources were so important for the West that any price in the form of the pauperization of the Zairian population by Mobutu and his men seemed justified. The turmoil that started in Zaire as Mobutu’s health and his hold on the country weakened continues even now some six years after his departure.
MOBUTU’S METHODS OF POLITICAL CONTROL which included the use of the security and intelligence apparatus to silence opposition and of large public rallies to mobilize his supporters were no different from those of twentieth century autocrats anywhere irrespective of their philosophical persuasion. In typical twentieth century debasement of language by politicians in which a number of words had been eviscerated of their original meaning, he called his political party the Popular Movement for the Revolution, his state the Party-State or a Republic and himself the Founder President who was by turns the Guide, the Father and the Helmsman. The daily television programme started with footage from a meeting of the Central Committee of his party in which in a speech he had asked his audience: ‘How many fathers?’ They had answered in unison: ‘One’. ‘How many mothers?’. ‘One’, the members of the Central Committee had answered. He had gone on to say that in Zaire there was one people and one leader. The Yugoslav Ambassador remarked once to me on the similarity between this slogan of Mobutu and that of Hitler: one country, one people, one leader. On another occasion, a Portuguese Ambassador who had earlier been Ambassador to Rumania pointed out at the similarity in the structures of the Popular Movement for the Revolution and of Communist parties in different countries, so much so that if a Marxist replaced Mobutu, Zaire would become a Marxist state without having to change anything in the structure of Mobutu’s party and state. I wondered if that explained the close party-to-party relations between the Popular Movement of the Revolution and the Communist Parties of China, Rumania and North Korea.
Political rallies organized by the Popular Movement for the Revolution were commonplaces of Zairian political life. Whenever such rallies were organized individual commercial enterprises were allocated the number of their workers they would be required to send at their own expense. They would give to each participant from their enterprise, at their expense, a Mobutu tee shirt, money for lunch and a bottle of beer and free transport. Demagogy would be at a premium at these rallies. After one of them Mobutu himself said that he wanted the world to see not only the extent of the mass base of the Popular Movement but also its capacity for mobilization. At another, probably to impress his opponents, he boasted of the strategic location of Zaire under the air corridor between Asunçion island and the Nile Delta.
Mobutu’s style of conveying a political message could be quite unsubtle. In 1982, Zaire established normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Some of the Arab states criticized this; Algeria downgraded its diplomatic representation. Not only was there vociferous denunciation of the Arab reaction but also, after the parade at the first opportunity—I cannot recall whether it was Independence Day on 30 th June or the parade organized to celebrate Mobutu’s promotion to the rank of Field Marshal—his Party put up a pantomime showing Arab slave traders whipping, tying up and transporting Zairian slaves. Mobutu used other occasions to orate against the Arab states to the plebiscitary acclaim of hired, guided and controlled audiences. The Arab Ambassadors in Kinshasa did what diplomats typically do in such circumstances—they went and registered their protests with the Foreign Ministry.
It was easy to condemn Mobutu. I was nagged by questions each time I tried to do so. Mobutu’s Zaire was not the only country in post-independence Africa to have allowed its infrastructure to waste, become overburdened with debt, suffered spoliation at the hands of its rulers and sunken into poverty or tortured and harassed its citizens. To a smaller or greater extent Zambia, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Nigeria had all trodden the same path. Yet, Mobutu’s Zaire got much worse press than any of these other countries with the exception of Idi Amin’s Uganda.
Nor did Mobutu’s political rallies, farcical though they were, seem to be morally worse than similar rallies organized for similar purposes in democracies of repute. Sanjay Gandhi used to organize similar rallies, using similar methods, not only during the nineteen months of Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule in India, but also during the time between 1977 and 1979, when she was out of power. I had a domestic help once who had been a member of the youth wing of Indira Gandhi’s Indian National Congress. From him I learnt of the free transport arrangements and a payment of twenty rupees for each participant in a political meeting or demonstration. Other political parties in India, some claiming to have greater attachment to democracy and its values than the Indian National Congress, have used similar methods for commandeering crowds. Also, thinking over these matters, I found it difficult not to recall my feelings after the rally Jacques Chirac had organized in Paris in December 1976 at which his political party, the Rassemblement Pour la République was founded. In course of time I taught myself to suspend facile moral judgment of Mobutu and his men, because, then his friends, allies and supporters the world over would also have to be judged.
This attitude was different from that of many in Government of India who viewed Africa in the same Manichean terms in which people in government circles in India had viewed the Arab world at an earlier time. For them there were the leaders of the ‘Front line’ states of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Angola, ‘heroes’ of the anti-colonial, ‘revolutionary’, or anti-apartheid struggle who were ‘good’ and then there were ‘collaborators’ like Kamuzu Banda or Mobutu and a host of others who were contemptible if not outright ‘evil’. There were no doubt some others in sub-Saharan Africa such as the Central African Republic or Equatorial Guinea whose existence the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi was barely aware of and yet others in whose case even Government of India had to suspend judgment and deal with them because of perceived interests. The contempt for Mobutu in many circles in Delhi was such that some of it showed in their attitude towards me as if I was Mobutu’s ambassador and therefore part of his dispensation.
I HAD TO THINK OF THE OTHER TASK I had assigned myself, which was to mark my presence as widely as possible. I had to present my credentials in the other four capitals too, for which I needed appointments with Heads of State. This was not as easy as it might appear. None of my predecessors had presented his letters in all the capitals and in one or two places one or two of them presented letters almost on the eve of their departure. I discovered that they had simply sent formal diplomatic notes by mail and waited, at times mailing follow up diplomatic notes. They had reckoned neither with the unpredictability of the postal system nor with the inefficiency of Third World bureaucracies. I decided to send a colleague along with appropriate diplomatic notes to Brazzaville across the river, Libreville in Gabon and Bangui in the Central African Republic. I got my appointments in Bangui and Libreville easily enough. No less than two or three trips to Brazzaville needed to be made before I got my appointment there.
Brazzaville seemed to have a reputation. The Canadian Ambassador in Kinshasa who, like me, was also accredited there, a French Canadian, told me his tale about a failed meeting of his with the Minister of Agriculture in Brazzaville. He needed to meet the Minister to discuss some issues relating to a Canadian aided project. He had an appointment with the Minister one morning at around nine. He crossed over to Brazzaville the preceding afternoon and spent the night there and informed the Minister’s office of the hotel he would be staying in. The next morning he received word that his meeting would have to be rescheduled because the Minister was ‘en mission’—an expression widely used by French or French speaking bureaucracies meaning anything from ‘the Minister is travelling on some mission’ to ‘the Minister is busy on some special assignment’ to plainly ‘the Minister has had a late night and is feeling too lazy to meet you at present’. The Ambassador nonetheless presented himself at the Minister’s office at the appointed hour. The person sitting at the secretary’s desk asked him to wait saying the Minister had not yet come to office. He waited for an hour after which he reminded the new person who now occupied the secretary’s chair. She looked at her papers and said he could not meet the Minister because the Minister was that moment in a meeting with someone with a prior appointment. Out of curiosity the Ambassador asked the secretary who the Minister was meeting and was told he was meeting the Canadian Ambassador.
I myself must have made three or four futile visits to Brazzaville because the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Minister of Cooperation who doubled up as the Head of the President’s Office were simply not available at the appointed hour, not available the whole day on the appointed day. In any event I managed to present my credentials in Brazzaville, Bangui and Libreville within the first six months of my arrival in Kinshasa. The capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo was next door to Lagos and far removed from Kinshasa. Why it was the Indian Ambassador in Kinshasa who was accredited to Equatorial Guinea and not the Indian High Commissioner in Lagos was an enigma I decided not to try to penetrate. Because of the distance, I thought I would send my colleague on to Malabo the next time we were in Libreville. But before that, during Equatorial Guinea President Obiang Guema’s state visit to Zaire in November 1982 there was the usual presentation of the diplomatic corps and cocktails. At cocktail time I re-introduced myself to Obiang and asked him for a date when I could present my credentials to him. He consulted an aide who doubled up as an interpreter and asked me to come in the second week of December that year. Thus within the year of my arrival in Kinshasa I was the duly accredited Ambassador of India to all the five countries. This gave me time to travel many times not only to all the capitals but also a little to other places in each country.
EQUATORIAL GUINEA was the poorest of the five. Its economy, dependent on cocoa and timber was completely dysfunctional. The cocoa plantations just outside the capital looked clearly untended. If the centre of Malabo was in a state of disrepair, the surrounding shantytowns, dark without electricity after sunset, looked hopeless. A large number of the inhabitants of the shantytowns were migrant workers from Nigeria who had come in to work on the cocoa plantations when income from cocoa bean exports was high. They had stayed on.
During my first visit to present my credentials I was taken to a town called Luba, also on the island of Santa Isabella on which the capital was located. The visit included a meeting with the Governor of Luba—a bushy eye browed man, definitely of mixed European-African descent, who wore a lugubrious expression—who lived and worked in a large run down mansion, obviously built by the Spanish, on the slopes of a hill, at a height, overlooking the gravelly beach. I do not remember that the he and I said much to each other but he insisted that we took coffee. With the coffee he offered canned tuna and dried up pieces of baguette. The visit to Luba ended with a lunch hosted by the Governor at the only ‘restaurant’ there. That place was owned and run by a German man in late middle age and his younger Malagache wife or companion. They had poverty, care and sorrow written on their unsmiling faces as they cooked, supervised and helped with the service. As I ate my oily, soggy, pan-fried sole garnished with equally oily vegetables washed down with a vinaigrish rosé wine served in a carafe, I could not help wondering what adventures, accidents or tragedies must have filled the journeys that had brought that couple to Luba. Or perhaps my mind wandered because after all the Governor and I had nothing to say to each other and there was not much point in that visit to Luba other than filling the two or three days I was forced to spend in Malabo before catching the next flight out to Douala from where there were connections to other places.
The rest of the time in Malabo was filled with meeting the US and the French Ambassadors and in the company of a Sindhi businessman, whose main family business was in Barcelona. I had tried and failed to get an appointment for a call on the Spanish Ambassador, the representative of the former colonial power. On another visit to Malabo my waiting time was filled with a trip to the still pretty townlet of Moca, in the mountains, at a height of 1500 metres or a little more above the sea, a kind of height, which near the Equator produces paradisiacal climate. I had in addition meetings with the Foreign Minister and the French Ambassador.
After independence from the colonial rule of Spain, Equatorial Guinea had a short-lived dalliance with the Soviet Union. In a bloody coup d’état Obiang Guema replaced his uncle. That was the end of close co-operation with the Soviet Union, the main vestiges of which during the years I knew the country were three Illyushin aircraft, one of which had been cannibalized in order to keep the other two flying. These two machines ensured air services between Malabo and Douala and Malabo and Bata, the principal town of Equatorial Guinea territory on the African mainland. True to a pattern familiar elsewhere, Spain the former colonial power not only looked upon its relationship with Equatorial Guinea as special but also acted as if it had a paternalistic responsibility for future economic development of the country. The Spanish Ambassador considered himself the most important there. There was a Spanish military mission in aid of which a small military transport aircraft regularly ferried people and supplies between Malabo and Bata. To a limited extent this service supplemented the services of the two Illyushin for transporting members of the public.
Spain in the first half of the 1980’s was still one of the poorer members of the European Community. It did not have the means to be very generous with its economic assistance. Equatorial Guinea badly needed monetary reform which would need to be heavily underwritten. The French offered it membership of the CFA Franc. The French Ambassador in Malabo told me that his main mission was to work out the arrangements for the introduction of the CFA Franc in the country, as the introduction of the CFA Franc would mean a measure of integration of the country’s economy with the economies of other, more prosperous CFA countries in the immediate neighbourhood such as Cameroon and Gabon. When the CFA Franc was finally introduced, the French Ambassador was very happy. For the French that was a ‘victory’. He told me he had the satisfaction of having fulfilled his mission, adding that his Spanish colleague was unhappy, and then, more sententiously, that as Ambassadors accredited to that country we all had the good of the country at heart and the introduction of the CFA Franc was only for the benefit of its people.
When I presented my credentials to Obiang Guema, he told me that on my next visit I must go to the mainland territory of Bata. He also said that if I let him know in advance he would ask people to make arrangements. I took him on his word and on my next visit to Malabo said I wished to go to the mainland territory. It was arranged that my wife, Stivane, a Second Secretary from my embassy and myself, accompanied by a protocol man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would travel to Bata by a scheduled flight of one of the Illyushins and return the next day to Malabo by the Spanish military transport aircraft. On this trip to the mainland territory we were guests of the Equatorial Guinea Government. At Bata there was a government car with outriders for us. We visited a palace built by the previous President—a grandiose structure in a state of disrepair—described then as people’s palace, and a factory making plywood. Obiang Guema had told me his country was in need of investment capital. He had countered my response that India had very little capital for investment outside by saying that the Indian business community, which was so active and successful elsewhere in Africa, might look at opportunities in Equatorial Guinea. If only he knew how limited Government of India’s, let alone my own, capacity to influence investment or other business decisions of the expatriate Indian community was! Though nothing was said, I felt the visit to the plywood factory had been arranged in the context of that conversation.
In the evening we were brought to the Government guesthouse, a reasonably good place to spend the night in. The protocol man saying he wanted to visit some relations went away. We had assumed there would be food for us at the guesthouse but found there was none. The cook at the guesthouse told us that the protocol man should have paid him money for buying supplies. We took the government car on a hunt for some eating-place in town. Either because we knew no Spanish or because there were no eating-places where foreigners could go, we understood people we asked to mean that none of the eating-places in town was open. We came back rather famished to the guesthouse where the cook was cajoled into slapping up omelettes. We went to sleep wondering whether we would have coffee the next morning. But the next morning was different. Stivane was liberal with his expression of our annoyance to the protocol man who came early in the morning. Coffee came without difficulty and we were told we should leave for the airport at about ten. A little later we were told that the Governor and the Military Governor of Bata would come to the guesthouse at nine and we would have breakfast with them before our departure.
Breakfast, which started some twenty minutes after nine, was an elaborate spread. The Military Governor’s loquaciousness equalled the taciturnity of the Provincial Governor. Conversation consisted of semi-formal pronouncements about the excellence of relations between our two countries, about the importance of the Non-aligned Movement and about the leading position of India in the Third World. At some stage bottles of champagne of a kind were opened and inevitably toasts were proposed and responded to. After a while I asked the Provincial Governor if it was not already time for us to leave for the airport. The Military Governor said he would come with us and we would leave when his people advised him. As our glasses were refilled, the Military Governor was in continuous contact with his men at the airport. At one point, some time after 11 he became very agitated, shouted what sounded like angry instructions into the telephone and we all left in a rush. At the airport, five or six minutes later, we were asked to wait in the small VIP lounge. Then we saw the Spanish aircraft taxiing up the runway and stop. Its hatch was opened and three Guineans left the aircraft. The local officials who had come to see us off took leave and asked us to board the plane which then moved immediately for take off.
We discovered later that, unknown to us, the Military Governor had sent instructions that the Spanish plane, after it was all ready, should wait a while for our arrival. When he was told the third time to wait a little longer the Spanish pilot, angry by then, closed the hatch and started taxiing down for take off. When told of this, an angry Military Governor ordered a jeep to be driven up and placed in front of the Spanish plane at the start of the take off run. When we arrived at the airport, the Military Governor ordered the aircraft back to the terminal building for us to embark.
At Malabo, the Spanish Ambassador sent word asking me to go and meet him in his office, which I found unusual as no Ambassador summons another accredited to the same country. Either the Spaniard did not know or thought his special position gave him special powers. I asked Stivane to go and meet him instead, say I was busy at that time but I would be happy to have him for tea at my hotel at a time I suggested and ask him if he could tell Stivane what he wanted to say to me. Stivane came back to say that the Spanish Ambassador to whom the pilot of the Spanish aircraft had complained wanted to protest to me about the incident at Bata airport. I sent Stivane back with my response, which was to say that we had nothing to do with the incident at Bata except that we travelled by the Spanish aircraft according to an arrangement made by the government of the country. Any protest that the Spanish wished to make should be addressed to the Government of Equatorial Guinea. This time Stivane was able to meet not the ambassador but his first secretary. I had no encounter with the Spanish ambassador, as, after that visit, I was able to go to Equatorial Guinea only two more times, the second time for taking leave of the President. On the return journey from one of these visits we missed the connection at Douala because of delayed departure of our flight from Malabo and were not only stranded there for very inconvenient thirty-six hours but also had to buy tickets for our return journey for which purpose we had barely enough cash with us. Credit cards were unknown.
GABON , WITH ITS PETROLEUM, uranium, manganese, iron ore and timber had, at that time, the second highest per capita income in Africa. At around the time the country joined the OPEC, its President, Omar Bongo had converted from Roman Catholic Christianity to Islam, seemingly his tribute to the power of the Arabs within the OPEC. The country’s prosperity showed not only in the infrastructure of the capital, Libreville, but also in its reputation for the highest per capita consumption of champagne in the world.
A much publicized and criticized infrastructure project from which the World Bank had withdrawn its support, billed as a model of Franco-Gabonese economic co-operation, was the construction of the Trans-Gabonese Railway, a railway network linking Franceville, near Omar Bongo’s ancestral village in the interior of the country and the iron ore bearing regions in the Northeast through the Manganese ore rich regions of Moanda, to the Atlantic coast. The French company building the railway had been engaged in the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan. When they had been given the contract for the Trans-Gabonese Railway, they had brought over from Pakistan the main work force.
Going to visit the completed section of the railway we must have crossed and recrossed the Equator three or four times on the short road journey through thick forest from Libreville to the nearest railhead town—for us the largest number of such crossings on a single day. At the end of a short train journey, after a brief visit to the site and its facilities, we ended up in the dwelling—these were neat, comfortable but temporary pre-fabricated structures which could not properly be called houses—of the Pakistani foreman. He was not only happy to welcome us at his place but insisted on cooking lunch. He talked of the amenities and the money paid by his employers and of the living conditions, which he was clearly quite happy with. He had obviously no complaints about his situation in the middle of African equatorial forest, so different from the mud plains of Pakistan, which would have been his home. His fellow workers from Pakistan were all contented and happy. They were visibly happy to see us too. None of them seemed interested in anything other than the work they were doing and their hopes of better life.
At Libreville I met another group of Pakistanis, a different sort. Whenever we went to Libreville, we asked the manager of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, better known by its acronym BCCI, an Indian and the son of a former colleague in the Ministry of External Affairs in India, for help in confirming hotel reservations or renting a car or on other similar matters. On practically every visit we spent an evening at the manager’s house. At one such evening we met four or five young Pakistanis, all of them sons of people who had migrated to Pakistan in 1947 from different places in the Gangetic plains of India, who worked at the BCCI at Libreville. They said they would be honoured if we spent one evening with them.
We thus had dinner at the house of one of them where the rest had gathered. They said that that was the first time they were meeting an Indian Ambassador or any Indian of similar status and that they were very happy. One of them said they faced great problems in their dealings on consular matters with their High Commission in Nairobi, under whose consular jurisdiction Libreville was. Another asked me if there was anything I could do to help. I said it would not be proper for me to interfere in this kind of thing, but if they gave me letters or applications meant for their High Commission in Nairobi, I would be able to find people in Kinshasa, some of whom were frequent travellers to Nairobi, to deliver such papers at the Pakistani High Commission in Nairobi. Then, as often happens when Indians and Pakistanis meet outside India, the conversation turned to the similarities between our people and to the numerous cultural bonds that united us. All these young people talked of the desirability of closer, friendlier relations between India and Pakistan. Some of them were critical of their government. I asked them what stopped us from developing such relations. They said many in Pakistan could not trust India. I asked them what, other than giving solemn public assurances that India respected Pakistan’s sovereignty and independence, India could do to win Pakistan’s trust. They all said, almost in unison, that India should give up Kashmir.
I have remembered this conversation because it brought home to me the force of the assertion of Pakistani rulers that for Pakistan Kashmir was the core issue between Pakistan and India. In India most of us dismiss Pakistani assertions about the centrality of the Kashmir dispute saying that the dispute is really a symptom of Pakistani hostility towards India—real or deliberately made up—and if the Kashmir dispute were to be settled, Pakistan would invent some other with India. I doubt if there are many in India, among them certainly not Indian ‘experts’ on Pakistan, who even in private company would admit that the Pakistani rulers’ belief that without a resolution of the Kashmir dispute there can be no progress in Indo-Pakistan relations is real. If people in India accepted this perception as real there would not be such outbursts of euphoria in India each time there were beginnings of an Indo-Pakistan dialogue and such disappointment and recrimination each time the process floundered over the issue of Kashmir. Bubbles that were afloat in the air at Lahore in 1999 and at Agra in 2001 were condemned to burst.
MANY AFRICAN LEADERS had their Xanadus in their ancestral villages where, like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, they built ‘stately pleasure domes’. Houphouet-Boigny built a new capital at Yamoussoukro. I had only heard about it. Mobutu built a small town in his ancestral village, Gbadolite, complete with a marble palace and gardens, decent roads which abruptly ended where the town ended and an airport with a 3000 metre long runway. When I visited Gbadolite, I saw, parked at the airport two military transport aircraft, which I was told, were C-130’s. I was also told that these aircraft were occasionally used for transporting some of Mobutu’s 30,000 or so heads of cattle from or to his ranch further south from Gbadolite. I had heard of Omar Bongo’s Xanadu at Franceville. During one visit to Gabon we went there, where other than the inevitable presidential palace and a hotel there was also a university campus.
More interestingly, there was a microbiological research centre there. I was told that the specific vocation of this centre was to look into the causes of secondary infertility among women. They said that Mrs. Bongo who suffered from this condition was particularly interested in the work of this centre. Nobody answered my question whether that condition was endemic in Gabon. Working at the centre were a dozen or so scientists, all of them either American or Australian. There were no Frenchmen or Frenchwomen at this centre in a country in which the French ran so many places. In addition to the American and Australian scientists and their Gabonese helpers there were around thirty gorillas and an equal number of chimpanzees in cages. Our Australian scientist guide told us that the aggressive looking, vegetarian gorilla who liked being tickled—he actually demonstrated it—was a docile animal while the more human looking, omnivorous chimpanzee could be bloody and murderous—it is only much later that I read a book by Jane Goodall in which she describes violent battles between groups of chimpanzees. The apes were subjects of experiments—we saw an adult chimpanzee spread eagled, under anesthesia, on a table. The Australian told us that at the centre there were two electron microscopes one of which was of such an advanced technological level that it was the second of its kind in the world then. No matter how I looked at it, I could not believe that at a research centre, so far removed into a remote corner of equatorial Africa, with a laboratory of that sophistication and obviously expensive, a handful of Americans and Australians could be engaged in a marginal activity like researching into the causes of a barely known feminine condition. No interest of my country would be served if I found out more about the real purpose of that centre. Besides I had no means. I asked no questions.
Gabon was a single city country. There were not many places to go to outside Libreville. I visited all the places one could easily go to, except one. Long before I could even think I would some day visit Gabon, I had heard of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Lambaréné. Visiting Lambaréné was very much part of my plans. Initially I kept postponing Lambaréné because of logistical difficulties. Then I found that hardly anyone among the diplomatic community in Libreville had gone there. There was also the counter view about Schweitzer’s work, namely that he had used Africans as human guinea pigs for his experiments, that I became aware of. Finally, in an attack of anti-heroism I gave up altogether the idea of visiting the place. I might have been wrong.
I met Omar Bongo twice, once when I presented my credentials in 1982 and a second time when I took leave of him in 1985. He had a strange, playful air about him, which, if I met it in an individual other than a head of state, I would have described as grotesque. His stirring his glass of champagne till nearly all the fizz was gone, before drinking it heightened the strangeness of his mannerism. My conversation with him after the presentation of credentials was full of empty bombast as happens on most such occasions. When I settled down to a conversation with him during my farewell call, he asked me, after he had fully stirred his champagne, if I had seen Attenborough’s film Gandhi and what I thought of it. I told him I had seen the film two or three times and thought it was broadly truthful. He then said he had seen it twenty-six times and liked it better each time he saw it. He had known about Gandhi and had great regard for him but that film had brought about for him a real understanding of the man. Then the conversation turned to France. He said that the Western powers encouraged alternative leaderships of many countries in Africa to live and flourish on their territories. He went on to talk about France allowing his political opponents all the freedom and many facilities on its territory. I said that France said it took pride in being a safe haven for political refugees. He said that the main idea was to keep rulers in Africa in a state of insecurity. He then said he had spoken to Pierre Mauroy, then the Prime Minister of France about the activities of his political opponents on French soil. I asked him if that had made a difference. He said it had not. Bongo continues in power.
IT WAS DIFFICULT to say which between Gabon and the Central African Republic had closer relations with France. Gabon with its mineral resources was more important. French presence in the Central African Republic was nonetheless strong—to symbolize that presence, as it were, the French Ambassador to the Central African Republic was the permanent dean of the diplomatic corps in Bangui, the capital. This was done under a bilateral agreement between the two countries, the French Ambassador told me. This was an exceptional arrangement as in most other capitals the longest serving ambassador, and by convention in capitals of Roman Catholic countries, the Apostolic Nuncio—literally the Apostolic messenger—is the dean.
If the dean of the diplomatic corps has greater duties than making formal speeches on behalf of all the diplomats in a capital on ceremonial occasions like for example wishing the Head of State health and happiness on New Year’s Day, and organizing farewell functions for departing Ambassadors, I have not understood what they are. I do not know if he has special privileges beyond standing or sitting in greater proximity to the Head of State and his spouse than other Ambassadors on ceremonial, formal occasions. Because he is considered the spokesman of the diplomatic corps he occasionally calls meetings of Heads of Mission to discuss any general problems faced by the corps. A discussion of the difficulties of the corps tends to produce a more or less identical list of grievances in practically all capitals, the more prominent among them could be about delays in completing paperwork for duty free imports by diplomats or long waits by Heads of Mission before the arrival of the Head of State or the Head of Government whenever they preside over a function—the more elaborate the security arrangement or the more inefficient the bureaucracy the longer the wait. Deans of the diplomatic corps tend to be quite ineffectual in the removal of such grievances. Or perhaps the fruits of the office of dean are sour grapes for me as Indian Ambassadors rarely stay long enough in a capital to become deans and I never got within even two arms’ length of becoming one.
In another capital of a country which was trying to cultivate close relations with the West, the Ambassador of a European country who had become the dean, repeatedly told anyone who was willing to listen how important it was for him to continue in his post, because when he left, the deanship would pass to the Ambassador of Republican Iran—he implied that as his country was a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalism of which Republican Iran was the ‘epicentre’ it was his duty to act as a bulwark against a ‘takeover’ of the diplomatic corps by the Ambassador of that ‘fundamentalist’ republic. Likewise, there must be enough in the deanship of the diplomatic corps for the French Government to have worked out that special dispensation in Bangui. I never found out.
Bangui, located on the Ubangi River, a tributary of the Congo, was a dismal place, just as the Central African Republic, poor, backward and undeveloped was depressing. There was a hotel owned by a Greek gentleman, overlooking the river where I stayed during my visits. A smaller, Novotel hotel was in the centre of the town. Another larger hotel had been built but not commissioned during the days of Emperor Bokassa. It stood there unoccupied. Towards the end of my stay in Kinshasa it was taken over by the Sofitel chain. There were no eating-places in town other than those at the two hotels serving ersatz French food of indifferent quality and a small cafeteria owned by a Portuguese man and his mulatto wife. There were two rather run down Indian shops owned by Sindhis who had drifted down the west coast of Africa in search of opportunities.
A small detachment of French troops guarded the airport. A larger contingent of French expeditionary force was located in Bangui for use in operations in defence of French interests there or elsewhere in Africa. Prominently situated in the city was the ‘diamond factory’ of Bangui—for me a permanent reminder of the story about Bokassa’s diamonds, a story that started appearing in the French press in 1979 or thereabouts alleging that the French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had accepted a gift of expensive diamonds from Bokassa in return for political favours. Though Giscard had denied the allegations, they had seriously damaged his prospects for a second term in the French Presidential election of 1981. The ‘diamond factory’ was a cutting and polishing centre for the small volume of high quality diamonds produced in the country. There were not many other natural resources the country had except timber.
There was not much to do in Bangui for a visitor like me after I had finished with my official business with government, very little most of the time, whenever I visited there. Airlines schedules forced a stay of at least three days in the country on each such visit. During one of my visits I asked to be taken to a village with an active settlement programme for pygmies— traditional pygmies being food gatherers did not live in settled village communities. There was not much there. On our drive back to Bangui our guide showed us the high walls of a compound within which there was one of the palaces built by Bokassa. In fact, though by the time I presented my credentials in 1982 to General André Kolingba, the Central African Head of State, it was already more than two years since the overthrow of Bokassa, he still loomed large over the country from his exile. I cannot remember any conversation in Bangui during my four or five visits there between 1982 and 1985 in which Bokassa and his cruelty did not figure. Some business people talked nostalgically of his time in power when apparently business had flourished. For the French who had supported those who overthrew Bokassa in 1979 and whose relations with André Kolingba were quite comfortable—these were not yet the days when the Anglo-Saxon powers made it their business to establish democracy everywhere—Bokassa signified evil. I did not think that had always been so. I was in Paris when Jean Bedel Bokassa, formerly a sergeant in the French army who had seen fighting in French Indo-china before the rout at Dien Bien Phu, President for Life of the Central African Republic, crowned himself Emperor Bokassa I in 1977. There were in his career faint but obvious echoes of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. The event and those preceding it were widely covered in the French media. Some people talked with indulgent contempt of Bokassa but hardly anyone voiced moral disapproval. A few weeks before Bokassa’s coronation I was in Lyons with my ambassador. One of the Frenchmen from the Mairie or the Préfécture of Lyons told us that the previous day 20,000 metres of French silk had been flown out of Lyons for Bokassa’s coronation. I think he had also implied that the silk had been gifted to Bokassa. Bokassa’s fall amidst allegations of not only cruelty but also of cannibalism and insanity was rapid.
Another name that was mentioned occasionally those days in Bangui was that of Ange Patassé who lived in exile in France. People who thought the Central African Republic had seen enough trouble already welcomed the stability brought by the Kolingba régime. Such people viewed Ange Patassé warily. When some years later Ange Patassé led a popular revolt against the government of the day and became the popularly elected leader of the Central African Republic, I thought of Omar Bongo’s words about some Western powers nurturing on their soils alternative political leaderships of countries in Africa.
BRAZZAVILLE , in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was the drabbest of the five capitals I dealt with. For a town, which had been the administrative headquarters of the whole of French Equatorial Africa, it was singularly lacking in large public buildings. A small plaque near its best-known hotel commemorated the announcement of Free France by General de Gaulle in 1940—not quite a Congolese national monument. Marien Ngouabi the previous president of the Congolese Democratic Republic who had been assassinated a few years earlier had the reputation of being a convinced socialist. Marien Ngouabi’s successor Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President during my years in Kinshasa wore the badge of socialism which was little more than decorative. In reality he was no different from any other ruler in ex-French Africa for whom the highest priority was to align his country’s policy with that of France.
His country had no worthwhile natural resources and probably derived some income from ‘border trade’ with Zaire. It had no diamonds for instance but in Brazzaville there operated a number of ‘counters’ for purchasing rough diamonds all of which was brought over by people from across the river. Though I met Denis Sassou-Nguesso twice, once for presenting my credentials and a second time delivering the letter of invitation to the Non-aligned Summit of 1983 I cannot remember anything of what was said in those two meetings. I signed an agreement on economic, scientific and technical cooperation between India and the Democratic Republic of Congo as I had earlier with the Republic of Gabon. In the case of a similar agreement with Zaire I exchanged the instruments of ratification—negotiating and signing agreements are among the most traditional duties of an Ambassador, which I duly performed. I doubt if anyone in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is now aware of the existence of those agreements. I doubt if they produced any visible or tangible result.
BY THE TIME I WENT TO INDIA ON HOME LEAVE in mid-1983 I had seen something of the five countries I was accredited to. I had an idea of the objectives pursued by other countries and the means deployed. Not only were Western powers like the USA, France and Belgium engaged financially, politically, at times also militarily, but also the People’s Republic of China whose experts worked deep inside the rain forests on demonstration farms for growing rice, pineapples or for raising fish—seeing them working in those conditions I could not but admire them and feel envious of China—in addition to building and maintaining ‘People’s Palaces’. The People’s Republic of China was perceived as being friendlier, more engaged and more interested in Africa than India. I thought I was there without any policy to pursue and without any means at my disposal other than two scholarships every year for Zairian students to pursue university studies in India, which were given every year to nominees of the Zairean Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.
In Delhi I met among others the External Affairs Minister to whom I said that India did not simply have the means for an effective Africa policy—as I have seen more of Africa I have become more convinced that this is so. The Minister said nothing but that I should try and build contacts to the extent possible within our limited resources. He said I should go ahead and invite people to visit India for discussions towards enlarging and deepening our relations. Back in Kinshasa I said to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International co-operation, Lengema Dulia, who had often complained of the thinness of relations between our two countries and of the desire of Zaire to strengthen them, that Government of India would welcome a visit by him for discussions on these questions. He asked me if I could confirm this invitation in writing. On the strength of what the Minister of External Affairs had told me I wrote a letter to Lengema confirming the invitation and reported to the Ministry of External Affairs with a copy of the letter I had sent. The concerned joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs wrote an angry reply saying my letter to Lengema was unauthorized. I simply drew his attention to what I had said in my earlier communication to him in which I had cited the minister. I added that as far as I was concerned I had authority from the minister himself. A few weeks later another official, at a higher level wrote to say that since I had extended a formal invitation to Lengema the Ministry of External Affairs would honour my commitment and that I should work out the dates of the visit in consultation with the Ministry
This minor though unnecessary hiccup over the invitation to Lengema reminded me of a story D.N.Chatterjee had told me in Paris. When Indira Gandhi went to Paris in 1970 to attend the funeral of General de Gaulle there were no hotel rooms available—this could happen occasionally as I discovered during my stay there. Chatterjee invited Mrs. Gandhi to stay at the Embassy Residence, which she did. One evening, after dinner, he took her out on a drive in the city. As he passed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay he pointed at a building next door, which had been offered to the Embassy of India for sale. It had more than adequate space for the offices of the embassy and there would be room left for future expansion. There was a buyer for the building that housed the embassy offices at that time—the offices were a little cramped in that building. Selling the existing office building and buying the one at Quai d’Orsay would mean a financial gain for Government of India. The Prime Minister heard Chatterjee out carefully and then said it was a very good proposition. She then asked: ‘Will Government of India accept it?’ Government of India did not.
Lengema Dulia or his successor did not go to India but having extended that invitation I was in a position to argue that we were prepared for intergovernmental discussions on strengthening and deepening our co-operation. But there was a group of Zairian parliamentarians led by the Speaker of the National Assembly who did make a visit. For this I had followed the correct bureaucratic procedures. It passed off without any accident, so that in the style of most diplomats I could count it as one of my ‘achievements’. The Speaker died rather suddenly soon after the return of the delegation from India. A few conspiracy theories circulated in Kinshasa according to which he had not died a natural death but been murdered at the behest of Mobutu. Of these the strangest and the most incredible, told me by one of the Indians, was that ever since his return from India he had been singing the praises of Indian democracy and talking about the absence of freedoms in Zaire, thus enraging Mobutu.
Other parliamentarians who had accompanied him were all keenly interested in getting from me copies of photographs taken in Jaipur with them seated on elephant backs. They told me they were all especially interested in these photographs because they wanted to show them to their friends and kinsfolk who would not believe that elephants could be domesticated or that these people had actually ridden elephants. At one level I could understand that disbelief. In all the travels in the region I had never seen any of the local people use any kind of beast of burden or any traditional wheeled transport such as a donkey or a bullock cart. The idea of keeping domesticated cattle, horses or donkeys seemed to be alien. People could be seen walking by the road carrying burdens on their heads or they would use motorized transport. At another level I thought of Hannibal and his elephants. I could not see how Hannibal would have domesticated any but the African elephant. Whether the art of domesticating elephants was known on the African continent only in Carthage and whether it vanished with the disappearance of Carthage have remained unanswered questions for me. Having got the photographs they wanted, the Zairian parliamentarians dropped out of my sight one by one.
IN THE FORMER FRENCH COLONIES OF AFRICA, with their French-backed currencies, French-supported balance of payments and French economic and technical assistance, the physical infrastructure was in much better state than in Zaire. Travelling in any part of what used to be French Equatorial Africa, travelling even by road, was far easier than in Zaire. But it was the larger and more varied Zaire with its turbulent history that was also the more interesting. With the exception of the diamond-rich eastern and western Kasai provinces we travelled to all the others. Not much of the old road network remained. Travelling by air could be full of surprises. I had wanted so much to travel by boat from Kinshasa to Kisangani and back—a journey celebrated by writers and explorers—but was dissuaded by friends’ accounts of the condition of the boat. Most of our journeys were by air or by air and road.
Having given up the idea of a boat journey up the Congo to Kisangani, we flew there. A Zairian parliamentarian and his wife had agreed to take us by road in their land rover from Kisangani to the headquarters of his constituency at Aketi, a railhead town—a journey of some four hundred kilometres. Of these the first two hundred were through dense equatorial rain forest—the thickness of the forest created the image of two solid, impenetrable green walls on the two sides of the laterite road. As we travelled, the parliamentarian’s wife stopped the land rover at two places to buy a deer and a monkey—both dead and slightly bloated because people set traps in the forest for animals they wanted for meat and picked them up some time later, probably hours after they had died. Not only did we not fancy eating monkey’s meat but also we did not quite wish to try meat that had gone slightly high—the dead animals inside the land rover did not yet smell. My wife and I turned the conversation to our food habits to let the parliamentarian and his wife know—not entirely truthfully—that there were religious taboos against our eating the flesh of wild animals. At Aketi we were lodged at the ‘gite’—a guesthouse for officials—of the railways. A badly prepared chicken dish at the gite was still better for us than monkey meat or venison of dubious quality.
There was a visit the next day to a Roman Catholic nunnery at which there were six Indian nuns from Kerala under a Belgian superior. The nuns were happy to show us around in their convent—the parliamentarian accompanied us on this visit and, we were told, he was allowed in because he accompanied us. The superior told us that the convent had been attacked during the Kisangani rebellion of 1964-65. She was in the convent at that time along with twenty-five other nuns, all Belgian. At one point during the visit of the convent we came to a door, always kept closed, which was opened to let us into another section inhabited exclusively by African nuns. Nuns on that side of the door were never allowed to come to this, the ‘white’ section, we were told.
The nuns asked us over for dinner in the evening. The Zairian parliamentarian had excused himself. We did not see him or his wife till the day of our departure for Kisangani the following day. At dinner the Kerala nuns had put up the Indian tricolour. The nuns made us sing the Indian national anthem with them. The Belgian Mother Superior and a Belgian priest who lived next door joined us at dinner at which some of the conversation was about pre-independence Congo and some about the cruelty of the rebels during the Kisangani rebellion. The next day the return journey by road to Kisangani was uneventful—the parliamentarian’s wife made no purchases. Kisangani turned out to be just another town on the river where the following day we met the Governor and visited a textile mill. At the mill they presented to us pieces of printed cloth with Mobutu’s face in the centre. We have never known what to with the cloth.
IN 1960, AT A TIME WHEN THE NATURE AND DURABILITY OF CENTRAL POLITICAL AUTHORITY in the newly independent territory of Belgian Congo was contested and uncertain, the Union Minière, a Belgian company controlled by another Belgian company, Société Générale, encouraged some local politicians, among whom the most notorious was Moise Tshombé, to declare the province of Katanga, now Shaba, independent. Some British mining interests in what was then Rhodesia, which owned around 20 % of the Union Minière, also backed the Katanga secession. The Katanga secession was ended with the help of United Nations peacekeepers among whom there was a large Indian contingent. With the help of the ‘international community’, Joseph Desiré Mobutu, later known as Mobutu Sese Seko, established his control and authority over the entire territory of what was Belgian Congo. He renamed the country and the river Zaire, promoted a brand of ‘African authenticity’ and, following in the footsteps of Idi Amin Dada for whom he professed respect and affection, nationalized all of the country’s industry and trade between 1971 and 1973. Mines in the Katanga province that had belonged to the Union Minière were handed over to a state owned company, Gécamines, to manage.
We visited Shaba and its capital, Lubumbashi, in 1984. Our visit not only to the mines and other facilities in Lubumbashi, Likasi, which had the reputation of being the prettiest town in Zaire, and Kolwezi but also to Lubumbashi city was organized by the Gécamines. Expectedly we started with a meeting with the head of Gécamines, a Belgian engineer and a former employee of Union Minière. He said there were like him some seven hundred senior engineers and managers, former employees of Union Minière who ran Gécamines, the single most important generator both of internal revenue and foreign earnings in Zaire. From the offices of Gécamines the entrance to the old copper smelter of Lubumbashi could be seen very clearly as it was very near. Near the entrance were two large slag heaps. Pointing at the slag heaps the head of Gécamines recounted a Union Minière legend. In the 1930’s a Belgian manager of Union Minière in Lubumbashi, Élisabethville at that time, had found uranium in the slag that came out of the smelter. He had the foresight to understand the value of that uranium laced waste and ordered that the slag be allowed to accumulate. In time the waste was sold to some American companies. Uranium extracted from that slag was used in the Manhattan Project and almost certainly in the two bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagaski in 1945.
Among the Belgians was a Frenchman whom we encountered over a luncheon at Likasi. He said the only other Ambassador in Kinshasa who had visited the Gécamines establishments was the French Ambassador four or five years earlier. This Frenchman at Likasi complimented us on the ‘naturalness’ of our manners and asked why some diplomats were so pompous. He said that during a visit to Kinshasa he had gone to meet his country’s ambassador in his office, the same who had visited Shaba. He was quite amused to find him writing with a quill and ink and sprinkling powdered chalk on the paper to dry the ink. I was not surprised, as I had met him when he was the French Ambassador in Vientiane. I thought of the monocled French diplomat whom André Malraux says, in his Antimémoires, he met in the early 1950’s in Moscow. In Paris I knew some former French colonial administrators who talked of a French diplomat in Senegal who at large parties invariably opened champagne bottles using a real sabre—a Frenchman in Paris had opened for me for demonstration a bottle of chilled champagne by running the edge of a table knife at room temperature in one sharp movement on the glass under the neck of the bottle; the portion of the bottle above the knife-edge flew off in an explosion, the cork intact and the champagne bubbling over.
French diplomats clearly did more than cultivate such special styles. Most of them did what other diplomats did. Two of them have won the Nobel Prize for literature. When the second, St. John Perse won his prize, I congratulated a French diplomatic colleague saying no other diplomatic service could boast of members with similar literary merit. ‘They evidently did not have much work’, came the prompt answer. There are no doubt other diplomats from other countries who also cultivate their own distinctive styles or follow their own interests—literary, artistic or of private commerce.
As we were waiting at the airport for our flight on our return journey from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa, a Zairian protocol man from Gécamines was with us. As the aircraft from Kinshasa that we were to take on its return flight landed in Lubumbashi, the protocol man pointed at a gentleman who had come down and asked me if I knew who he was. He was Munongo Msiri, Mobutu’s Minister of Interior, I said. He said that Munongo as Godefroid Munongo had been Moise Tshombé’s Interior Minister. Moise Tshombé had headed the Provincial Government of Katanga before he became the President of secessionist Katanga. When Patrice Lumumba was brought from Kinshasa in 1961 and killed on the way or on arrival in Lubumbashi, Munongo had personally dissolved Lumumba’s body in acid in a house on the way from the airport to town, the Zairian protocol man said. Unfortunately it was already time for us to embark. I had wanted to ask the Zairian if he felt as neutral about the events he described as the tone of the voice in which he narrated them suggested. It was remarkable how often the name of Patrice Lumumba came up in conversations in Zaire, more than two decades after his disappearance and death. He had become a legend.
VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK in eastern Zaire, along the border with Rwanda and Uganda had a very large population of hippopotami. The American Ambassador’s wife had told me that of the total hippopotamus population of 30,000 in the park, she must have seen 29,999 and did not wish to set her eyes on another. As for me I was quite impressed by the complete tranquility of the animals lying or floating in water, often with nothing more than their nostrils and disproportionately tiny eyes jutting out of water—evoking for me images of stillness when the human mind approaches the state of the realization of the self—images come to me from my knowledge of Hindu thought. On return to Kinshasa I shocked a friend by telling him that in my next life I would like to be a hippopotamus, being so impressed by its blissful, uncaring existence. This image of the hippopotamus was, I already knew, false. At the hotel at which we were lodged in the park, they talked of one Park official whom a female hippopotamus had charged at and beheaded one night a week earlier not far from the hotel. I do not know if the story was true or a fabrication meant to discourage residents from sauntering about at night in the hotel premises and beyond. Or it may have been part of the park legend of the same kind as the Kinshasa legend about a German ambassador who had been eaten up by a crocodile during a nocturnal stroll in his riverside villa in Kinshasa. Nevertheless that story of homicide in the Park destroyed for me the image of the hippopotamus in a state of blissful tranquility.
There were in the Park, which at one end abutted on ex-Lake Albert also known as ex-Lake Idi Amin Dada, many lions that appeared almost on command, troops of elephants and thousands of flamingoes on ex-Lake Idi Amin Dada. The drive through the park was through captivating country, a broadening valley between two mountain ranges, thin columns of bluish smoke coming out of distant cottages, interesting rock formations and a stream which widened and deepened into a river as it progressed towards ex-Lake Idi Amin Dada and beyond to the White Nile—a landscape reminiscent of some scenes in the Phantom comic. At the southern end of the Park was the town of Goma.
At Goma we went to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle, which would take us through the Virunga Park. The Belgian gentleman who owned the car-hire company took out a report by a group of Japanese seismologists and read to us excerpts from it, when we told him that on the first day we wished to go to Mount Nyaragongo, an active volcano. In the report the Japanese experts had described Nyaragongo as extremely fragile, likely to erupt, even explode, any moment. I could not figure out why the gentleman to whom we were bringing business wanted give us this bad news about Nyaragongo. In 1980, another volcano next to Nyaragongo—virunga, we were told, meant a volcano in the local speech—had erupted and in 1984 when we were visiting the area, on our way to Nyaragongo we traversed grounds still covered deep in petrified lava from the 1980 eruption. Our climb up to the top of Nyaragongo—a climb of some three thousand feet and a walk of some eleven kilometres one way—and the descent were unpunctuated by any volcanic eruption, though on the way we passed many spots where steam came out through fissures in the earth. We were more tired than afraid. The Nyaragongo did erupt eighteen years later, in the year 2002, and destroyed more than half the town of Goma—events that we watched on the television screen, in the safety of our home, far away from Africa.
Goma is located on the northern end of Lake Kivu. The Belgian gentleman at the car hire company in Goma had also talked of the dangers that lurked in Lake Kivu, almost suggesting it was haunted— as much because of mysterious fumes that its waters supposedly absorbed from subterranean volcanic activity as because of its great depth—when we told him of our plan to go by boat from Goma to Bukavu, at the southern end of the lake, a journey of about half a day. Even without the ghostly fumes in the Belgian’s tale, Lake Kivu and the hills on its west, mostly cultivated, rounded green slopes, looked an enchanted place in late afternoons; that landscape had a rare beauty, far removed from the ugliness of Kinshasa, untouched by ravages wrought by mass tourism. The killings in Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Zaire were still far into the future. Happily the tales the Belgian had told us did not deter us from that boat journey from Goma to Bukavu.
At Bukavu we were taken over by a Gujarati merchant family. There were a handful of other Gujarati families in town, all Hindus and related to each other by ties of kinship. They had organized a formal reception at the pier, a biggish sedan and an improvised Indian tricolour for the car. They had set up a meeting with the provincial governor and a visit to a reserve for mountain gorillas. There was a luncheon and a well-attended reception in the evening. The most memorable was a reception at the town hall where the mayor and I stood on a podium in open air and addressed an audience of some fifty persons who stood in the square in front of the town hall—I was reminded of descriptions of credential presentations by ambassadors in Italian city states which included a public address by the ambassador about the policies of his state in the town square. Speeches over, I was given the citizenship of Bukavu and a very large—it must have been about a foot and a half long and at least ten inches at its widest—wooden key of the town. The ceremonies over, the mayor asked for the key to be returned as that was the only one it had for making formal presentations. I have since then had better luck with keys to some other towns in other parts of the world—the keys were of metal, smaller and meant to be kept by the recipient. I later discovered that I had caused disappointment to our generous host at Bukavu. He was interested in being made the honorary consul of India. I saw no reason to make a recommendation to Government of India about such an appointment.
IN MAJOR CAPITALS, busy and serious diplomats do not spend much time or energy dealing with diplomats from other countries. In a place like Kinshasa diplomats spent most of their time in each other’s company; they talked about each other and they thought about the diplomatic corps. I was no exception. When I arrived, the Ambassador of Ivory Coast who had been his country’s Ambassador there for eighteen years was the dean of the diplomatic corps. He collected from every head of mission 200 American dollars in return for which he organized a proper reception at Kinshasa Intercontinental, complete with champagne and fairly decent eats, in honour of each departing head of mission and presented to him on behalf of the corps a French silver-plated tray bearing the signatures of all heads of diplomatic mission. He circulated no account, which the majority of heads of mission did not care for. There were two heads of mission—one the previous Tanzanian Ambassador and the other my own predecessor—who before my arrival in Kinshasa had asked the dean for an account and in the process, had circulated their letters and the dean’s replies among the members of the diplomatic corps. My predecessor had left behind copious notes about this cause célèbre. Reading these notes I concluded that that was one dispute I would keep out of, pay my contribution regularly and, to sort of get back my contribution’s worth, attend all of the dean’s receptions along with my wife.
Even before anyone in the diplomatic corps could know of my intentions, I was at the monthly luncheon of ambassadors from the Commonwealth—there were at that time in Kinshasa eight such ambassadors including the British, the Canadian, the Indian and five Africans. Half way through the luncheon, Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador brought up the dean. He talked of the need to start a sustained campaign against the dean’s two hundred American dollars, even suggesting that those present at the luncheon could agree on an informal calendar under which one of us would take a turn every month to raise questions. Then, almost as if he was assuming that I would follow the lead of my predecessor, Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador asked me what I thought. I said I was new in Kinshasa and still finding my feet but that I would quite willingly follow the lead of those who had been in town longer than me. That was the last time the British Ambassador or anyone else talked to me about this business. In time they would have got to know that I paid my annual contribution to the Dean regularly and quietly. I remembered what Indira Gandhi had said about the British interfering everywhere.
Both my wife and I got to know Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and his wife better. His wife, originally from Southern Rhodesia, told my wife on a few occasions that she was impressed we bore no malice against the British. The ambassador once told me that when he heard me speak English he kept an ear open for any mistakes I might make but had never caught me make one. Coming from an Englishman that remark should have flattered me. I was not impressed. Perhaps I had already spent more years in the diplomatic service than was good for me.
On another occasion the British Ambassador asked me if I had seen Attenborough’s film Gandhi. I said I had from a pirated copy on a videocassette. I asked him if he was interested and if he would mind watching the film from a pirated copy. He said he would be interested. I organized an evening with the Attenborough film and dinner to which I invited all the ambassadors from the Commonwealth and their wives, borrowing a pirated VHS cassette from our Pakistani provider of cinematographic entertainment. As they watched the film some of the African ambassadors found special delight in those scenes where General Smuts in South Africa or British colonial administrators in India appeared to have been bested by Gandhi. They did nothing to suppress the expression of their mirth at those scenes which Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and his spouse watched in stern silence. All of them told us how they had enjoyed that evening as they left our home. We forgot about that evening as we went on to other things. After the departure of that British Ambassador, the first secretary in the British Embassy who was the British man in charge for the time being then told me that the Ambassador had ‘blackballed’ me in the notes he had left behind. When I asked the first secretary what I had done to merit such attention, he said he did not know but guessed it had something to do with the Gandhi film.
In the second half of 1984, the Kinshasa diplomatic corps was in some agitation. Though Mobutu had exchanged ambassadors with the State of Israel in 1982, many of the ambassadors in Kinshasa, especially those from the Arab world or Africa kept away from the Israeli Ambassador. I was among those who did not even exchange greetings with him even though that particular ambassador and his wife persisted in trying to get into a minimal kind of social relationship with us. From my experience of dealing with Indo-Israeli relations in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1973 and 1974, I was careful to avoid the pitfalls of any show of cordiality in my relations with an Israeli diplomat. In 1984, that Israeli Ambassador was leaving Zaire. The U.S. Ambassador was also leaving at the same time. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps organized the usual farewell reception, with one difference. The reception was a joint farewell for the U.S. and the Israeli ambassadors. Many of the ambassadors would have liked to go to a farewell party for the American but would not or could not go to one for the Israeli. The Ethiopian Ambassador, who was a good friend, gentle and mild mannered like many Ethiopians, a former Interior Minister of Mengitsu Haile Mariam, not a Marxist, asked me whether I would go to the Dean’s reception. I told him I would not as long as it was a joint farewell. After that the Ethiopian called a meeting of the African group of ambassadors in an attempt to develop a common position on the Dean’s reception. I was invited to that meeting and when asked what I would do repeated what I had already told the Ethiopian. Those members of the African group whose countries did not have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, the Arab Ambassadors except Egypt and I kept away from the Dean’s reception for the American and the Israeli.
After it was all over I received word that the Dean wanted to see me in his office. If the Dean had called a meeting of the diplomatic corps, I would have gladly gone. But the Dean’s office said he wanted to convey to me something on behalf of the Zairian Government. I let the Dean know that I was very busy on the day suggested and over the next few days. Separately I sent a colleague to meet the Chief of Protocol to tell him that I expected the Zairian Government to communicate directly to me whatever it wanted to communicate on matters concerning relations between our two countries or concerning the functioning of my embassy. Not only would I not accept such communications through the ambassador of another country but also protest formally if such an attempt was made. My relations with the Dean remained friendly, so much so that, quite uncharacteristically for him, he gave a personal farewell dinner—in addition, that is to the usual reception of the diplomatic corps—for us and came to the airport to bid us goodbye at the time of our departure. I had no problem relating to the new American ambassador in Kinshasa. From the new Israeli Ambassador I still had to keep my distance, behaving with him in a manner which would be called rude in any circumstances. My rudeness was ‘diplomatic’.
In the diplomatic corps of Kinshasa we found fairly easy acceptance, as much among Africans and Arabs as among Europeans. The Africans would almost invariably break into music and dance in the course of a dinner party. Not being able to dance we could not fully be part of these gatherings. At European evenings the conversation would often be about the inefficiency, the incompetence and the dishonesty of the Zairians, when it was not about international politics, the latest holiday travel of some ambassador and his wife or about people’s cooks and valets. It was tempting for me to join the chorus of denigration of Zaire and Zairians, as it is tempting for members of Third World intelligentsia to try and become honorary Europeans.
After a while, I saw that some of the shortcomings of Zaire that the Europeans talked about were common enough in the developing world including India. I could also see that the talk in the diplomatic corps in Delhi about India and Indians would be not very different from the talk in parts of the diplomatic corps in Kinshasa about Zaire and Zairians. In course of time both my wife and I started keeping out of all conversation denigratory of the host country or of Africans. Later we carried that attitude to other places we went to. By the time we came to the end of our stay in Kinshasa we had grown out of the habit of diplomats in any capital to carp and complain about the host country.
IN THE THREE YEARS AND A HALF THAT WE SPENT IN KINSHASA, important changes had taken place in Africa. Not only had Sékou Touré’s socialism led Guinea into economic ruin but also the pragmatic Mwiny in Tanzania had replaced a much more widely respected ‘socialist’ like Julius Nyerere. Even more dramatic was the change in Mozambique where in the aftermath of a drought and the failure of the Soviet Union to give the kind and level of assistance he was looking for, the Marxist revolutionary Samora Machel turned towards the West and to the World Bank and the IMF for the economic and financial assistance his country needed. Even after he signed the N’komati Agreement with South Africa denying sanctuary and aid to ANC guerillas operating against South Africa from Mozambique territory, Samora Machel needed South Africa’s help in curbing the activities of Renamo, which had initially been set up with South Africa’s help for harassing his government.
In Angola, the doctrinaire Augostino Neto had been succeeded by the more pragmatic Edouardo dos Santos whose government had a difficult time dealing with the South African supported UNITA guerillas of Jonas Savimbi. This was the background against which, Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in Reagan Administration had started his complicated negotiations trying to unravel the different strands of conflict in Southern Africa. By all accounts he was, already by the end of President Reagan’s first term in office, making headway. Angola had started showing signs that it was prepared to ask Cuban troops and advisers to withdraw from its territory. Neither the Soviet Union nor any non-African non-aligned facilitator was among the Americans’ interlocutors in the Chester Crocker negotiations. On some of his visits to the region he would stop by for a discussion with Mobutu, for with his clandestine assistance to Savimbi, he needed to be kept on board. Some of these changes were best symbolized by a state visit in late 1984 by Samora Machel to Kinshasa and Brazzaville, more time being spent by him in ‘pro-American’ Kinshasa than in ‘socialist’ Brazzaville.
At a different level, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations had started systematically to ignore the reactions of, for example, the Non-aligned and the Third World while undertaking some of their most eye-catching foreign ventures, notably the Falklands War and the US expedition to Grenada. This was also the time when the Reagan Administration peremptorily announced a fifty per cent cut in its economic assistance to Zimbabwe when at an anniversary celebration of Zimbabwe one of its ministers made a stridently anti-American speech in the presence of former President Jimmy Carter. Africa, the largest block of non-aligned countries was split down the middle when the OAU decided to hold its next summit at Tripoli. In Africa, while U.S. and Western influence were on the ascendant, the Soviet Union was clearly and visibly in retreat, as were socialist and revolutionary policies.
For me these developments already pointed to the increasing irrelevance of the Non-aligned Movement. I had to keep such views private at a time when Indira Gandhi was the Chairperson of the Movement and when some of her close advisers thought that on the strength of her leadership of the Non-aligned and her leadership role in the six-nation nuclear disarmament initiative, taken with the encouragement of a group of European and American parliamentarians, she deserved the Nobel Peace Prize; they thought of lobbying for it too. Tragically for Mrs. Gandhi, while in the eyes of some of her courtiers she had achieved great international stature, other people close to her, presumably with her knowledge, busied themselves lighting political fires in the Punjab, which were later to consume her.
AT THE END OF MAY 1985 it was time for us to move to Delhi. We had lived in Kinshasa for just under three and a half years without our daily dose of quinine, though towards the very end of our stay both my wife and I were brought down by serious attacks of malaria. We had also lived without any fear of the black man—we fully trusted and in return received the loyalty of our household staff, all but one of whom were African. I cannot remember meeting any African in any of the five countries whom I could call violent or aggressive. Most of them tended to be timid. As I told the Ambassador of Gabon in Kinshasa, our regret was that we did not get to know any Zairian closely. The Gabonese told me that the Zairians like him and other Gabonese were Bantus and the Bantu in his private life liked to keep himself among his own people. That may have been an idealization but it was reassuring as I could tell myself that it was not due to any shortcoming in myself that I failed to establish friendships with Zairians. On the other hand, by the time I left there was one Zairian I had begun to dislike intensely. That was Kengo wa Dondo, the Zairian Prime Minister of the time. For me he represented all that was bad in the Mobutu régime without Mobutu’s strong and, in some ways, attractive personality.
Before my move back to Delhi I had received a curiously secretive message asking me to return earlier than I could conveniently manage. I asked for a slight delay, which was agreed to. Until my return I had to make guesses about what I was going to do. On arrival I found out that to begin with it was to be a deed without a name.