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Ernest Wamba dia Wamba Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

AnalysisErnest Wamba dia Wamba Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Archives appeared on the net 13 mars 2004


Professor Wamba, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in the DRC, Congo, in Bas-Congo at a place called Sundi-Lutete. 

Looking back, how did your traditions and your family influence the way you thought about the world?

I was raised in mission schools at a Swedish mission. My father was Christian, and my mother also. They both went to school. In fact, my mother taught me to write and read the first time. There was a lot of respect of moral principles. But also within that context, there was still the lineage community. In fact, the first name I was given was by my mother’s uncle, who was the head of the lineage. So the community ties were very strong, and at the same time, Christian-related moral values.

So very early there was a tension or a dilemma for somebody growing up between modernity, what the West had to offer, but also a traditional way of life. Was that hard or was that easy to navigate?

At our level, in our generation, it wasn’t too difficult, but I think in the generation of my father it must have been very difficult, because they had to give up certain taboos, certain rituals that had to be made, and to internalize the Christian values into the traditional culture. But my father was very successful. He was a leader in the lineage, but also a leader in the Christian church. He actually became a minister of the church.

And you were born in what year?

In 1942.

So your formative years as a young man were probably at the time of Congolese independence. The prelude to independence, the struggle for national liberation, how did those events affect you as a young man?

I was in the Bas-Congo, which at the time was the area of an important political organization called ABAKO, Alliance of the Bas-Congo people, which initially was organizing and defending the culture and the language. Later on it developed into a political party.

I come also from the part where you had long tradition of prophetism, religious prophetism, people who initially were praying in the bush, hiding from the authorities. And through this tradition came Simon Kimbangu who spent his training years not so far from my father’s village. So you have the excitement of Simon Kimbangu’s demands for certain autonomy in terms of culture, in terms of contact with God. He was actually saying that we don’t need intermediaries to be in touch with God.

So that tradition, added to the political tradition, made us become politically aware, and we knew that the demand was for independence. In fact, the slogan was “What do we want? Independence!” It was being said all [the time] in all our classes. Kasavubu, who was the president of ABAKO, was seen as almost a king. Yes, so there was that tradition.

What was it like to be drawn into that as [a young man]? What age were you then, in your twenties?

Yes, eighteen, twenties, yes.

So the excitement of the national liberation must have really gotten to you as a young person.

But also, since the schools were Swedish schools, most of the teachers we had were very old-style Belgians, saying to class, “How did you get yourselves to be pushed around by little Belgium?” So we were ready to demand self-determination.

We always spent time meeting, and I was into this program of “world journal.” Every day we had to put what sorts of news was coming from Kinshasa, what kind of actions the ABAKO was taking and so on. From ’57, for example, to ’60, in our area, people were paying taxes to ABAKO, not to the government. When the colonial government wanted to start political reform of the colonization after the uprising in Kinshasa on January 4, 1959, they put up the slogan that we are not going to vote in favor of those reforms. We want independence right now, immediate independence.

So we were all, without necessarily having the official status of making the propaganda, but as students we were spreading the message of ABAKO everywhere, in our families as well as in [families at] lower schools, because by then we were in secondary school.

You're suggesting that even in this earlier period, there was this dilemma of whether the parts of the Congo would stay together, whether the Congo would be one or whether it would break apart.

Yes. When it became clear that the other parties were not necessarily following, because we were told that some of the people in the other areas of the country didn’t want immediate independence, people started saying, “Well, just independence for our province. We must have independence. If they don’t want it, we want it now.” There was that sense, yes.

When did you take your first steps into politics? We should tell our audience that you have a dual-track career -- on the one hand you're a distinguished academic, the head of the Social Science Association in Africa; but on the other hand, you've entered politics and statecraft. Did you have to go away to college before you entered politics?

At school I was in the leadership of student organizations, and in the leadership of [what you might call] debate clubs, which prepared me to get involved when the ABAKO youth started, to get involved in that. But the political decisions came when there was a split in the ABAKO after the political roundtable conference in Brussels.

There was a split, and [for] the first time, we were now asked to make an evaluation and decide which side one is on. I was on the side of a gentleman called Daniel Kanza, who was the vice president of the ABAKO, and who was in our opinion the most dynamic of the leadership of the ABAKO, and who was excluded from the Party simply because they thought that he, having very educated children, would monopolize the power and that [they themselves] would not be able to have positions. So they invented stories like that he went to Belgium to ask the king to marry his daughter, who was then completing university studies, and that he had sold the land to Belgium. Because of the level of consciousness in the area, those were accepted as enough reasons to exclude him.

We took a position against that. I went to my house, in my father’s house, they took off all the pictures of Daniel Kanza, so I asked why. He said, “Oh, because they said that he has sold the land.” I said, “But how do you sell the land when we are here?” So then he said, “Oh, then it’s probably not correct [what they are] saying. But they also said he’s going to get his daughter married to the king.” I said, “But a king marries a princess. Now, this one is not a princess, and on top of that she’s Black. How could this [story be true]?” So then he put back the pictures.

So it was at that time that we started getting more or less involved in politics.

You came to the United States for education. How did you wind up coming to the United States? Was it the situation in the Congo changing for the worse that brought you here to study?

Our school was on the list of the best secondary schools. The African-American Institute usually gave a number of scholarships. So in this particular year, when I finished, they gave three scholarships, so three of us were supposed to go to the U.S. from the secondary school where we graduated. We went to Kinshasa for an interview. In fact, this was the first time that I was asked questions which I’d never thought of, because they had this psychologist who was asking, “Ten years from now what are you going to do?” So I said, “Well, I never thought of that!”

Then she said, “Judging from your background, you could be a professor at the university.” I didn’t know what that was, because I had never even visited a university. So then I said, “No, I want to be a professor of secondary school.” So then she said, “Well, we will send you to a school that trains secondary teachers, but if you change your mind, we will try to see to that.” So that’s how I ended at the Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where apparently the strongest program was training for secondary school teachers.

You went on to Brandeis and to Claremont here in the United States. We can't go into what you learned at all those places, but overall, what did you learn in the United States that you were able to bring back to the Congo and that shaped your ideas about all the exciting things you were to do down the road?

While I was here I got involved in the movements which we were going on, like the Civil Rights movement, and ended up, in fact, getting married to an African-American woman. So I went into the history of slavery, the Reconstruction, and so on. I got involved in the movement of Black students, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], which was linked to the Southern African Christian Conference. I was also involved in the African students’ movement, which was a pan-Africanist orientation. Later on, when the liberation movement started in Africa, I was in the supporting committees of those movements.

At Western Michigan University, I had very close relationships, because I was in what they called the “honor college” program, where you’re assigned to teachers that most of the time you are working with. One was a professor of philosophy of history, Hans Brycer, who helped us conceptualize certain things about history. There was a professor of economics, but more of political economy, and who helped us criticize the program offered by the university. At that time, there was almost nothing said about African economics. I took, also, a minor in philosophy. Somebody called Polasky, who helped me to write my honors dissertation on Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre.

In Claremont, I was closely linked with Peter F. Drucker. We had some things in common — he liked Jean Bodin, and I’d read Jean Bodin. What impressed me was his way of asking questions of management, and things that I’d never really thought of: where your time goes, and what do you do with your time; and, the objective or the outcome of an organization must be in the community. It was very challenging and much more stimulating than the other classes, which were more technical in the sense that, “marketing is profit, managing is just maximizing profit” — more technical.

At Brandeis, first of all, it’s the environment. You’re dealing with an environment [where] for the first time you get a little bit more awareness of Israel, of the problems involved with the Middle East. Also, you get people who have very strong ideas about how humanity should be moving, and people whose ideas seemed rather — not so much liberating, like Diamandopoulos — but who basically were thinking, “Unless you know a great deal about philosophy ..” or something like that.

In the Boston environment, because I also taught at Harvard, I met quite a few people coming from different countries. [They raised] questions of civil rights, questions of democracy, questions of freedom of speech, of thinking, of organizations; questions also of the impact of what we may call the critique of U.S. involvement in the world: interventions, military interventions. At that time, things like the treatment of foreign leaders were being discussed in Congress. So I learned quite a bit from my stay in the U.S.

The Recent History of the Congo

You've gone back to the Congo, and now you're involved in the project of building a democracy in your own country. Before we talk about your work in the Senate and your ideas about how to do that and how you mingle these traditional elements with the ones that you learned in the United States, give our audience a little understanding of what happened to the Congo in the forty years after independence. The Mobutu regime create a failed state, I guess is the only way to describe it. Help our audience briefly to understand the situation that you inherited in your new role in the transition.

Well, first of all, as you know, the Congo wasn’t created as a country to become a democracy. This was a territory for looking for resources, essentially. That’s how King Leopold II, for instance, viewed it. The state was created as a way of getting ivory and rubber. So it was not a state in the sense of institutions, per se. Despite the paternalism of the Belgians, there was still arbitrariness and there was no sense that Belgium was ready to prepare anybody for independence.

So when the independence movement started, but also the influence of the socialist/communist world, and also the U.S. was asking that colonies be more or less freed, [then] independence was given very precipitously, without much preparation. The pioneers of the movement of independence didn’t develop a capacity that would help them deal with the problems that open up in a country [becoming] independent.

We were dealing with the situation of the Cold War, for example. In the Cold War, it was understood that either you are on one side or you are on the other side. You can’t be neutral. In fact, a [U.S.] Secretary of State, I’ve forgotten who, said that neutralism was immoral.

Sounds like John Foster Dulles.

Yes, that is a possibility.

So when independence was proclaimed, we ran into difficulties of formulating a national program, because the program had to, for the first time, start creating institutions, because the colonial state was not meant to [create] institutions leading to any democracy. The person who advocated the necessary program was the premier minister, Patrice Lumumba. The U.S. either misunderstood him, or he was taken as being on the other side.

The other side of the Cold War ...

The Cold War. So all the forces came to bear, at the end, that he was assassinated, and those following him were also assassinated. And then the country was brought to the side of the Cold War crusaders, essentially.

That’s how Mobutu came in, with no vision of his own except to do whatever he was asked to do. You can say that maybe the vision was to make sure the country was always on the side of … well, the “correct” side of the Cold War, [without] a program of organizing institutions or a program of dealing with the needs of the majority of the population. In fact, at some point, he was just somebody doing predation, taking resources for his own needs. At some point, he became also a sort of regional gendarme, involved in helping UNITA in Angola, and so on.

At the end, that autocratic, kleptocratic rule almost destroyed the country. The state, as you said, collapsed. That meant, also, that those wanting to change things didn’t just stay quiet, so once in a while you’d get an uprising, rebellions. So from the sixties’ independence up to now, you can count something like eleven phases of some kind of war. These wars hardly ended up with any program of institution-building per se, so that the legacy of the state, we can say it’s no legitimacy at all.

So if we are serious, now is probably the first time that we can deal correctly with the causes, the conditions [bringing about] these never-ending crises of the country. Probably it’s now that institutions can be put in place.

We should say that at the end of this reign of the despot Mobutu, as a result of the genocide in Rwanda, the Congo got entangled in what was essentially comparable to the world wars that Europe had experienced, where various state actors from outside came into the Congo and a war involving Congolese nationals on the one hand, but outside states on the other, went on for many years, resulting in the death of probably over 3 million people. So this was an additional layer.


Consolidating a Modern Democratic State

Now, in talking about what you're trying to do in the Senate, can you give us an example of what institution-building comes to mean in what is now a legislative body in the new Democratic Republic of the Congo?

At the end of the war in the entire Congolese dialogue, we arrived at an agreement which was called the Global and Inclusive Accord, which lays the ground for the kind of work which is being done now. So besides the state structures, we thought of structures that support democracy. We call them “commissions.” One of the tasks of the Parliament is to make sure that these institutions supporting democracy are properly created and properly put in place.

[Another task is] to make sure that the transition is going according to the principles of the accord and the transitional constitution, and also to make sure that a new constitution is drafted which will be the basis of the elections. For example, the Senate is in the process of drafting the constitution.

Since the past constitutions were drafted without any input of the Congolese people at large, and they ended up, in fact, just being left at the door without being followed in any case, we also feel that there should be a national debate on the constitution, that people should express their ideas of what they want — what kind of state, what kind of regime, and so on. After we have gone through this debate, the Senate can make the synthesis and draft the constitution, and then put it to a referendum. If it is accepted, then that is going to be the basis of the elections.

So, hopefully, by doing that we will have institutions that could give us a basis for sustained peace.

In this dialogue about the constitution and the work of the Senate, to what extent are you drawing on African ideas of what democracy is -- which may differ from notions that we in the United States have or that grow out of the history of Europe?

So far, I must say that the task of actually trying to find out what in our culture’s ideas could be constitutional ideas, or ideas of conflict resolutions, ideas of how we could handle the multiethnic character of our society — these are already issues that are dealt with by individuals, not necessarily the Senate focusing on it, but there are some individuals who are dealing with those [ideas]. In our group, for example, we have been reflecting on the notion of palaver in the Congo culture, and how conflicts in the community were resolved, and the notion of the right of an individual in a community, and the community’s role in terms of protecting the individual and also the property of the community.

For example, we have this notion that crime is not committed by an individual, but the individual carries the crime committed by the community, so that the punishment is a punishment which much address the community part, not just the individual. So the punishment must be followed with a ritual of cleansing in the community, so that the punished person can now be reinserted in the community without suspicions. This is not quite the same notion of individual crime in other [societies].

And there’s the whole notion of how the state can be made responsive to the needs of the population. These are questions that some individuals are addressing.

The main issue that the Senate will contend with is the impact of foreign interventions on the Congo. If one looks at the history, one has the feeling that instability has always been caused by the difficulty of articulating the national interests with the interests of powers that be and the interests of neighboring countries. How do you make sure that a partnership of equity can come about? What sorts of constitutional principles have to be adopted to [ensure] respect, so that you don’t have a situation where the strongest interests dominate the interests of the population and the nation? So, some of these issues are being addressed.

We should tell our audience that the Congo, in addition to being a large, important country, is very rich, potentially, because of its wealth of natural resources. This makes it an inviting target for both regional actors and for international actors, as was shown in the Cold War.

Charting the Congo’s Future

What kind of institutions might be created to protect the national interests of the Congo, and define it? And in your work, what part do the ideas that you have acquired in your travels and education play in your contribution to the debate?

First of all, the real issue is how do we get from an economy of war, of conquest, an economy of looting, of predation, an economy open to all kinds of solicitors, to an economy of peace, which first of all serves the needs of the majority of the population? Right now in the economy, a lot of wealth is produced, but even the maintenance of the country is not taken seriously, let alone the reproduction of those [things which] produce the wealth. We are trying to address the structural break in the way the economy is organized as an economy only of extraction of natural resources which don’t have a market inside the country and which go out. [We need to] empower the population by creating specific institutions that would make sure that the resources [benefit the population], that even when we’re dealing with foreign investors, there is a partnership of equity, with mutual interests. It is difficult at this time, because globalization tends to mean a weakening of national states in favor of transnational enterprises sometimes dominating.

For example, the whole program of good governance tends to say that the smaller the state, the better. Now, in a post-conflict situation, one would think that there are major works that have to be accomplished, and that one would want to develop the state capacity to address some of these questions. But what is being said is, “reduce the expenditures of the state and focus only on the maintenance of order and the police,” essentially. Education, health, and all the things which are crucial are more or less left to the private sector, which cannot be in a position to have a equitable relationship with transnational enterprise. What is actually being said is that you leave these to the transnational enterprise.

So there are difficulties, but we also think that if we come to a state which is decentralized (we sometimes call it a federal system) where you have local initiatives being respected and given legal integrity, people at that level will realize how important it is to protect their interests, and when it comes to selecting leaders, how important it is to change them if they’re not doing what the community wants. So that lesson can probably help ensure that the national government doesn’t act from commands from outside more than from the needs of the population inside.

So a dynamic federalism would offer the possibility of balancing a state that might otherwise become a servant of outside global forces.


What other mechanisms should there be, if any, to break with this tradition of the Congolese state as another predator of resources and of the people?

It is difficult, because the mentalities take a long time before they can change. Even the occupants of the state structures don’t look long-term, but mostly to their own needs, using the state as a resource rather than as a protector of institutions, a protector of the integrity of the country. So it’s a little bit difficult. But we feel that if people become [mobilized to take responsibility] locally, the notion that all you need is to have some part of the state get a piece of the pie probably may change.

The international environment in our opinion is also important. For example, if the International Criminal Court can be given the leverage that it [needs to] have, certain people who may not be tried locally may probably [be tried in the ICC]. So that kind of institution may serve also as a constraint in making sure that things now move as they should.

Also, the network we are trying to build, networking even in the U.S., [helps] the U.S. civil society and population get a sense of what their government does outside [the U.S.]. In our case, [we can suggest] some things that people here can help us do, so that instead of the pressure which make it difficult for our institutions to function, we can ask for help from this side, to make sure that their government can also help. Most of the institutions of globalization are based in the West, and in these institutions, often Africans have no real impact. So if the [U.S.] population makes sure that some of the institutions are [operating with] a sense of equitable partnership, then that probably may help.

On our own we need to address issues of civic education, issues of being able to elect people who are going to make a difference. [We need to make] sure we have the institutions that make it impossible for anybody to function as if there were no laws. This means that we have to move to a real republic with autonomy of justice, autonomy of the legislature. The executive [branch of government] shouldn’t be as prominent or as linked to outside interests as it is now.

So you're saying, if I can summarize, that state building and nation building involves a sophisticated strategy of working at home to build a sense of norms and values you need, but at the same time working the globalization process to make sure that you win support elsewhere, and that the forces of globalization don't work against what you're trying to do at home.

Yes, precisely.

In your distinguished career you have been involved in many of the negotiations to bring a resolution of the conflict that was based in the Congo and coming from outside. Talk a little about that experience. What made it possible through this series of negotiations (some of which failed) to bring the international security environment to a stable place where you could move ahead with these processes? Was it that people just got tired of fighting, was it a new balance of power in the region, or was it because of external intervention of great powers from different parts of the world?

I would say all of those. The population, first, got tired of the war and was becoming vocal in demanding that the Congolese actors come to an agreement. Civil society organizations and some individuals appealed to the actors to come to an agreement. Then you have the international community, the UN, all the humanitarian organizations also pushing for the process of peace.

Within the region, not all states were involved [in warfare]. Some states from the very beginning of the war wanted questions to be resolved through negotiations. We had what was known as a “proximity talks” committee composed of those states who were opposed to the pursuit of war — Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. They made sure in their discussions with Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Angola, that some kind of consensus would come, which in fact led to the Lusaka Accord. The international community, because of its capacity in terms of finance, came in also; and the UN, using its organs. At one point, even, a personal envoy of the Secretary-General of the UN became in charge of the negotiations themselves. And South Africa, because of the relative capacity that it has (which other African states lack for the moment) offered its services, and offered also resources. So all these elements meant that we came to some kind of agreement.

Not that all issues were resolved. As you know, the conception of peace that dominates in the world is more like peace brought from without. It’s a peace that responds to the demands of those who threaten peace, not the demands of the victims. So it ended up saying, look, we must satisfy the actors, those who may resume or want to continue the war. If they stop fighting, the victims also benefit because there is no war, but the victims are not necessarily the starting point in terms of what kind of peace we want. At one point, when it was a zero-sum game, it was difficult, because this one wants more, that one [wants more].

And so we came to an understanding of what now is described as consensus and inclusivity, that all these actors are included. It’s now a matter just of working out the proportionality, who is supposed to have more, who is supposed to have less. That makes it also a little bit unstable, because the message is clear that if you have more arms you can have more power. That is why some people are trying to also do something like in Inturi, because they feel that by so doing maybe they also will be given something.

All the actors involved in negotiations are also given what we may describe as a responsibility stake. South Africa has certain things that it has to do. The Rwandese, the Ugandans, the Burundis too, and so on. And there is an international committee which is supposed to be the guarantor of the success of the transition. Now, it so happened, and I don’t know whether it is accidental, but it so happened that the UN mission to Congo, headed by a personal special envoy of the Secretary-General — the person of Ambassador William Swing, who is an American, so I don’t know if it’s just accidentally or whether it was planned — but he is also in charge of this committee that is the guarantor of the success of the transition.

So you have these checks and balances which make sure that nobody is going to break the accord without being accused of the responsibility of pursing the war, and that each party is, so to speak, watching the other parties, so that nobody is going to do things that are not accepted in the accord. That’s what probably is maintaining a little bit of the balance.

What are the factors that will enable the Congo to stay together as a state and not fall apart into the various regions?

The strong element is that all the categories of people — street people, leaders — they all want the country to be unified. Even when we were in the war, you ask Bemba, he says he wants the country to be unified. You ask Onusumba, he says the country has to be [unified]. You asked the government in the Kinshasa, you ask people in the streets, “What do you want?” “We want the country to come back together.” So I would say that the strongest element is the fact that people want the country to remain together. There have been cases of Balkanization, but it’s also clear that no movement really has wanted the Balkanization. In fact, one guy mentioned that Tschombe’s son also said, “No, no, no, we want unity of the country.” So that is the strongest thing.

The second element is that we need the infrastructure to reintegrate the country. Roads — the infrastructure right now is almost nonexistent. We have a natural road — the river! — which is now what [connects] Kisangani to Kinshasa. Building roads, building telecommunications and so on will bring people more and more together.

The third thing is the capacity of the state to at least be able to attend the borders, because at some point there were almost no states in many, many areas. The state wasn’t present, so those fighting the civil wars in the neighboring countries could just come in. When it was discovered that not only could you come to organize yourself, but you discover, also, that you can have access to resources, it became a free-for-all. So the state needs the capacity to make sure that boundaries are attended to.

Fourth is the necessity of having clear people-to-people relationships. The way these countries were created was artificial, with many of the ethnic groups present in both contiguous countries. If there is a sense of people-to-people relationships and there are institutions that express that, that also will favor, in our opinion, [an unwillingness] to make a Balkanization or to start a war. If the state is based on discrimination, then this element of extending to other countries may become a negative element. That is why we need solidarity structures among the population to make sure that people understand that I, from the Congo, and the neighboring people in Rwanda are brothers and sisters in the sense of people-to-people relationships. That will make it possible to have peace and to have unity prevail.

Professor Wamba, on that hopeful note, I want to thank you for coming to our program today and for participating in this fascinating story of your journey in the Congo to the United States and back to a leadership role in the Congo. And thank you, also, for coming to the campus to be a Regents Lecturer.

I thank you. It’s a pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California

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