UNDER AN AFRICAN MOON . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
ON the higher perches of nature in Bogoro, Congo, officers of the Bangladesh army point to a forested area below. On the face of it, tranquility is all over the place. And yet not everything is in place, as the presence of alert Bangladesh soldiers makes it so palpable. That forested spot down there, it is explained, is where some Bangladesh army officers died at the hands of the Congo’s lawless brigands while on patrol.
That sacrifice remains unforgotten through a memorial in Bunia, where a significant Bangladeshi presence of soldiers, along with troops from other nations, remains in place as part of what is known as the Ituri brigade. Under the command of Brigadier General Anisur Rahman, these troops making up the UN peacekeeping force in the troubled country remain engaged in efforts to keep the place from collapsing in a heap around itself.
Just how vulnerable the Congo remains in the face of the troubles besieging it is manifested through the presence of the United Nations in large parts of the country. Indeed, it is the ubiquity of the UN presence that strikes you as you arrive in Bunia or Bogoro or Kinshasa or even Entebbe in Uganda. There is a sense that, barring some cities and towns, the authority of the government of President Joseph Kabila remains conspicuous by its absence. You then tend to reflect on the history of a nation that won its freedom from Belgium in 1960, only to sink increasingly lower into the depths of despair. Could Patrice Lumumba, the ardent nationalist who became the Congo’s first prime minister, have made a difference? One will never know, for Lumumba was bumped off by his enemies within months of liberty coming into the lives of the Congolese. The country, nearly twenty times the size of Bangladesh, has been at war with itself since 1961.
That makes you wonder at the many ironies history often throws our way. When the Congo gained independence, Bangladesh was yet part of the state of Pakistan and eleven years away from transforming itself into a free nation. And yet Bangladesh is today a key element in helping the Congo to keep itself together. Stretch the idea and you might be a trifle surprised at knowing that Bangladesh’s forces have been involved in as many as 48 peacekeeping missions around the world in recent times. East Timor (or Timor-Leste), Haiti, Croatia, Namibia, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Liberia and Cote d’Ivore are some of the troubled spots where Bangladesh’s soldiers have gone in, under a UN mandate, to establish, enforce and keep the peace. And they have done a good job of it. And the mission in the Congo is part of that process, for the simple reason that the Congolese authorities are in little position to expand their authority across the country. More tellingly, other forces straddling a variety of political objectives, along with some patent aims one associates with brigandage, are around.
So how much more time does the Congo need in order for it to become a stable place? No easy answers there, at least not in the way that such questions drew some concrete responses in places like Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Liberia, as a senior Bangladesh army officer told this writer in Kinshasa, it was netting Charles Taylor that restored hope in the country. As he explains the process that led to the return of constitutional rule and the rise of Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf in the country, you cannot but think back on the roots of Liberia’s long conflict. It all began when Sergeant Samuel Doe shot his way to power in 1980. Some years later, he met a horrible end at the hands of his enemies. Years of disaster followed, until the UN stepped in.
But the Congo is not Liberia or Sierra Leone. Once you have the UN or Bangladesh’s soldiers leave, it will collapse like a pack of cards. Endemic corruption, the ragtag nature of the army, the many foreign interests involved in the country, the sheer tribalism that underpins life — all of these make the going hard for the people of the Congo. Consider the tentative nature of the Congolese army, known by its official term FARDC. As many as 65 per cent of its men suffer from a lack of proper military training, which explains why it has been losing control over its own country. Poor training, coupled with bad equipment and little (and irregular) pay, does not give a country an effective and effectual army. And when that self-same army engages in stealing and pillaging in its own land, rapes its own women, the state turns into a wobbly proposition.
It is a wobbly Congo the Bangladeshi peacekeepers try to keep from cracking up. A little Congolese girl salutes a Bangladeshi officer. A little Congolese boy greets you in Bengali. As a full moon sails across the African sky, it is these — and much more — you speak of. Major General Rabiul Hossain, Major General AKM Abdullahil Baquee, Brigadier General AF Jaglul Ahmed and Brigadier General Anisur Rahman, senior officers under their command — all of them give you a perspective each. Those perspectives stream into a national perspective. It is one of Bangladesh’s place in the process of ensuring peace around the world.
JANUARY 18, 2014