Book tells how Masire’s facilitator role in DRC conflict was barefooted walk over red-hot embers

21 Jul 2019

Being old-school and pragmatic about problem-solving, the late president Sir Quett Ketumile Joni Masire would never have been hoodwinked into walking barefoot over a bed of red-hot embers by any new-age motivational speaker. However, the image of someone doing so is very useful here for appreciating just what the former president (who would have turned 94 this Tuesday) had to do in 2000 when the Organisation of African Unity asked him to broker peace between belligerents in the recently-renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. In one instance, a force of nature introduced something hotter than red-hot embers.

Two years into this assignment, the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, “sending a stream of fiery lava through Goma”, including a good portion of the town’s airport.

“This would affect our ability to transport [Inter-Congolese Dialogue] delegates from East to South Africa,” writes Phillip Winter in “A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003” which details the unusually difficult challenges that Masire (“QM” in the book) faced in trying to put out what was Africa’s biggest inferno at the time.

The ICD was a direct result of an agreement that the belligerents (people engaged in war or conflict, as recognized by international law) had signed in Lusaka, Zambia.

As if a stream of fiery lava was not enough, the delegates whose transportation Winter worried about were themselves almost a force of nature from the moment Masire embarked on this assignment. The very first person who should have welcomed effort by the elderly statesman was President Laurent Kabila, who had toppled Mobuto Sese Seko but still lacked legitimacy as national leader. However, Kabila fiercely resisted a process that would effectively whittle away the massive power he wielded. As one Congolese man rightly observed, “Laurent Kabila wanted to stop the Lusaka process and had no intention of sharing power.” Kabila also deemed an approach that a neighbour (Angola) had used to end a long-running civil war (killing a rebel leader) to be a more appealing.

The DRC leader tried other tricks as well but they all failed. At one point, he offered Masire a jet that would fly him around Africa’s biggest country and thus made his job easier. On the face of it, this was a generous gesture but one that would have sent a clear message that Masire was in Kabila’s pocket and couldn’t be trusted to be impartial. He shut down the ICD office in Kinshasa but had to bow to intense international pressure to re-open it. At another meeting in Lusaka, he suggested four names as possible replacements for Masire; former presidents Kaunda of Zambia, F.W de Klerk of apartheid South Africa, Abdou Diouf of Senegal and trade unionist-turned businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa. The suggestion was rejected. Kabila also started a rumour in continental presidential circles that sought to discredit Masire, in one instance telling President Frederick Chiluba that the former Botswana president “had surrounded himself with white men.” The reality was that Winter, who was the Chief of Staff, was the only such person in the ICD team. When Kabila met a tragic end at the hands of an assassin, he was replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. While not as confrontational as his father, the younger Kabila inherited his attitude towards Masire.

Putting together the delegate stable was as daunting a task because almost everybody (being presidents of neighbouring countries as well as DRC citizens) wanted to be part of the peace process. Winter writes about one group that basically detained Masire in Brussels: “The members of the diaspora, whether in forced or voluntary exile from their own country, were demanding. For three hours they complained to QM of their exclusion from the peace process and the contribution they should make to its implementation. They were wordy and repeated themselves.”

The delegate list that was finally hammered out was not made up of angels and expanded without consulting Masire’s office. When the peace talks began in Sun City, one delegate (who in this particular case means a habitually gun-packing, murderous rebel who had merely changed into a business suit) “threatened” the ICD’s finance manager.  A more senior official, Professor Mohamed el Hacen Ould Lebatt, received threats “and was jostled in a lift.” A government official also threatened some rebel-delegates and had to be reprimanded. Sun City offers all imaginable purchasable comforts but until they were cautioned, some delegates would seek pleasure outside, thereby risking confrontation with South Africa’s notorious street gangs. In relaying a warning to delegates through Winter, the South African police said that the Congolese men, who were not allowed to carry guns, might find the “tsotsis” to be much tougher than they believed. 

In Kigali, President Paul Kagame, who has never been an angel himself, was anxious to know what was happening. Some delegates complained that the resort was crawling with members of Rwanda’s intelligence that they would obviously have been very familiar with. In Washington D.C, another non-angel in the person of President George Bush, would also have been as anxious to know what was happening. This became apparent when Winter got a call from an irate rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who wanted to know why Americans had highly sensitive information that Masire’s office had not yet shared with the belligerents. The book doesn’t make this point but one has only to put two and two together to tell that the Central Intelligence Agency was hard at work in Masire’s office.

Ironically, a west that was ubiquitous in the peace process was literally not putting money where its mouth was. While western nations pledged money at the start of the process, the money trickled in at the frequency and volume of child maintenance for quadruplets. The extent of the problem was such that when the talks were about to begin, the ICD didn’t have enough funds to pay the “sizeable deposit” that Sun City wanted. It was on days like those that Masire’s stature helped a great deal.

“We managed to find the Managing Director of Standard Chartered Bank in South Africa on the telephone and QM asked him to give Sun City a bank guarantee until the funds arrived,” the book says.

In the end, it was Africa that came through for the DRC. South Africa paid the lion’s share for the required sum and even shallow-pocketed Malawi managed to donate approximately P1 million without tying any strings that typically comes with western donations. On account of its colonial ties with the DRC and for some other reasons, Belgium felt that it should have a more high profile role in the peace process and at one point, sought to undertake a parallel one whose net effect would have been to undermine, if not sabotage Masire’s work.

Winter writes: “The Belgian foreign minister genuinely felt that Belgium could and should play an important role in resolving the Great Lakes crisis and did his best to see that it did. Any success would of course, increase his stature on the international stage, as well as domestically, and he travelled constantly in search of diplomatic ways forward, using Belgium’s just concluded EU presidency to raise issues whenever he could.”

Such half-heartedness and vanity notwithstanding, the same foreign minister could find the audacity to blame the Office of the Facilitator – by which he meant Masire – for a disastrous meeting that had occurred earlier in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He blamed the failure of the meeting for “weak direction and lack of dynamism.” In defence of his boss, Professor Lebatt told the party that retailed this account to the office in question that the EU was speaking with a forked tongue because it both praised and disparaged Masire.

“His style was not forceful, but he was patient, incorruptible and had been singularly successful as a head of state,” the book says in paraphrasing Lebatt’s words.

At the end of the day, that patience played a crucial role in the cobbling together of an agreement that lasted for as long as the belligerents and other actors would allow it to. That it was later torn up can’t be blamed on Masire because he had gone to the DRC to broker peace talks – not perform a “Fire!” church-style deliverance.