On June 30, the Democratic Republic of the Congo marks 50 years since gaining independence. But for Simon Bokongo, director of a local human rights NGO, poverty, security and healthcare are still a long way from adequate in the country.
Doctor Simon Bokongo is a man of commitment. A native of the eastern city of Kisangani, he heads the Congolese Physicians for Peace and is a member of the oppositionist Movement for the Liberation of Congo. Every day he fights for his people to have better access to medical care. For him, the celebrations marking 50 years of self-governance ring hollow given what has occurred since independence.
“For us, the defenders of the republic, the advocates of peace and beauty and equality for the Congolese population, June 30 is a sad day,” Bokongo says. “It marks an independence gained merely for the well-being and enrichment of a few officials, and to the detriment of a population that languishes in abject poverty.”
A never-ending humanitarian disaster
He paints a bleak picture, and his anger is palpable. For years, Bokongo has sounded the alarm about the catastrophic medical situation in a country that has no health programme.
“The government finances some five or 10 percent of the country’s healthcare, the rest comes from foreign organisations,” he says. “The hospitals are old, the staff are poorly trained, and the few healthcare facilities that are decently equipped and stocked with medicines are the work of non-governmental partners and not the state.
"We are incapable of managing our own humanitarian disasters, which are both numerous and never-ending. Basic drugs are lacking, and if they do exist, they are fakes that enter the country without being monitored.”
Bikes and motorcycles are our ambulances
Inevitably, AIDS and malaria continue to bring the country to its knees. People from countries like Uganda, Zimbabwe and Burundi, where the HIV virus is widespread, have begun moving into Congolese cities. And the situation has gone from bad to worse since armed conflict broke out in 1996.
“The military takes part in risky sexual behaviour, particularly in the east of the country,” Bokongo says, while noting that financial aid has not had the desired affect. “The funds allocated to fight epidemics get diverted at the local level, and only an insignificant fraction reaches the intended beneficiaries.”
Other diseases also beset the population, and Bokongo lists them as a sad litany: cholera, meningitis, measles, tuberculosis and trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). The persistent lack of adequate treatment does not help rein in these illnesses or keep them from spreading.
“Congo is quite vast, and there is a general hospital in each territory, but some of these territories are the size of European nations,” Bokongo says. “Proper roads no longer exist, and bicycles and motorcycles are our ambulances.”
The country’s medical disasters go hand in hand with its political distress, and Bokongo does not attempt to whitewash the portrait. “After 80 years of Belgian colonisation, four years of post-independence chaos, the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu [Sese Seko] and 10 years of civil war, it was a Congo that had been pillaged, depopulated and tramautised that regained its independence.”
He spares no one their part in the responsibility for this state of affairs. Belgium, he says, “never took into account the welfare of the Congolese people” during its colonial rule from 1908 to 1960. Nor did the CIA, which he said “undermined the country” in the years after. Mobutu, who gained power in 1965, sought “to erase all traces of democracy by assassinating opponents of the regime”.
He similarly has little affection for current President Joseph Kabila, who took control in 2006. “He was elected democratically, but a lack of security still prevails and he has not kept any of his campaign promises,” Bokongo says, noting that arrests, kidnappings, political assassinations and repression are still common. “Currently, the DRC is far from being an example for the democratisation of Africa.”
A ‘heinous crime’
The news, sadly, proves him right. The murder of Floribert Chebeya, president of the human rights NGO A Voice for the Voiceless, who was found dead in his car on June 2, added a little more tarnish to a tarnished nation.
For Bokongo, there is little doubt about who is responsible for this “despicable crime that offends the conscience of the Congolese and all Africans”. Out of respect for his memory, Bokongo says the fight will continue against those “who mistreat and kill intentionally”.
But Bokongo no longer has hope. “Everything I have said has totally distorted the essence of celebrating independence,“ he admits.
Either out of irony or despair, his last words were those of Mobutu, the Leopard of Kinshasa: “Before me there was chaos; after me will come the deluge.”