(From Ambassador’s Journal-1975)
I had just returned from Paris in October 1975, fatigued and looking forward to some rest, but External Affairs Secretary Jagat Mehta insisted that I accompany Minister of State (MOS) Bipin Pal Das, who was undertaking a tour of seven African countries to drum up support for a seat in the UN Security Council. I could not resist the temptation of a safari across the African continent, beginning from Nairobi (Kenya) and jetting through Kinshasa (Zaire), Lagos (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), Abidjan (Ivory coast) and Dakar (Senegal); all of it in thirteen days. And then continuing on north east to London, before taking an Air India flight back to India.
We started from Bombay and reached Nairobi on 8th October evening. MOS Das and the delegation, which also included officials Saifullah and Dhawan, had a meeting with the Kenyan Foreign Minister and a dinner in his honor by the Kenyan host. Flying early next morning from Nairobi, we arrived a few hours later in Kinshasa, capital of Zaire after a technical halt at the airport of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, situated on Lake Tanganyika. On arrival at Kinshasa situated on river Zaire, after being received by the Zairian Foreign Minister and the Indian CDA, Captain Inder Chopra, we were put up in one of the villas which like most African countries, Zaire had also constructed to house Heads of State for the Organization of African Unity summit .The sprawling complex of villas, each with attached kitchens was comfortable, but most were empty and neglected. Every morning I had to run around and yell to get hold of the cook for the morning cup of tea.
There was a heavy and almost identical schedule for the two days stay in each capital, except Nairobi. Meetings with the host Foreign Minister , my meetings with the officials, reception for or by the Indian community and a dinner with the host Foreign Minister and the crowning audience with the Head of the State. It was a hard grind, keeping notes, preparing telegrams, messages and press handouts. And finding time to do sightseeing. By the time we reached Dakar, I was way behind in my report making and missed out on the sights. With a heavy schedule and hot and humid climate, I became sick and was on antibiotics. But it was an enjoyable and educative tour, with a relaxed and very understanding MOS, who did not frown if, we had a drink or two.
We waited for the most important meeting in Kinshasa with the Head of State, in this case, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga. Well, that was his full name and meant; the fearless warrior who will go from strength to strength leaving fire in his wake. With security already severe in most African and Arab capitals ( till early eighties one could walk into New Delhi's South Block ,now converted into a citadel , literally after a nod at the Reception Officer),the audience with Mobutu was never precisely indicated and announced and cancelled at short notice many times. We were finally driven to one of his many palatial residences, three quarter an hour before ` schedule'. This palace was located on river Zaire, from which this country took its name, like so many others (as India has from Indus- which alas is in Pakistan.) The Residence was beautiful, elegant and palatial. A large seagoing vessel was anchored at the steps leading to the river front.
After waiting in an ante-room we were ushered into Mobuto Sese Seko's presence. As usual, he was well dressed with the regulation leopard skin cap and a flywhisk, requirements of tribal kings and chiefs. which many African Heads of State sport . After the exchange of greetings, Mobutu enquired about Indira Gandhi’s health, whom like all African leaders, from both sides of the cold war divide, he held in high regard and mentioned her constant struggles and ceaseless activity. After a suitable pause Mr. Das , a learned teacher cum educational administrator from Assam, went on his what would appear to be rehearsed piece if ,like us you heard it tens of times; why India a Non-aligned country and in the forefront of struggle for independence of Afro-Asian countries and fight against imperialism, colonialism and exploitation should get his vote .
Mobutu was much younger then at 44 years and alert like a leopard. After a few minutes he promptly closed his eyes and went to sleep. Mr. Das went on and on for nearly half an hour, while Mobutu had his siesta. The meeting was held in the afternoon. Mobutu then opened his eyes as if he was listening carefully and promised’ his vote to the special envoy of Indira Gandhi.’ Mr. Das thanked him and we left.
Subsequently we lost the contest to Pakistan and the guess at India's UN Mission in New York was that not all the seven African states, who had promised their vote to us, had done so. The conventional wisdom in New York was (and perhaps even now is) that votes of many African delegates could be bought, cajoled or got by blackmail.
There was a reception for the Indian community, fifty persons in all, mostly Sindhis. In spite of a full program, after dinner (mercifully most official dinners end early), we sans MOS went to have a look at the city lights and life. In most African capitals, whatever the creed of the ruling party, by sunset one can hear drum music and the sound of swaying rhythmic beats. In our tour of the city we went by many dancing places, where young boys and girls were queuing to get in, and into some we went in too. The beat and the rhythm was infectious. The rhythm courses through the African blood and once the drums start beating no one can resist. In Dakar I remember a Ghanaian Ambassador , who you think might collapse any moment , he was fat and ungainly, but once the beat was on, he was transformed into a dancing virtuoso.
We also had a cruise on river Zaire. It is very wide at Kinshasa, perhaps like Brahmputra in flood and across at the other bank we could see the city of Brazzaville, the capital of Congo (former French colony).There is perhaps no other river across which two capitals are situated. Imagine capitals of India and Pakistan like that or that of Turkey and Greece. What is now known as Congo was called Congo Brazzaville and Zaire (before 1971 was called Congo- Leopoldville, after the King of the Belgians, its colonizers). The capital Leopoldville was christened Kinshasa. (Mr. Kabila the next war lord and the chief of state got Zaire-christened back as the Democratic Republic of Congo)
River Congo or Zaire is the longest river of Africa, and second in length and discharge in the world. With an area of 2.4 sq. million kms, Zaire is three/fourth India's size, with a population of over 40 million. In terms of resources, it is perhaps the richest country on the African continent. It has huge reserves of copper, cobalt, diamonds and other minerals. Agriculturally it is rich with many rivers. It has half of Africa's and one eighth of world hydro- power potential .It is covered with rain forests so has abundance of timber. It is home to many tribes; the important ones are Bantus, Sudanese .and pygmies.
But the population has been most unlucky in its leaders. Independence in 1960 brought a civil war becoming the focus of cold war rivalry, with Soviet leaning Lumumba becoming the Prime Minister. But soon Mobutu, a former sergeant major, now the commander in chief got Lumumba murdered. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was killed while flying over Zaire, in late 1960.
India has an old association with Zaire; Indian soldiers went there on a UN peacekeeping mission in 1960. Venerable Indian diplomat Rajeshwar Dayal was UN Secretary General's Representative, with the then Indian Ambassador DN Chatterjee, having chronicled his experiences of the events in a book.
Mobutu became the President in 1965 after a military coup. He took full advantage of US and West's fears of the Soviet designs in Africa and offered to act as their surrogate. The revolution and independence in the Portuguese colonies and the arrival of Cuban troops in Angola gave him a new lease of life, with Mobutu openly cooperating with the apartheid White regime in South Africa. In many former Communist states, the new free marketers, many old party apparatchiks, are privatizing state industry into their names or those of their friends. Mobuto was remarkable ; he privatized the whole state for his personal benefit; salting away more than $ 4 billion dollars in Swiss banks and elsewhere , in full glare of Western media, with support and acquiescence from Western countries and their leaders. While in most of Africa, living condition of people has worsened over decades, perhaps it is much worse in Zaire. Pity, when it is such a rich country in resources.
In world affairs and media Africa has been politically marginalized and once again become a dark continent. One hears little except, famines, civil wars, fight among neighbors and since 6 months- Zaire and the fate of Mobutu. Gone alas are the days when both West and East, in fact all, rival powers competed for their support. Aid and experts poured in. Statements from Kwame Nkruma, Sieku Toure and others hogged media headlines. There is little to cheer up now. The living conditions are deteriorating day by day. But the continent is very rich in mineral resources and its time will come. Hopefully earlier than we might think.