Are there intellectuals in the Struggle for Democratic Change in the Congo?
Are there intellectuals in the Struggle for Democratic Change in the Congo?
By S.N. Sangmpam**
Syracuse University, USA
The current violence-ridden impasse in the search for democratic change in Congo-Kinshasa has frequently featured debates in which protagonists profusely invoke, lament, or call for the salutary role of “Congolese Intellectuals.” Are there intellectuals in the Congo or in the Diaspora? If there are, what exactly do they do? And what should they do?
I should avoid unnecessarily drawn-out definitions of intellectuals. I will not touch upon categories such as “organic intellectuals” or “public intellectuals.” For my purpose, a reference to Mongo Beti, the Cameroonian writer and intellectual, will suffice. In his sustained dissidence from the political regimes of Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya in Cameroon, Mongo Beti defined intellectuals as “the national category whose conscience is most demanding, most sensitive, and thus, most tormented. It is no accident that, in all the situations of oppression and injustice, it is the intellectual whose protests are first heard.” (**Le Rebelle II, Paris: Gallimard 2007, 221). Upon reflection, Mongo Beti’s characterization of intellectuals suggests that it involves four requirements.
The first requirement is that an intellectual ought to possess a powerful and functional brain. It is no surprise that such a brain is most sensitive. Nor should it come as a shock that only such powerful brain can be most demanding and tormented. After all, at the root of high intellectual activities lies the “intellect,” the power to know, to reason, to discern, and to comprehend as opposed to the power to feel and to will. The intellectual possesses a mental capacity much above the average. There is no doubt that, if a systematic comparison of scholastic records were to be done, those people who later became intellectuals would reveal earlier on in their lives (especially at school) a higher mental capacity than their classmates or peers.
The second requirement is that such a brain, however powerful, must be nourished and developed. The brain needs to be shaped and fed by the cumulative outcomes of humanity’s cross-fertilized, tested, contested, and accepted ideas and knowledge. This process requires schooling. But not every type of schooling is conducive to the making of intellectuals. Good schools in general are a must, and very good or excellent universities in particular a sine qua non. It is possible for a small category of people to become intellectuals without necessarily benefiting from great schooling. This is the case of some poets, playwrights, or writers. They are able to do so on the basis of their powerful brain. In reality, however, most intellectuals have been products of good schooling. On the other hand, university training by itself does not make one an intellectual.
Because of their (expected) rigorous training of the brain, university, especially graduate, programs can be viewed as “default makers” of intellectuals. Yet, just as any default application’s outcomes of a device are not always the most optimal, so too university and graduate programs are not a guarantee that intellectuals are made. Graduates of trade or professional schools (engineering, business, law, medicine) are or may be well educated professionals; but they are not necessarily intellectuals. Nor is every holder of a graduate degree (an MA or doctorate) an intellectual. In addition to the requirements of a powerful brain and good schooling, two other requirements are in order.
The third requirement is that an intellectual must not relativize or falsify the truth. There is truth and untruth or falsehood. Both are not equal or equivalent, and do not carry the same weight. Indeed, requirements one and two about a powerful brain and good schooling predispose an intellectual to search for and uphold the truth. This is why good intellectual work abhors falsehood and is premised on “finding the truth.” Intellectual work so values the truth that it does not hesitate to challenge and reject well established and accepted ideas, models, or theories which do not conform to the truth. One life’s core truth is that injustice and oppression in any society are repugnant; justice and abhorrence of oppression are acceptable absolutes. A powerful and, hence, sensitive brain of an intellectual should see these opposites. That is why it is the “most tormented” in the face of oppression. And just as intellectuals challenge and reject accepted but erroneous models, so, too, they should challenge and reject those who practice injustice and oppression. However well-educated one may be, relativizing or sacrificing the truth disqualifies one as an intellectual.
The fourth requirement—flowing from the first three-- is that an intellectual must make some contribution to humanity’s cumulative cross-fertilized, tested, contested, and accepted ideas and knowledge or to justice and the fight against oppression.
Not long ago, I was made aware of a video. In it a street reporter of an internet news outlet about the Congo interviews the Kuluna. The Kuluna are a horde of school dropouts and unemployed youth in Kinshasa, who had turned to drug and crime and who terrorize neighborhoods at night or even in broad daylight. Both the reporter and the interviewed Kuluna refer to the visibly drugged leaders of the gang as “the intellectuals.” The use of the term “intellectual” by and for the Kuluna is comical, to be sure. But it is both a reflection of and a metaphor for the Congo situation. In the Congo, the use of the term “intellectual” does not meet the four requirements. Invariably, it bypasses three of the four definitional requirements to privilege only a truncated version of requirement two. It emphasizes some form of formal schooling or education. Although I have no idea about the level of formal education attained by the Kuluna leaders dubbed “intellectuals,” it is reasonable to assume that they have achieved some level of education, which is higher than that of their fellow Kuluna and followers. They may have done some years in elementary or secondary school. They may even have spent some time at the university. Such formal education, however truncated and devoid of any substantive merit, proffers to them the title of “intellectuals.”
The misapplication of the term intellectual is not a new phenomenon in the Congo. During the insurgencies of the 1960s was “an intellectual” anyone who could read, speak French fairly well, was an elementary school teacher, or was a lowly clerk in the public administration. Depending on their allegiance to the insurgency, these “intellectuals” were made leaders in the political hierarchy. On the other hand, often harsh punishment was meted out to those among them whose lukewarm or lack of allegiance was viewed as an effect of their alienation as intellectuals. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, when it was a rarity to have a musician with a high school diploma, any musician who had spent some years in high school was called musicien intellectuel. In more recent times, this term has been even more boastfully extended to or appropriated by the handful of musicians who attended the university, whether they completed their degree or not. Examples include the late Kester Emeneya and Koffi Olomide. It is for all these reasons that in the 1970s Valentin Mudimbe, then a professor at the National University of Zaire, attempted to provide clarity for the term intellectual in “who is intellectual in Zaire?”. Unfortunately, Mudimbe’s nomenclature of intellectuals in Zaire did not provide the needed clarity. It ended up applying the term to undeserved categories simply because they had some form of education. This distorted view endures. Today anyone who has some form of a university diploma is an “intellectual.”
In reality, most of these categories of people do not meet the requirements of being intellectuals. Neither their university diplomas (BA, MA, or Doctorate) nor their pompous, vacuous, and devalued titles of “ministre,” “honorable,” “maître,” “docteur,” “professeur,” “docteur-professeur,” “ministre-professeur” “recteur,” or “pasteur” are substitutes for the requirements. In fact, the use of the term “intellectual” by and for the Kuluna is an apt metaphor for the status of “intellectuals” in the Congo. To make this point, a few words about the socioeconomic reality of the Congo under Mobutu and Kabila are in order.
I lived under the Mobutu regime for twelve years. I have visited and done research in the Congo under the Kabilas five times since 1999. My last visit was in the summer of 2016. I did not limit my visits to Kinshasa, the capital city; I travelled deep into the countryside and spent days in villages. In fact, I know the socioeconomic situation of the Congolese in the villages better than the “ministers” who live in Kinshasa. We know that in the early years of Mobutu there was some positive change in the socioeconomic situation of the Congolese masses. There was some hope. This was due to factors such as the reestablishment of peace after years of turmoil and the uptick in the commodity price in the international market. But it did not take long for hope to give way to despair. Under the Mobutu regime the Congo slowly but surely began its descent to hell. The descent has been made even more precipitous and catastrophic under Kabila. The misery in the Congo is palpable. Congolese masses endure hellish conditions in all aspects of their lives: infrastructural, socioeconomic, political, and mental. They are hounded and besieged by crass and screeching poverty. But more debilitating, they endure all this in the face of vile and revolting predation and wholesale looting of their wealth by those who control political power and their international associates. Looting and predation explain the current reactionary institutional coup by the Kabila regime to block democratic change. Holding to predatory political power serves a purpose. It is the sure path to preserving looting privileges in resources and land; a guarantee for avoiding the attendant punishment—which will eventually occur in whatever form—for the Kabila regime, its Rwandan overlord, and its international associates.
At the root of this descent to hell for the Congo and the attendant insufferable humiliations for Congolese as a collective whole lie oppression, injustice, and falsehood. What, then, is the role of the abovementioned title-holders, who are dubbed “intellectuals,” in the face of such injustice and oppression? The broad answer is that their role has been one of accomplices, colluders, and facilitators. The reason for this is that, despite and because of the vacuous titles, they fail to meet the four requirements that make intellectuals.
Under the Mobutu regime, up to 1978, the four requirements were met by a tiny minority of Congolese. There were reasons for this. Those with powerful brains benefited from, and their brains nourished by, good education and schooling. This was the result of the late colonial education policies that remained in place more or less until the Mobutu regime dismantled them. An even tinier group in this minority further developed their powerful brains in some of the good European and American universities before going back to the Congo under Mobutu. To this earlier group of intellectuals was added another small group in the 1970s and early 1980s who travelled to Europe or the United States to study in some of the best universities. Some of these people--not all-- met the first two requirements of being intellectuals. They obtained scholarship to study abroad precisely because they had displayed comparatively more powerful intellect. And, in addition to being shaped by very good or excellent universities overseas, they had also benefited from late colonial and early postcolonial good education in the Congo. Yet by 1978 Mobutu’s education-busting dictatorship had single handily brought down the whole education edifice in the Congo. Mediocrity had completely taken over. This two-wave tiny minority of true intellectuals faced two cruel choices. Settling for intellectual and academic censorship, isolation, and mediocrity in the Congo; or pursuing intellectual endeavors overseas. Some chose to remain or to go back to the Congo, a few escaped to other countries or remained overseas in their countries of training.
Thus, under the Mobutu regime, especially in the post-1978 period, intellectuals were an endangered species. Then the Kabilas came. Intellectuals ceased to exist and became extinct altogether. What is left in the Congo is a frenzied race for the acquisition of empty and inflated titles. Like Nigerians, and perhaps even more so, Congolese crave pompous titles that they do not deserve. To put it brutally, there are no intellectuals in the Congo but an inflation of empty shell diplomas. Both the Mobutu and especially the Kabila regimes have prevented the four requirements that make intellectuals from being met. The two regimes have been helped in this endeavor by the very would-be intellectuals who hold shell diplomas. Let me briefly address the four areas.
First, as stated, not all diploma- or title-holders in the Congo have powerful brains that would make them intellectuals. Some of these people are well educated. Most of them not so much. In either case, like everywhere in the world, well-educated or not so well educated Congolese do not necessarily possess a high intellect. To be sure, there are some among them whose higher intellect predispose them to being intellectuals. But other conditions need to be met. In the Congo, however, these conditions are not met.
Second, under both Mobutu and especially Kabila, deliberate negligence and sabotage of education for political control purposes have installed mediocrity at all levels. As a result, both regimes have depended mostly on mediocre diploma-holders as advisers and ministers. Such “intellectuals” in name only reinforce and legitimize the degradation of the educational system. Especially if they are boastfully known as “professeurs-ministres” or are appointed as “recteurs.” The consequences are chilling for education. Students’ grades, especially at the university level, are inflated by fellow tribesmen who are “professors”. Monetary and sexual bribery, political injunctions from power holders, and systematic cheating are sure means to get good grades and diplomas. Many or perhaps most receive their BA, MA, or doctorate with “distinction” or “grande distinction” through fraudulent means. These abnormal practices existed under Mobutu; they have been made routine under Kabila. A few of the holders of these shell diplomas use their failed and mediocre study programs in Europe or North America to make their claims of “intellectuals.”
There is, thus, no respect for the norms of intellectual rigor and probity expected of institutions of high learning. As a consequence, universities cannot help feed or shape brains to allow them to absorb humanity’s cross-fertilized, tested, contested, and accepted ideas and knowledge. Both professors and students become thoroughly deficient. In a survey of African universities, University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), which is supposed to be the “best university” in the Congo is ranked 153th with a score of 11.82 compared to 45.02 for first-ranked University of Cape Town in South Africa. The scores are even worse for the other “universities” which have mushroomed in the Congo. Faring badly when compared to peer African universities, universities in the Congo have no chance of being ranked in any worldwide survey. The pitiful ranking of universities is a clear indicator of the deficient level of education in the Congo. Mediocre education has de-intellectualized Congolese students and youth. It has so isolated them from the mainspring of the twenty-first century that they will be lagging behind the youth of other countries for many years to come—despite their use of smart phones. Under these conditions, not many would-be intellectuals, however powerful their brains may be, have the chance to actually become intellectuals.
Third, paucity of powerful brains and mediocre education have had the effect of producing de-intellectualized, mediocre, and venal political class and public servants. They are pompous and title-hungry carnival barkers who relativize and falsify the truth. Precisely because the holders of shell diplomas and inflated titles control predatory political power or help to control it, they lack the mental capacity to intellectually discern the truth from falsehood and to denounce injustice and oppression. Like the Kuluna “intelligentsia,” they are “intellectuals” of criminal activities and predation. Claims to “intellectual” status simply serve to have access to predatory political power that promotes venality, greed, and looting. Recourse to vacuous titles give them the “intellectual” cover to propagate falsehood among the masses. Thus under the pretense of bogus nationalism, they can denounce “foreign interference” to mask their looting and predation; to subvert democratic change in order to perpetuate their predatory power; and to extol the merits of a regime which, in reality, has so severely degraded the Congolese that it will take years for them to recover. In the name of spurious “anti-racism” they cover up the insidious and murderous tribalism and predation of Rwandan Tutsi. By the way, real intellectuals would know that hostile sentiments between Tutsi and Hutu or between Tutsi and any other tribal group in the Congo are not “racist.” It is an accepted intellectual convention that “racism” is applied when relationships involve Europeans, Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans. They are of different racial stocks. It does not apply among Asians, among Europeans, or among Africans. Why is a hostile sentiment between the Luba and the Ngbandi or the Tetela a tribalist or ethnic sentiment, but not the hostile sentiment between the Tutsi and the Tetela? Tutsi are a tribal or ethnic group and not a racial group when compared to other groups in Africa. The “Bantu,” to which most Congo’s tribes belong, and the “Nilotes,” of which the Tutsi tribe is a component, are linguistic groupings and not racial ones. Taxing frustrated Congolese of “racism,” because they denounce the Tutsi for their Kabila-facilitated looting and oppression, simply reveals the commitment to falsehood.
The venal holders of shell diplomas are so intrinsically linked to predatory political power that Congolese should be excused for thinking that “our intellectuals have betrayed us.” In reality, these are not intellectuals. A member of the constitutional/supreme court, who colludes with Kabila to legitimize his constitutional coup and, thus, justify oppression and predation, is not by any standard an “intellectual.” A “professeur-ministre,” who apparently teaches constitutional law, but who orders and condones the massacre of frustrated Congolese because they march against Kabila’s anticonstitutional coup, oppression, and injustice is not by any standard an “intellectual.” A “professor,” a “minister” or any other official who praise-sings “Kabila’s accomplishments” and gleefully proposes the prolongation of his rule in the face of hellish conditions Congolese endure, is not by any standard an “intellectual.” Fraudulently and undeservedly degreed advisers of Kabila (and Mobutu) whose sole “intellectual” advice is to devise stratagems for conserving predatory power by violent, anticonstitutional, and predatory means are not by any standard “intellectuals.” All these people have not betrayed as intellectuals because they have never been intellectuals in the first place. In a repetition of Congo’s sad history, they resemble Belgian King Leopold’s predatory expedition force. Joseph Conrad told the story in Heart of Darkness : “Their talk (is) the talk of sordid buccaneers: reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they (do) not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land (is) their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” (1989 edition, p.45)
Fourth, failure to meet the first three requirements prevents the fourth from being met as well. As colluders with oppression, predation, and falsehood, holders of shell diplomas who man public institutions in the Congo cannot be contributors to the universal norm of justice. Their academic mediocrity and craving of undeserved titles do not add anything to humanity’s accumulated tested knowledge. They claim no authorship of any intellectual works that pass the international test of acceptability. As “intellectuals” of predation, their contribution consists of publishing pamphlets in the form of praise songs for the regimes or of justifying and legitimizing oppression through empty and false legalism. They are experts in a rudimentary and truncated concept of “politics,” which they define strategically to justify oppression and looting. Unfortunately for the Congo, they have caused major damage. The ditching of schools and education and lack of academic rigor and probity, which they engineer, prevent would-be intellectuals in the Congo from contributing to universally-tested and accepted knowledge. Most are reduced to recycling old platitudes and quoting French authors. For the few isolated true intellectuals, their precarious material life makes intellectual work prohibitive. And their lack of conformity with the regimes renders their denunciation of oppression and falsehood most hazardous. They are silenced, and their voices are drowned by the empty title-holders who are carnival barkers and vile praise singers of the regimes.
Thus, it is understandable that the laments about and calls for the role of “Congolese intellectuals” in the discussions about change in the Congo fall on deaf ears. There are no intellectuals in the Congo. No surprise then that there has not been an intellectual salutary response to oppression, injustice and predation. Yet, there is a Congolese diaspora. For more than fifty years now, Congolese have settled in many countries of the world. There have been two types of migrants. Up to the 1980s, as indicated, most migrants—but small in number--were well educated and many of them aspired to the status of intellectuals. In the post-1980s, most migrants have been economic refugees; they fled Congo’s hellish socioeconomic conditions. As by-products of the Mobutu and Kabila regimes, the overwhelming majority of these refugees do not meet the requirements for being intellectuals. Their focus is material survival. By contrast, among the pre-1990s migrants, a substantial minority meets the four requirements of being intellectuals. They, and a very tiny group of the post-1990s migrants, can be properly labeled intellectuals in the diaspora. They should come to the rescue of the Congolese masses who call for the salutary role of Congolese intellectuals. So what should be their role?
For an answer, we need to recall Mongo Beti’s expectations of intellectuals. Their protests should be the first to be heard. Yet in the Congo it is not the protests of true intellectuals which are heard. Rather the voices of the praise singers, who crave and hold shell diplomas and titles in the government, the sham “opposition” faction, and in the devalued academia; it is the voices of those who hold and prop up predatory political power that are heard. Therefore, the role of the diaspora intellectuals should be to reverse this situation. They should drown the voices of the title-hungry bogus intellectuals, who collude with those who oppress the Congolese populations and loot their wealth. This can be done by forcefully delegitimizing these usurpers of the label of “intellectuals,” by revealing their inability to meet the four requirements of intellectuals; by shedding a bright light on their utter failure to contribute to humanity’s knowledge and justice; by consistently calling into question their credentials; and by showing that they have no shred of dignity left for being the marionettes of the Kagame and Museveni regimes. By contrast, diaspora intellectuals should lend support to, and enhance the credentials of, those Congo-based true intellectuals, such as Kalele-ka-Bila or Mukwenge, whose voices have been silenced in their struggle against oppression, predation, and falsehood.
In the same vein, diaspora intellectuals should not take advantage of their credentials to legitimize falsehood. Nor should they prop up individuals or groups in the Congo, who have clearly colluded with the Mobutu and Kabila regimes to oppress the Congolese masses and to loot their wealth. It is disconcerting, for instance, that Elikia Mbokolo consistently supports Kengo Wa Dondo, an obvious accomplice in and contributor to the descent of the Congo to hell under Mobutu and Kabila. Or that he certifies the recent Eden Kodjo-manned “dialogue” in Kinshasa as “inclusive” in the face of its obvious intent to prolong Kabila’s oppressive and socioeconomically bankrupt rule. There is no obvious intellectual justification for his position, except his tribal/regional allegiance. Should I, who was born in Kwilu, defend Antoine Gizenga’s cult-based, archaic, and incompetent nationalism and his nephew Muzito’s looting simply because of my regional origin? If one’s claim to intellectual status rests on tribal allegiance, then one should disqualify oneself from being an intellectual and a beacon of hope for the suffering masses of the Congo. True intellectuals should commit themselves to the dismantlement of the Kabila regime (and the remnants of the Mobutu regime). This is the sine qua non for the four requirements of intellectuals to have any chance of being met in the Congo. And for real change to occur for the suffering Congolese population.
**S.N. Sangmpam is a professor of comparative political economy and director of Graduate Studies in Pan Africanism at Syracuse University, USA.