Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What happened to Francois Soudan?

There must be something in the water these days that makes journalists prone to radical changes of opinion. After Stephen Kinzer, now it's the turn of Francois Soudan, editor at Jeune Afrique magazine.

Jeune Afrique published an article called "Kabila: Mobutu Light" this week. The title is pretty clear. Francois Soudan's article can be summed up thus: Kabila did a lot of good in his first years in power, but he has become corrupted and since roughly 2003 he began an authoritarian drift, accompanied with the luxurious excesses and abuses that Mobutu was known for.

Compare that with an article Soudan wrote for La Revue in August 2006: "Joseph Kabila knows how to inspire a desire of protection among his elders, to appear older than his age and, above all, to project his resolve." (my translation) He has him leading the defense of Kinshasa in 1998 (no mention of Zimbabwean or Angolan troops), unifying the country and restoring the state's authority.

In October 2009, Soudan was still writing on his blog that people were unfairly succumbing to "Congo-bashing." He writes: If the country had been unified and had made peace with its neighbors it was thanks to Joseph Kabila; it was this president who had struck a lucrative deal with China and had begun to rebuild the country. "For the first time in a long time, an answer has been provided to this monumental challenge: how to reestablish state control over the whole territory?"

Journalists should criticize politicians - and President Kabila deserves serious criticism - but they should also do so in a balanced way. The fact that the same journalist within the space of a year should interpret the same facts in radically different ways raises serious questions of impartiality.

16 comments:

Sam Gardner said...

I still remember when Mubarak was "a new leader for the Arab region". All this hope.!

I still remember liberals were arguing that Mobutu was a genuine "African Leader", and Western style democracy was not adapted to the continent.

Don't we expect from journalists critical insight instead of hero hopping?

Anonymous said...

Will Gourevitch ever sing a new tune?
And Sam, why bash "liberals" for support of Mobutu--there was bi-partisan support in the US government for Mobutu during his tenure.

Claire said...

That's bizarre. One wonders if they thought no-one would notice the flip-flop?

massivejean said...

Francois Soudan's article can be summed up thus: Kabila did a lot of good in his first years in power, but he has become corrupted and since roughly 2003 he began an authoritarian drift, accompanied with the luxurious excesses and abuses that Mobutu was known for.

It looks to me like Francois Soudan is finally getting the story right. There is no shame in recognising one's past errors of analysis, on the contrary. The record of massive human rights violations, including mass massacres assassinations kidnappings torture , corruption, and misappropriation of public funds while failing to pay decent salaries to military police and civil servants or rehabilitating in any significant health and education services is a sobering one indeed. In France, Jeune Afrique the magasine François Soudan works for, was severely criticised for being soft on Tunisian Ben Ali until his fall, maybe this served as a wake-up call and they are attempting to better reflect the frusterations & aspirations of the arab and african youth??

Just a thought.

Jason Stearns said...

Thanks, massivejean.

I don't mind journalists changing their analysis. But interpreting the same facts in a radically different way - many of the things he criticizes Kabila for were known before his 2006-2009 reporting - would deserve at the very least a recognition of past mistakes. In this article, he makes no mention of his past views or articles.

Rich said...

I like the article. I also know that there are many who gave J Kabila the benefit of the doubt but it is never late to reassesss the situation and update the perception.

A few months ago, on this blog, I raised the issue of a dangerous drift towards dictatorship in Congo. In my opinion, the political culture in Congo will need to be rinsed with at least 3 generations of young genuinely educated and patriot Congolese before we can expect leaders in that country to be told the truth by their advisers.

The Congolese elite has vacated its strategic position within the society. We are now witnessing a kind of rigged intellectual mutation mainly led by corrupt people, opportunist, amateur who are either armed or simply wealthy. This new type of Congolese elite is now occupying the vacuum left by the true elite. At this rate the political class is only there to maintain a system fit for the auto-reproduction of dectatureship.

I am not elitist but I think education is the key. You need a huge proportion of decent and genuinely educated citizens to unravel the spectrum of political clientelism that has gangrened the Congolese political culture. How long will that take?

Anonymous said...

"raises serious questions of impartiality." Are you saying Mr. Soudan is impartial now or when he was singing the praise of President Kabila?

SiM et BA. said...

Jeune Afrique is well known for being soft with leaders and hard on opposition - for instance, they kept writing Condé-bashing articles until Alpha Condé was elected president in Guinée.

When I was a student I often heard the paper would charge 200K€ to 400K€ if one of the french-speaking countries president want them to publish hagiographical pieces or special issues about him/her.

Maybe Joseph Kabila didn't pay the bill ?

But these are just rumours, and I don't have actual proof of this.

Nevertheless, I don't think it is that important - even though Lambert Mende apparently asked for a 'droit de réponse' - and I'm not sure Jeune Afrique is an important opinion leading paper for congolese citizens; and investors may be well-aware of the paper's tainted image.

(sorry for my terrible English level)

Anonymous said...

I guess I would see your point if this guy was an academic and, therefore, should be held to the standards of an academic as it relates to the analysis of facts.

But he's not, Jason. He's a journalist. So to a considerable degree there are considerable embargoes on simply getting the facts- let alone crafting a story and offering analysis around them.

As a former journalist, I can assure you the profession isn't subject to the same rigorous standards of empiricism that typifies academia.

Nor should it, for in addition to gathering the facts as they are known, good journalists need to be able to inform their "audience" and represent changing social dynamics in their reporting via their interpretative skills.

Ed Murrow greatly admired McCarthy and even said so on broadcasts. One year later, the tide turned, and the qualities he once liked in the Senator he castigated as a threat to freedom itself.

The facts about McCarthy's "qualities" didn't change-he was still smart, sharp, a good legislator, and loved America. But the country's increasingly revulsion at his red-baiting did change and as as a fine journalist Murrow did his job, transformed his commentary, and also transformed a profession.

Empiricism is fine for academics. It can't rule journalism.

Melissa

Anonymous said...

Rich says:

“ In my opinion, the political culture in Congo will need to be rinsed with at least 3 generations of young genuinely educated and patriot Congolese before we can expect leaders in that country to be told the truth by their advisers.”

Rich, from your comments, you are clearly a smart and deeply committed man to the cause of the Congo. But this is, yet again, the most cynical comment come across this blog yet.

I live in a country with a political class that, for all intents and purposes, is the best educated, most prosperous humanity has ever known. Yet the problems that continue to bedevil American civilization go unsolved. I won’t list those problems here but they literally fill thousands upon thousands of position papers by NGO’s and thinkers far smarter than I will ever be.

The problem in the Congo, in my humble opinion, is not a question of education but of morality- as is the case in virtually all nations. Leaders must not only be smart but they must also be moral. One can look no further than Zimbabwe to see this clearly. Mugabe is brilliant by virtually any measure and he is very well educated. But his cynicism has overtaken his senses and, as such, this once exciting leader has become a immoral and brutal dictator who has become blind to the yearning for freedom he, paradoxically, helped create by leading his nation to independence.

We don’t need “generations” to encourage the Congolese to generate thoughtful, forward looking, committed leaders and - in the aggregate- a political class.

What is needed are institutions, broadly run by every strata of Congolese society, that encourage deliberation, transparency, and -via some electoral process- accountability from the community these institutions serve.

And then, we need many more of them so those leaders forged in a democratic institution can then run for political office and bear pressure on the Congo’s political institutions (the Presidency, the Military, the Police, the Assembly, etc).

Believe it or not, such institutions do exist in the Congo right now (like churches) and the question is how to develop their capacity and encourage more of their leaders to challenge the kleptocratic and quite frankly evil political class that runs the nation now.

Please Rich, have some faith in the Congolese and stop making excuses for these venal leaders the Congolese keep having to deal with.

They don’t so I wonder why you do.

Bryce

Anonymous said...

I agree with Bryce.

Education, alone, is not enough.

Sure, the nation is poor, its civil servants (in the administration, the army, the police, teachers, etc) barely paid, and as such a culture of corruption infects the entire political class.

And ofcourse should anyone try to “fight the system” they risk political exclusion and, if they protest to loudly, certain death.

As deep and broad as these pressures are, however, all human beings have a moral compass. More to the point, the Congolese themselves display on a near daily basis and in the transcendent and defiant beauty of sokous- their gift to the world- a conviction to a moral life that is inspiring beyond comprehension.

We must support the Congolese to root out the vortex of greed, avarice, impunity, and inhumanity that suffocates their desires for a free, just, and equitable society that sits at the heart of Kinshasa.

This begins with their institutions and committing ourselves to forcefully call out the demons that lead their nation.

Rich said...

- Bryce,

I’ve always read your comments with great interest although the time and space offered by this forum would not always allow stretching, to a satisfying extent, the true meaning behind some of my ‘cynical’ posts.

Ref # “Rich, from your comments, you are clearly a smart and deeply committed man to the cause of the Congo.”

I do hope you did not intend to sound patronising through the above choice of words! I say this because this is the resonance they convey from this end!

Ref # “But this is, yet again, the most cynical comment come across this blog yet.”

I have no problem that you read some of my posts literally then qualify them as ‘cynical’. However, I think it would have been better if you could read them (some of my posts) between the lines or ask me to explain further, whatever reads to you as cynical. I say this because, I don’t think I would be here, wasting valuable time, promoting ideas for which I have no evidentiary facts.

In the same way, I would probably be deterred by some of your comments if your definition of ‘cynical’ was the standard.

That said, I continue to believe that, education remains the main asset even in the case of proliferating moral.

Ref # “…Believe it or not, such institutions do exist in the Congo right now (like churches) and the question is how to develop their capacity and encourage more of their leaders to challenge the kleptocratic and quite frankly evil political class that runs the nation now.”

I am sure you had many examples to chose from! I do find the example used here (churches) a bit simplistic. I hope your advocacy is not similar to the evangelical American churches that have been busy inspiring anti-gay campaigns in Uganda (simple curiosity)!

There is an old saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink”. I do understand the fact that people like yourself are so frustrated with what is going on in DRC. However, I do find it fascinating when you seem ill-prepared to either be patient or allow a realistic approach when assessing the situation.

You are talking about political institutions as if there is a different type of Congolese to animate them!

Anyway, another old saying is, “every society deserves its leaders including CHURCH or political leaders”. I am sure the day the Congolese will want different leaders they will do what it takes to have them. The other way round is, try DRC's leader in your country and see what will happen.

Ref # “Please Rich, have some faith in the Congolese and stop making excuses for these venal leaders the Congolese keep having to deal with... They don’t so I wonder why you do.”

Not making excuse Bryce, just being realistic. Otherwise, how can you be so sure when you even do not know who Rich really is?

The Congolese elite must retake its place in society. I say this because the time for that nation (through its elite and the participation of the mass) to generate and impliment a consolidated vision that is relevant to its unique identity and situation for a brightest future seems long overdue.

The sad fact is there may still be a long way to go before the Congolese elite can retake that place. I, realistically, say a couple of generations hoping to be proven wrong not by your well-intentioned analyses but by time and the Congolese resolve.

Bryce, in my humble opinion, even Moral needs a structure upon which it can be instilled and EDUCATION doe that perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Rich.

With friends like you, who in the Congo would need enemies?

Your notion of being "realistic" and waiting "generations" sounds, from this daughter of American missionaries to the Congo, alot like what our Belgian neighbors thought of folks like Lumumba.

I have no doubt that you care deeply for the fate of the Congo.

But if all humanity ever did was wait for the facts, solid research, and evidence to decide our course we would all likely still be peasants to this very day.

The abuses in the Congo cry out for bold action.

The time for being "realistic" (whatever that means) has longed past.

Melissa

Anonymous said...

Fwiw (for what its worth), the either/or dichotomy in this thread is a little jarring.
If anything, the complexities of the Congo really do require a both/and frame.

In my view, all Rich seems to be saying is “The Congolese (for the most part) got themselves into this mess, and by their own volition, drive, and fortitude at some point they will get themselves out of it”.
What Melissa and Bryce seem to be saying is “The very idea we need to be patient given the scale of abuses suffered by so many for so long cannot be justified morally. Some other intervening force in the Congo needs to change the dynamic on the ground with assistance from abroad”

To people of goodwill abroad, Rich’s views are realistic to the point of being revolting. To someone living in the Congo (which I assume is where Rich resides and is likely a ranking member of its society) , such good will comes across as dangerously jingoistic (particularly from Americans, which Bryce and Melissa seem to hail from), un-informed, “simplistic”, and a reminder of foreign intervention in a nation that has seen way too much of it.

Perhaps there is no bridging these differences. It’s kinda like the Bolshevik/Menchavik debate but instead of Russian and Yiddish we speak French and write in English!!! :)

But what clearly unites everyone here, I believe, is a desire to see, as Jason once put it, a “free, just, and equitable” Congo.
Both are going to require a dose of harsh realism and a whole lot of faith and hope.

A good place to start is Rich’s question to the thread (which I assume was rhetorical but it is worthy of debate):
Rich said:

“ You need a huge proportion of decent and genuinely educated citizens to unravel the spectrum of political clientelism that has gangrened the Congolese political culture. How long will that take?”

I’d actually like to turn that question around and pose this: “How do we get to “decent and genuinely educated citizens”?
Opining on how long it will take is a fair. But how we get there, among many other variables, is how we get to a “free, just, and equitable” Congo.

Which has gotta be our goal folks.

Christopher

Anonymous said...

And Rich, on your broader point about education (and your expanded one on moral certitude being bred via education), I will need to respectively disagree.

I am, like many Americans, a mutt with Haitian, Irish, African American, and Native American blood running through my veins.

Haiti, for a long time, was ruled by a very well-educated, light-skinned, elite who sent their young to the Sorbonne, Harvard, Heidelberg, and yet ran the country into the ground.
I came of age when a President, descended from our blue-blooded elite and a graduate of one of our best boarding schools and Yale University, lied to his country to go to war in Iraq and then severely overextended the powers of his office to cover it up and “fight terror”.
I am living under another President, a brilliant scholar of our Constitution and a graduate of Harvard, who, in his signature piece of legislation (healthcare) more or less capitulated to our pharmaceutical industry to ensure its passage and then nearly a year later did the same with Wall Street effectively gutting reform of the very industry that has thrown millions of my fellow countrymen into economic despair. (though I am glad the mineral regime in the financial bill passed).
I am myself a graduate of one of our finest universities (Brown), hold a Ph.D from another (Emory) and have in my own life willingly chose to swim upriver rather than down.

Good sir, when faced with a moral dilemma it doesn’t matter how possessed one is of knowledge nor the station of the possessed. One’s moral faculties are one’s moral faculties and all human beings can discern right and wrong.

Christopher

Rich said...

- Christopher
I must admit that your summary seems accurate and that you made a fair comment about my take on education and moral.

However, allow me to object to the premise that sets a kind of binary opposition between ‘education’ and ‘moral’ as if these notions can’t overlap or be complementary.

Let’s go back to the definition.

When I say education I think I mean its broadest sense also defined as, “any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual…”

In this respect, I don’t think we are helping bridge differences when we, voluntarily or inadvertently, oppose education to moral or the other way round. Some have even defined morals as, “lessons based on ideas of right and wrong…”

Ref # “But how we get there, among many other variables, is how we get to a “free, just, and equitable” Congo.”

In my humble case, I have targeted education (in both the schooling/academic and the broader sense) and I have been doing something on that front.

Christopher, I know that may sound to some like a drop in a sea of vicious cycles; but as an accomplished academic, I hope you’ve experienced the feeling when the ‘penny drops’ for someone (both moraly or academicaly) after you’ve been busy trying to open their mind.

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