The annual Francophonie (an organisation of French-speaking countries) summit for this year took place in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), between 12th and 14th last month. I only watched a small part on TV but cannot make sense of it up to now, owing perhaps to my scanty exposure to the working ways of the Francophone system.
The small part showed DRC President Joseph Kabila stationing himself in the main hallway of Palais du Peuple, the venue for the summit. He was there to wait for French President François Hollande, as the only guest who had not yet arrived. The other heads of state and representatives from more than 70 French-speaking countries were already seated in the plenary hall. Standing with Kabila was First Lady Olive Kabila and Francophonie Secretary General Abdou Diouf.
After 30 minutes, the trio seemed to be getting tired and chairs were brought out. At the forty-fifth minute as again handkerchief wiped husband’s clean-shaven head, the first lady excused herself and went to answer the call of nature. Then just when the minute hand was creeping towards the 50th minute, the three rose as Hollande briskly walked up to Kabila, barely touched his hand, then also brushed the first lady’s hand, as if he was sorry for keeping them waiting. Interestingly, though, now he looked up into towering Diouf’s face and, with both hands, gripped his hand for a chatty 5-minute handshake, to the latter’s embarrassment.
At this point, the camera in the plenary hall took over to show Hollande breeze in and the clapping in the hall died down as he took his seat. After a time, loud applause in the gallery, where a crowd of prominent Congolese public and private figures were now on their feet, signalled Kabila’s entrance into the hall and everybody rose. From his doodling, Hollande also rose, apparently reluctantly. It was now time for speeches.
While everybody who spoke paid due tribute to Kabila as the host president, at no time in his speech did Hollande mention Kabila’s name. That’s when I remembered that after Kabila had given his speech and returned to sit next to Hollande, while Kabila kept looking at Hollande, the latter seemed to be engrossed in his seemingly new-found hobby of doodling!
Where were those little diplomatic niceties of shaking a leader’s hand after they’ve delivered a speech? Where I sat watching, I don’t know why I felt my temperature rise.
But in the diplomatic world answers are not found in frayed nerves. Answers are found in reading unemotional messages that are being sent and to whom they are destined. And those who had followed news in the media before the French president’s safari to Africa should have known the message he intended to convey. And, especially, to whom.
Before coming to Africa, President Hollande had told the French media that, in his relation with Africa, he was going to break with the mould of past French leaders. Unlike them, he was going to promote democracy, good governance, the fight against corruption and the respect of human rights. France had confidence in the future of Africa and solidarity with the continent’s development was important. The young people of Africa are an asset and such a dynamic continent is good for France and the world, he said.
And dynamic, indeed, Africa is. Given partners in the international community who are committed to working genuinely for the promotion of good values and principles, the continent can make a huge contribution in creating a balanced world for all of humanity. It only needs partners who have the good of the world at heart. Partners who look at it as an equal partner; who respect its societies as they respect their own.
Problem is, which leader in the Western World has truly broken with the past? Africa, knowing how the leaders have for so long used it as a stepping stone to advance their selfish interests, has reason to be wary. And, knowing how sugar-coated the tongues of these leaders have been while dividing its societies to exploit it and to serve those interests, it needs to ascertain the genuineness of that vaunted change.
But it seems that DRC officials, if they’d seen Holland’s message in the French media, took it at face value. They seem to have accepted that they lack democracy and good governance and therefore have reason to be reproached. Or else, they’d have felt indignation at the French president’s conduct towards their president. There would have been a reaction from Kabila or his government. Instead, his prime minister was doing the rounds of European countries soon after, explaining the incident off as being nothing as, behind cameras, the two men talked cordially.
Which means that, if it’s true, Hollande was playing to the gallery. And his gallery, unlike that of Kabila in the hall, was the battery of French cameras that relayed the message of his conduct back to his people. The people, as in all countries Western, who are spoken to through media and pressure groups. The groups had to show his disapproval of bad leadership, his soldierly fight for the cause of all peoples, and thus secure him the confidence of his people. Which African toes they step on during such games is not the concern of Western leaders.
Why do African leaders accept to be pawns in these games that do not concern them? Luckily, all is not lost. There are leaders who are ready to stand up to these forces in defence of this continent. They may be precious few but they are egged on by the formidable strength of the masses of Africa. Sooner than later, no African leader will be allowed to swallow any disdain.
Then the powerful of this world will know that there is a lot to gain in conducting oneself with decorum and civility. And neighbours will know that united, rather than whining to these powers, we all stand.