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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 March 2007

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting this debate on UK Government assistance to the post-election Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is now more than three months since Joseph Kabila was sworn in as the first democratically elected President of the country since Congolese independence. Those elections have been described by some as the most important in Africa since the election of Nelson Mandela.

The registration of 25 million voters and the smooth running of a national election in a country that has only 300 miles of paved roads but is nearly the size of western Europe, was a major achievement. Those of us who were privileged to act as election monitors can testify to the basic fairness of the process. The verdict of the international and national observers on the presidential and national elections was that there were some hiccups, but that the process was basically fair, although there have been some questions since on how some of the provincial governorships have worked their way through.

I salute the bravery, maturity and determination of the Congolese people, who have suffered so much and who we saw behave with the most extraordinary dignity in those elections. They would walk miles and miles to the polling stations to cast their votes and queue overnight to play their part in the process. Now, of course, they are filled with expectations for the future, which we cannot afford to betray.

I am also proud of our Government’s role in recognising the vital strategic importance of the DRC by moving to become the largest European bilateral donor and by giving major support to the elections. I am proud of the personal commitment to the country shown by our Secretary of State for International Development.

The DRC is in the heart of Africa and is emerging from a civil war that has been called Africa’s world war, involving six neighbouring countries and leaving 4 million dead from conflict, disease and starvation, and more than 3 million people displaced. Rebel groups from other countries have rampaged over its land and continue to do so; members of the Lord’s Resistance Army have been camping out there. That has been a continuing problem.

All that follows a century and more of the exploitation and plundering of the DRC’s resources and longer still of its people being taken into slavery overseas, a fact that I am sure will be highlighted this year as we celebrate the ending of slavery, although it has continued in a modern form. The DRC is rich in resources. It has huge potential, but also huge difficulties. It is astonishing that it has not been given more prominence in our national and foreign affairs
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debates. If we could bring stability and development to the DRC, the effect on the rest of Africa and international security would be immense.

Like other hon. Members who visited the DRC for the elections or to look at the problem of street children or more general issues of international development, I have been profoundly affected and moved by the experience. I hope that the debate gives us the chance to focus on the future of the Congo and its people, and on the role of our Government and the international community.

As Mr. Speaker knows well, I have been seeking this debate ever since the elections; I put in for it on a number of occasions and have only just managed to secure it. I have three main reasons for raising the subject. First, the DRC has emerged from the peace process, the transitional Government and the elections, as a country that remains politically fragile and very volatile. It could hardly be otherwise, given its history. Between the two rounds of elections and since, we have seen sporadic violence break out, and the country could always disintegrate into violence again. I have been concerned about the recent violence in Bas-Congo and how it was brutally dealt with, and about the disturbances that continue in the east of the country. It is a very fragile country. Of all times, now is when it most needs support. The international community cannot afford to let its focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo slip.

We need to reassert the statement made in June last year by the Secretary of State in evidence to the Select Committee on International Development’s inquiry on post-conflict reconstruction. He said clearly that we are in the DRC for the long term. We need to reassert that. The DRC has not been afforded the priority that it should have been in our public debates, although we have recently done better in raising questions in Parliament. However, we need to reassert that serious commitment and to maintain it in the long term.

As the International Crisis Group sets out graphically, there is no point in going somewhere and feeling that we have done our job because the election has happened. The danger time is during the next couple of years. During the election, the focus was on all the work going on around it. In the following period, it will be very easy to fall back into the conflict that we seek to avoid if people feel that nothing has been achieved.

The Secretary of State put the problem well in his evidence to the Select Committee, when he said:

I would like to hear it reasserted—I know that the Secretary of State has made this assertion already—that our Government are committed to keeping their eye on the ball and being in the DRC for the long term, and that we will not be diverted by the next most high-profile issue in the news, important though things in other parts of the world and the continent are. My most important point is to reassert our country’s commitment and our involvement in trying to engage other countries in their commitment to the DRC.

My second reason for raising the debate is that we have to commit ourselves to helping and supporting the DRC on the hugely difficult issues that confront it.
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I would like to get a sense of where we are on some of those, although I cannot possibly cover them all. No doubt other hon. Members will want to raise other matters. There is a huge range of complex issues that we should assist and persuade the politicians of the DRC, civil society and others to tackle: governance and democracy; the role of civil society; corruption and what happens to revenues that are spirited away; natural resource extraction and the role of companies and mining contracts; development generally; the provision of basic services; and security. The agenda is massive. The Government have helped on some of those, but we have to keep our eye on the ball.

My third reason for being concerned is that I feel a very personal debt to Christian Aid, which sponsored my visit and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and of Stephen Carter, the co-ordinator of our group. I am also indebted to the civil society organisations that hosted us.

On the banks of the Congo itself, we were read a wonderful declaration by the organisation Dynamique Interactive de la Société Civile du Bas-Congo et du Maniema. You may wonder how civil society in Bas-Congo and Maniema managed to come up with a wonderful joint declaration, given that they are several provinces apart. The declaration came out of the discussions that we had during the two rounds as monitors in those two provinces. The first round was in Bas-Congo, where Jean-Pierre Bemba’s support was strong, while the second was in Maniema, where Joseph Kabila’s support was strong. We felt able to speak with some authority about the fairness or otherwise of the elections and we saw what people were thinking in two contrasting parts of the country.

The declaration was developed, and I should like to pass it to the Secretary of State. It sets out a number of concerns. For example, it starts by describing the DRC as a “country belonging to others”—a good description. It talks about how, given the history—the explorations of Stanley and Livingstone, the colonisation, the dictatorship, the moving into the form of a UN protectorate and how the country had been plundered by others—it would be difficult to claim that the country had ever belonged to Congolese citizens. The organisation is concerned that that should not be the case in future, when the country should belong to its citizens. However, it also pointed out ways in which the British Government had made a great contribution, and it gave a plea for continuing attention to the various issues that it raised, including the development of civil society as an essential part of the democratic process.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I warmly congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentioned the challenge of good governance, an important part of which is accepting responsibility for protecting human rights. Recently Marie-Thérèse Nlandu, a former presidential candidate with close links to Jean-Pierre Bemba, was arrested in circumstances that many would regard as highly dubious, to put it mildly. Does she agree that it is important that when we talk about being “in there” we should be in there not only financially but morally, and that it is important to encourage respect for good practice, which is to be a lynchpin of the effective governance of the country long into the future?

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Judy Mallaber: I agree absolutely, and I shall return to that. The prisoner in the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions has been adopted as an Amnesty prisoner of conscience and an early-day motion has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, which has been signed by a number of us. We certainly hope that the Government will take up her case. I do not want us to try to run the DRC as it has been run by foreigners and others over the centuries, but at the same time we have a huge responsibility to keep on the backs of the elected politicians and to try to make them behave in a way that enables the processes to go forward. If we are to invest a great deal in the DRC, as we do—it is expected that a substantial proportion of its revenue will continue to come from international donors—those politicians have a responsibility to adopt good governance and human rights. Our Government have an important role to play in that.

The declaration said that

and that is absolutely right. The declaration is wonderful. It was read out in ringing French, and it does not read nearly so well when it is translated into English; the whole thing was rather magnificent. One of the speakers said that

A number of issues were raised, from resource extraction to how food is dumped on the DRC, the international trade rules and what has happened to the agricultural industry, as well as a number of other issues that the group wanted us to promote. That was an important reason why I wanted the debate to promote the subject.

My first question concerns the Government’s commitment to the DRC and my wish to ensure that we reassert the commitment to working in the Congo and with other countries around us. To illustrate some of the difficult issues, I want to talk about one of the most moving parts of our work. I talked about the Congo, that mighty river that has woven its way through the tragic history of the country. We are told that it could provide electricity for the electrification and industrialisation of the whole of Africa and also export some through a southern Mediterranean connector to southern Europe. We do not know what that will do for development and the environment of the Congo, but we do know that a large part of the population does not have access to safe drinking water or electricity. Those are the sort of contradictions that we face.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall when we stood with others in a small village in Bas-Congo that had no electricity and no water, and the only thing that we could see were huge pylons above us taking electricity over the villages? Nobody could afford to connect to that supply; it is simply a crazy situation.

Judy Mallaber: I remember that. I remember, too, that in the last polling station that I visited in Maniema, my most useful job as a monitor was to hand over my torch to the people who were trying to count the votes. They had one lamp, which they could hardly read by. That is an illustration of the issues. It shows the
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contradiction in the fact that there is an amazing river, which could provide all that electricity, when the people do not have electricity or even safe water.

We decided to go over to the other side of the river, as other monitors would not be doing that, and to go right down to visit polling stations in Maniema. We perilously, and rather nervously, took the Christian Aid jeep across on two boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks tied together with bits of rope. I must admit that Stephen and I sat on the edge, watching the process and waiting for the jeep to fall in, before we got into the boats without it.

We successfully reached the other side, and we then went up the one road or track, calling at about 10 polling stations. On our way, we called on a Christian Aid project that revealed a number of the difficult issues that we need to tackle. We had to go on motorbikes on a track off the main road miles from anywhere to go and visit the project.

We arrived and were greeted rather beautifully by 40 women singing to us in Swahili. They pointed out to us that they were concerned about education, as it was difficult for their children even to get to school until they were old enough to be able to walk the distances. They had been displaced by one of the rebel groups, the Mai-Mai; their houses had been burnt out, and they had been subjected to the sexual conflict that so bedevils the Congo. A practical issue in trying to develop our commitment to education is dealing with the distances that the children would have to travel. They asked whether it would be possible to get somebody out to the project to educate them. Of the 40-odd women, only five had been to school. That was a practical difficulty in education.

We have made a welcome commitment to immunisation through the international finance programme for immunisation against the five killer diseases around the world. I am proud of that; it is a wonderful commitment. How easy does the Secretary of State think it would be to bring that programme into a country such as the DRC? Of every 1,000 live births, 205 die before the age of five. We asked whether anyone at the project knew of children who had died before the age of five, and they immediately said, “Oh, that woman’s child died two days ago.” That is common. According to UNICEF, more children die each year in the DRC than in the whole of China, which is 23 times bigger. That is a massive problem.

We went to one Department for International Development-supported Merlin hospital, which was unusual. I was amazed to find a child with meningitis who was clearly going to live. Children in my constituency have died from meningitis because they did not get to hospital in time, so that case was rather remarkable given the distances. It brings home how difficult it is to engage in such programmes. I would welcome hearing what we can do through our education and health programmes.

I am aware that another early-day motion has been tabled about the way in which resources go into conflict-afflicted zones. The statistics from Save the Children show that a smaller proportion of our resources go into non-conflict zones than into conflict zones. I understand that an international donor day on education is coming up, and I hope that we will express the importance of getting education into conflict zones
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and post-conflict zones, because that is difficult. The early-day motion supports Save the Children’s request that 50 per cent. of our international education resources should be put into conflict and post-conflict zones. Obviously, that is a difficult area, but I would appreciate some comments from the Secretary of State about our education programmes.

I realise that I have not thanked all the people whom I should have thanked. I thanked Christian Aid, and I should thank the other organisations that were involved with the various projects that we saw. Andy Sparkes, who is our ambassador, and Phil Marker, who is head of DFID in the DRC, were both extremely helpful to those of us who went out to the elections, and they have been helpful since—particularly when I have phoned the ambassador to ask what is going on in the DRC, when I have been asked to do radio programmes and have not wanted to land him in it by saying the wrong things about the situation. They have been helpful and play an important role. I also thank our support staff on the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention—Stephen Carter and Hazel Rogers—for all the assistance that they give us, without which we would not be able to do our work.

I wish to touch on three main issues before I hand over to other hon. Members, who, I am sure, will go into some of them in greater detail. The first issue is security sector reform. Without security, nothing else can happen. We know only too well that the security situation continues to be difficult. Integrating the forces and forming a national army that does not have a large presidential guard under the control of the President clearly is a major issue. It is generally agreed that some overall co-ordination of the international contribution is needed. It has been suggested that MONUC—the United Nations mission in the DRC—may be able to take on a short-term training role, but several observers have said that the overall co-ordinating role should be given to EUSEC, the European Union security sector reform mission in the DRC. I would appreciate comments from the Secretary of State on the matter.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate. I went to the DRC some four years ago. One of the key issues then was the command structure. MONUC has had some problems with sexual abuse by some of its forces, and it will function properly only if an appropriate command structure is in place. Obviously, that is a key requirement. We saw British officers there, and it would be good to hear from the Secretary of State what we intend to do to maintain our role. On that issue, could my hon. Friend say something about what she saw when she was in the DRC?

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