Today I attended a talk by the Prime Minister of the Congo, Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Cynthia Akuetteh (who arrived late with traffic as her excuse), at the Wilson Center. While the comments by both were representative of typical sterile government speak (which in my DC experience has been best epitomized by Under Secretary Hormats), each were brief, allowing for a rather lengthy Q&A. Several ambassadors were in the audience – Zambia, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and most interestingly the ambassador of Rwanda. The last three asked questions, so that presented a particularly striking opportunity.
The translation headsets suffered technical difficulties throughout (the PM spoke in French and most of the questions were in French as well), although my Peace Corps and high school French was generally good enough to keep me from getting lost (surprisingly). The Director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program, Steve McDonald (whose bio indicated that his undergrad specialization was French) struggled to translate on the fly and called into service the PM’s personal translator.
Aside from a celebration of the DRC’s ascendant economic prowess, most of the conversation focused on the precarious security situation in the east of the Congo. Both the DAS and PM were relatively critical of Rwanda and the Ambassador (speaking in English) used his question time to rebut this assertion. While he made a somewhat convincing argument that the détente from 2009 to 2012 (following the arrest of Laurent Nkunda) was the result of Rwandan efforts to support peace, there was no explanation as to why that peace deteriorated. He may have eventually gone in that direction, but the numerous members of the Congolese diaspora in the audience (who had previously been rather critical of the PM) turned against him and shouted him down, despite McDonald’s feeble attempts to assert his own preeminence as moderator.
Ultimately, the talk revealed little of substance, however it certainly illuminated the high and intense passion surrounding DRC – Rwanda relations and the poor relations of the Congolese diaspora with the Kabila administration. One of the more interesting nuggets (that came out in the bio sheet, not the talk) was that PM Mapon appears to have been educated exclusively in the DRC (at the University of Kinshasha).