Part 1 – The Lobaye Crossing
We don’t really know when this story began – it is old — and we don’t yet see its end….
WHERE WE START: A Park needs law and order – not anarchy. Law depends on basic agreement between people about how society works. To move the national park proposal towards law, we participated in village meetings and held workshops inviting all local chiefs. One workshop was in Opala, north of the protected area in November 2010.
A FEW WORRYING SIGNS
November 2010 – first vignette:
John and Maurice docked their dugout at the tiny village of Masasi on the Lomami. They were picking up the village chief to bring north to our workshop. John had just climbed the bank, when a drunken man lurched up from his chair and heaved towards him, “You stole my forest – you stole my forest”.
John stumbled back, “What’s this about?” Maurice knew. “That is Colonel Thoms,” he shouted as they revved the dugout motor. The village chief, safely on board, grimly nodded.
But how could that be? Colonel Thoms was in high security prison.
Mass rapist, elephant poacher, self-declared Maimai leader. If he had “escaped” shouldn’t there be a police posse on his tail?
Colonel Thoms continued south up the Lomami: two men in a dugout with a paddle.
December 2010 – second vignette:
Two poachers were arrested at the village of Bimbi with military rifle and elephant meat. The tusks were already gone. One of the poachers was Colonel Thom’s cousin. By now the “colonel”, himself, was 150 kilometers south-southwest, armed and with a rabble of followers.
February and March 2011 – third vignette at the center of TL2 (Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba region).
Ephrem, our field leader at the remote village of Obenge, 120 km south of Opala, reported a new group of brigands. Elephant poachers?
Then Ephrem’s thuraya messages took a strange turn:
“Jacques –- evangelist — is here. Sent by Pastor Moses. On his way south to Thoms.”
Evangelists enlist a bandit? This was for what sort of Crusade? (Pastor Moses, revivalist, reincarnation and leader of throngs will be subject of future post)
Then a more disturbing message:
“Jacques put cross at our door. Death threat. We are in insecurity.”
TRYING TO DO SOMETHING
Was there any immediate threat? Probably not – Ephrem did not flee — but this undercurrent of anarchy would erode the strength of the chiefs’ consensus for a park.
John was in the south. He would come down the Lomami towards Obenge in the dugout with a field team to support Ephrem (more about John’s trip in another post). I was in the north with Maurice at Kisangani. Maurice would come south by motorcycle and continue by dugout where the road gave out. Maurice wanted to bring a military authority from Kisangani. He knew who could make a difference: Major Guy is calm and authoritative; he’s worked with us before. Would General Kifwa agree to let him come? He did.
Major Guy and Maurice took off from Kisangani on the 29th of March.
29 March 2010 fourth vignette close to Kisangani.
They had not gone far (70 km) before they had their first encounter with lawlessness. Trees axed down were lying across seven km of road. It took two and a half hours of heavy-lifting and hauling to reach the Lobaye crossing (see map above).
Across the last felled trees, they reached the banks of the Lobaye River and a mob of more than 100 angry men. Major Guy’s “call to order” started the first day out from Kisangani and 140 km before Opala where we had thought his work would begin.
The Lobaye population was up in arms over the crossing of their river. They had to move their rice to market, but the cost of crossing the river had escalated and was controlled by a local cartel. What’s more a profusion of petty, self-appointed taxmen had set up shop. The national government had put in a barge at great expense to some funder (EU? World Bank?). The motor was fritzed after two or three crossings and the dugout-ferries operated as a cartel having paid-off authorities in Kisangani.
Major Guy listened and in remarkably little time worked out a compromise.
The population will clear out the felled trees. The dugouts will take down prices. The cost of one passenger will be half a dollar. All goods (bags of rice, bicycles, goats…) are reopened to a negotiated price with the population. All taxes are suspended until the Province clarifies amounts and representatives. Major Guy left the local military in charge.
A few days later, the trees were cleared and the dugouts were ferrying rice across the Lobaye. BUT…
1. How long will order last?
2. On what authority did Major Guy reinstate order?
Possible answer to question 1: At the base of this uprising were self-seeking opportunists that wanted to avoid scrutiny. Order will last until they think they have another opening to intimidate and extort.
Possible answer to question 2: People are social and anarchy is asocial; therefore, law and order that is fair will have a following. Any authority, perceived as just, could reinstate order.
Question : Will Maurice and Major Guy find it so “easy” deeper into the Lomami wilderness?
This is the first of several posts on anarchy in the TL2. I thank our team leaders and I thank John for the photos, the detailed reporting, their courage and their good humor.