Centre cannot hold in Zaire's wild east: On day three of his journey, Richard Dowden reports from Goma on spreading disintegration as government rule wanes

BEFORE I came here I contacted an aid agency working in Zaire about travelling and asked about the possibilities of venturing west into the rest of the country from this eastern province. The reply came in a telex message which simply said: 'West of here the forest starts 100km away'.

The Tarmac gives way a few miles from the town and from then on the track does not allow you to travel at more than 15mph even in a Land Rover. Travelling 40 miles west we never got out of second gear and had to change down to bump through the ruts and bath-sized potholes. I worked out that if we were to cross Zaire like this in a straight line it would take at least two weeks to get to the capital. But there are no straight lines in Zaire and there is not even a Tarmac road linking this region with the next one.

Kivu region in eastern Zaire is so cut off from the rest of the country it is almost an autonomous state. There is a small presence of the presidential paramilitary force but the only things that work in the province are run by merchants. It is a bit like the concession system operated by the big Belgian companies when their king ruled the state of Congo. If you want to travel from here you either cross the border into Rwanda, Burundi or Uganda or you fly. The state airline doesn't operate any more but some privately owned companies fly to other Zairean cities.

Even the roads which do exist are not maintained. The government is bankrupt and the administration has disintegrated. Local people only walk so they only need a track. They may also remember that their forefathers were forced to build the roads so that Belgian colonial merchants could come and buy the crops which the peasant farmers were forced to grow and sell at monopoly prices.

So the local people do not maintain the roads but prefer to wait until you get stuck in the mud so they can charge for pulling you out. But even flying has its problems. One American mission which runs a regular flight from here was approached by the local chief who wanted payment because the plane passed through his airspace.

Despite the desuetude of the state and the roads there is a lot of trade in the region. It either comes up Lake Kivu by boat from Bukavu or across the border to Rwanda or Uganda and the most precious goods are flown from Goma to Kinshasa. The coffee crop is said to go to Uganda where the traders are paid properly for it. Once a week the ferry from Bukavu is freed of passengers to be loaded up with beer from the Primus brewery.

There is no local radio, no newspapers and no postal service any more and no telephone system. There are apparently about 300 satellite phones in Goma, mostly owned by traders, and the few aid workers still here use radios to communicate with Kampala or Nairobi. Otherwise they drive a couple of miles across the border into Rwanda to make phone calls or just to rest in a hotel for a night. The local radio system is also used as a security network. As the police are no longer effective there is a self-help vigilante force.

Goma and the region appear to be quietly opposed to the waning rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko. On Wednesday there was a stayaway called by the opposition and nothing opened in Goma all day - although some pointed out that people here do not need much excuse not to go to work. The same day saw a new phenomenon: the launch of the Goma civic society, which is an attempt by young professionals to take responsibility for the running of the town, a sort of enforced UDI.

But for the man who used to rule, and own, the country none of this seems to trouble him. When he was staying in one of his palaces near by recently the staff had failed to turn the refrigerator on soon enough and there was no ice. His personal helicopter was sent into town to collect a supply from a trader.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?