Monday, October 20, 2008

On Bureaucracy

It is a long-held belief in the USA that democracy is the key to structuring any society into peace and harmony. By giving the people as a whole some power, you enable a greater sense of ownership of their country by its citizens, and an overall strength.

I wonder, living in Congo, where democracy went wrong here. Since I have arrived here exactly two weeks ago (to Congo itself), I have been to see 3 DGMs (the supposed primary immigration officials) and I have been forcibly summoned to 3 other offices for “security registration.”

Is it because I am a terrorist? Is it because I am here, allegedly for the diamonds? You would imagine that a country would appreciate the immigration of people offering to help defend their natural resources.

And yet, constantly, there is the same routine of being mandated to visit some official who has a withered, weathered picture of Joseph Kabila behind him, a hard look in his eye and a menacing frown. And an open hand.

You must have a folder made at each of these offices, that has all of your information, but also photocopies of all your documents and a photo of you, all of which you must supply.

Each of these meetings has the subtle undertone of extortion and exploitation. It’s all about The Game. The official must look very angry, and make you nervous, and make you believe that you may be thrown in jail or some-such -- and then you, shaking, hand over a large amount of money to “make the problem go away.”

Today, we were accused of not conforming to the law, on purpose. Mr. Prunyface, the official who glared at us from across his desk, demanded that we travel 250km by going BACK to Buta -- today -- right away, because we had broken the law by not seeing a particular official before our departure.

He’d sent us a SECOND INVITATION this very morning with its wrinkled, type-written and tiny menace. It was sort of hard not to laugh, despite being frustrated, considering that it demanded the attention of RESPONSABLE SMOOTH. Of course, it was referencing the person in charge of our NGO (Wasmoeth) but it was definitely funny. Even funnier than our previous invitation.

Mr. Prunyface could barely be heard - he chose to speak extremely quietly, on purpose, and had a thick childish lisp that made him almost unintelligible. But not being able to hear him - which in and of itself makes a person nervous - all the while being accused of breaking the law - or being told that we had purposefully failed to see a gentleman in Buta that we must see.

When, in fact, we had seen 3 officials in Buta. But apparently, one of them “is leaving” so he didn’t count. Now, when we were actually in Buta, the replacement for this official wasn’t even there. He was in a different city altogether, far away.

One wonders why there have to be so many offices at all. Each office claims to be the primary office for the security of Congo, and its people, and registration of immigrants. You must have a folder at each of these offices, too. And pay an administration cost for each of these folders, and then there is an awkward part of each meeting where you know that they are waiting for a bribe - which, in our case - is a bribe that will never come.

These are the sentinels - the watchmen of Congo. They are entrusted with its safety. But in comes the age-old question - Who is watching the Watchmen?

Congo is being sold to the highest bidder. Immigrants come through with the intention of logging and mining and exploiting Congo - but they give the officials a little “pot du vin” and are welcomed in like friends. People, like us, here for protection and conservation, who don’t have infinite resources to throw around, are treated like criminals.

Polycarpe, our wonderful friend and colleague here, came with us to our meeting with Mr. Prunyface and tried to say, as deferentially as possible, that if the Congolese continued to be so xenophobic and treat their visitors so poorly, that no one would ever come in to help.

At which point Mr. Prunyface threw poor Polycarpe out of his office.

I feel like I’ve handled myself extremely well thus far in our bureaucratic meetings, masking my frustration and disdain for their embedded corruption and pointlessness. I’ve learned not to look nervous, and to play a little innocent and a bit dumb, but I think it helps that I’m a woman and that I smile a lot. Really, the last thing I feel like doing is smiling.

No one is monitoring any of these field stations of “security” so they are essentially free to run their offices as they see fit. These individual men, given the charge of “security” tend to go wild with power and money. But where are the checks and balances?

I guess more importantly too, will the utter frustration of even coming to a new city in Congo undermine any attempts at international aide to get the country back on its feet?

1 comment:

Alex L said...

what you described doesn't sound THAT different from things here.. ;)