• Video: Eric Shawn reports from Africa
Knight the bellman stands at the door of the Grand Hotel with pride and dignity. Though a similar job might strike many Americans as menial, in a country where many live in abject poverty, in tin shacks or mud huts with barely enough to survive, his job is a blessing. And as long as he holds that job, which he does with gratitude and good cheer, he knows he will be able put food on the table. In the Congo, that is often enough.
As Knight awaits his next tip, down the hall, in the Lubumbasi salon, which looks like any modern chandeliered and mirrored hotel meeting room in any major city in the world, the Secretary General of the United Nations laments the continuing divisional conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Somalia and the atrocities they have brought. He praises the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the United Nations, he says, has been playing a role to help people and government create a stable, and prosperous nation from the bitter ruins of civil war that has claimed four million lives, the largest death toll since World War II.
"Many people regard you as a young democracy, and it is important and desirable to help such young democracies solidify and consolidate the democratic process," says Ban. He adds that the U.N. presence has enabled the Congo to stabilize and restore security, bringing economic development and social and democratic maturity.
That is why Knight, who I make to be in his mid-twenties, has already benefited from one of the greatest gifts a United Nations effort can achieve: a job. Congolese rebels of the same age are out raping, hacking, killing and torturing people to death. A U.N. report has even claimed that they have actually grilled people on a spit, boiled them alive in vats of water and oil, and resorted to cannibalism.
Into this chaos arrives Ban Ki-moon, landing at one in the morning after a grueling 14-hour journey from Paris. He is greeted by a mob of dignitaries and the longest red carpet I’ve ever seen. But, that was no match for the motorcade -- it must have been a mile long, with hundreds of cars, their headlights piercing the dark, humid African night. As we bumped along the rutted road, we passed shanties of tin and closed stores, that are actually commandeered steel shipping containers with windows and doors. Here, if you live in a concrete room with a light bulb, you’re doing okay.
The level of poverty is overwhelming and heartbreaking. We saw people living in mud huts held up with sticks, complete with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Families washed their clothes and themselves in streams. Women balanced firewood on their heads. When we passed, we routinely waved, and without exception the greeting was returned with a joyful smile. They have nothing and yet endure with warmth and generosity, giving all that they have - the best of the human spirit.
Sadly, the average life expectancy here is just 51 years. The median personal income is $700, which is why the waitress, who holds a very good job indeed, says “God bless you,” when you leave her a buck. Thrown into this mix are 18,000 U.N. peacekeepers, the largest deployment in the world, who Ban honored for their dedication and commitment. Eighty have been killed in the line of duty so far, and as we were flying into Kinshasa, there came word of another fatality in the blue helmet ranks: An Indian peacekeeper was shot in the head in Southern Sudan, as he was leading a team of U.N. de-mining experts that were suddenly ambushed. All they were trying to do was remove some of the millions of remaining landmines, so a little girl or boy wouldn’t be blown to bits.
This is also the place where the U.N. peacekeeper sex scandal scarred the U.N. effort, with the allegations of the protectors preying on children, by trading bananas, coins or candy for sex with victims, as young as 12-year-olds. There was little mention of that, as the nation looks to the future, after holding its first Democratic election in 40 years. In the room in Kisangani, a desperate city in the heart of the endless jungle, Ban paid tribute to the peacekeepers. A poster on the wall reminded them not to sleep with prostitutes or engage in sex abuse.
Ban praised the courage of the Congolese people, and in an address in the cavernous legislative building called “the Peoples Palace,” he was interrupted by their version of applause, which requires one to loudly use the palm of your hands to bang on the desk in appreciation. The imposing building dates from the 1970s era, when this nation was under Soviet influence. In this former socialist enclave, Ban warned that a healthy and thriving democracy needs a political opposition, where everyone can express themselves freely without fear of intimidation. He also met with the opposition leaders, a not so subtle reminder to newly inaugurated President Joseph Kabila, and his followers, to not get any untoward ideas. Kabila though does show some promise. Any politician, who in his inauguration, says, “I see a Congo where the people are always able to work,” better make good to keep his own job.
Ban’s schedule was punishing. He operated on four hours or less of sleep and I am told, he does not require much. If this first overseas jaunt is an indication of what’s to come, he will be an activist globetrotter who will exhaust the press corps. Yet he retained his humor, teasing me on my African suntan, which, by the way, was earned by being forced to stand in the broiling sun with the other reporters waiting for his official meetings to end. He approaches his task with sincere enthusiasm, a syndrome perhaps of holding a new big job. But as he spoke of the need for transparency and anti-corruption measures in the Congo government, there were mixed signals on that score back at the home office. It turns out that independent accountants would not do the promised “outside” auditing of all U.N. spending; instead, it will be done by the same U.N. pencil pushers who missed the Oil for Food scandal and other transgressions.
Ban did not take the resulting criticism lightly, pointedly making it clear that he defends his efforts to root out wrongdoing. And while we were roasting under the African sun, the office back home released his personal financial records, something Kofi Annan refused to do. Ban is worth, at most, $2.5 million. We know nothing of Kofi’s bank account.
Here there is seemingly little talk of U.N. reform, as presumably most benefit from the organization financially, spiritually or politically. It was the sight of Ban that reflected their own progress, and that was endorsement enough for the U.N.
But more challenges are yet to come. The African Union meeting in Ethiopia allows Ban to meet other leaders, notably Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who refuses to allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. Ban says the crisis in Darfur is his most important priority, telling me on the plane to Addis Ababa that, while he was not quite sure that he will be able to come out of this meeting with a concrete announcement, he is going to appeal to al-Bashir that he should think of all the many millions who are suffering from this humanitarian difficulty, and that he cannot let this situation continue like this.
Yet despite his appearance here, and his personal pleas, the situation will very much likely to continue for some time. The 8,000 African union troops are not up to the task, which is why the world looks to the U.N.
There is also the continuing unrest in Somalia, with the victories over the Islamists, which must continue. Will a combined African Union and U.N. peacekeeping forces eventually stop the mass killings in Darfur, when the Security Council has not even sufficiently punished al-Bashir’s regime? Can the U.N.’s claimed achievements in the Congo be replicated in Darfur and Somalia? That will be the test of Ban’s new administration.
Ban will be back in New York by week’s end. Let’s hope, back in Kinshasa, that there will always be a job standing by the hotel door for Knight to keep. If that goes, so goes the nation and no amount of U.N. progress or press coverage will save those who still rely on the U.N.’s helping hand.
Eric Shawn, a New York based senior correspondent for FOX News Channel, and the author of The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World. You can read his complete bio here.
Follow Eric Shawn on Twitter: @EricShawnTV