Troubled DRC hosts Francophonie summit
11 October 2012, 12:58
Kinshasa - Leaders from the 75-nation Francophonie were to begin their biennial summit on Friday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that encapsulates Africa's many woes but also its growing stake in a body searching for a raison d'etre.
The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie's decision to hold its 14th summit in Kinshasa raised eyebrows given the government's poor democratic credentials and human rights record.
French President Francois Hollande scolded his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila and could meet his opposition rival on the sidelines of the summit, setting a tense political backdrop for the three-day meeting.
The 2011 polls that saw Kabila win a new term and retain his control of parliament were widely criticised as fraudulent.
The main opposition movement has vowed to stage protests during the summit to denounce last year's "electoral farce".
Hollande this week described the political and human rights situation in DRC as "unacceptable", earning a sharp rebuke from a government spokesperson who said it was up to the Congolese - not the president of France - to decide what was acceptable.
The summit, whose 2010 edition was moved from Madagascar to Switzerland over democracy concerns, also comes amid fresh fighting in the eastern DRC.
The organisation's first summit was due to have been held in Kinshasa in 1991 but moved to Paris due to an outcry over the abuses committed by Mobutu Sese Seko.
The three-day meeting will break Kabila's relative diplomatic isolation but Francophonie secretary general Abdou Diouf stressed the summit was not about the Congolese leader but rather an opportunity to highlight regional issues.
"We are not here to fete one individual but to celebrate DRC and the peoples of central Africa," he told AFP in an interview ahead of the summit, one of the largest international events Kinshasa has ever hosted.
About 20 heads of state are expected for the summit and the government launched a $21m spruce-up of Kinshasa, a huge chaotic city of 10 million people.
Hundreds of workers have been sweeping and painting the streets while major infrastructure projects - carried out by China in exchange for mining concessions under a multi-billion-dollar 2007 deal - moved into overdrive in recent weeks.
The mad rush to knock the city into shape left some residents with mixed feelings.
"What took them so long? Did we really have to wait for a high-profile visit by dignitaries to see the roads being repaired?" said Pitchen, a 31-year-old docker.
"Look at this, a real slapdash job. What kind of road is this? It's already got potholes."
Heads of state are expected to discuss the crisis in member state Mali, where France and several of the region's countries want a military intervention to oust the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who took over the north in March.
Another main focus at the summit in DRC, the most populated country in French-speaking Africa with 70 million inhabitants, will be the future of an organisation that has battled for relevancy since its creation in 1970.
Francophonie has long been perceived as a desperate attempt by France to maintain a post-colonial zone of international influence but Diouf, a former Senegalese president, argued France was no longer the body's driving force.
"Africa is the future of Francophonie," he said. "According to our studies, there will be 715 million francophones worldwide by 2050 and 85 percent of them will be in Africa."
There are currently an estimated 220 million French speakers around the world, making French the ninth language on the planet.
It is the third language of Joseph Kabila, who is more comfortable in English and Swahili.
French has been steadily losing ground to English across the world, including in French-speaking Africa, and there have been calls for the Francophonie and its limited budget to revise its ambitions as an international player on rights and governance issues to focus on language and education.