Nothing is as romantic as a lost cause, this is well known. I would add that, in a lost cause, it is the peripheries that are the most romantic. A few years ago, in entirely uninteresting circumstances, I came into possession of number of letters from a failed Congolese rebel fighter, now holed up in Khartoum, to a Belgian Communist solidarity group.
The writer was a man called Joseph Sebastian Ramazani. The only picture of him that I could find shows him with fellows rebels in the Congo (he the small man on the far left of the group of four).
In 1964, when the violent Simba rebellion broke out in Congo, he was put in charge of the Interior and Civil Service. By 1965 the Simba’s communist rebellion had ended, amid several accusations of atrocities. Ramazani is, however, little known about. Most of the coverage has been taken up by Gaston Soumialot (second on the right in the picture), who secured support for the movement from the USSR, China and Cuba. The letters from Ramazani that come from the period 1967-9, when hopes of the rebels’ military success in the Congo must have significantly waned. Soumialot, leader of the organisation now called “The Supreme Council of the Congolese Revolution”, had fled to Nasser’s Cairo and was living in Zamalek. Ramazani had the less glamorous (but perhaps nicer) job in Khartoum as the Sudanese representative.
Ramazani, several hundred miles down the Nile from his leader, seems to have spent his time writing political tracts and distributing them throughout the world. They are written in blue ink and a very elegant hand and are usually around 10 pages long. The first one that I have comes from May 1967 and denounces the Organisation of African Unity for its betrayal of African liberation movements (particularly his own).
Written with verve and zeal, Ramazani closes his text with a series communist and anti-imperial slogans as if they functioned as prayers or incantations. “Down with American imperialism”. “Down with Revisionists and the reaction of international imperialism.” And so on.
Ramazani is particularly outraged that the are not condemning Mobutu, who he sees as illegitimate imperialist ruler in Congo but instead working with him. In this period, the Mobutu government in Congo is starting to be normalised and is winning the recognition of several governments, including apparently the Sudanese state, for whom this rebel movement is becoming more of an inconvenience. The central moment of this collection of papers, therefore, comes in Summer 1967 when the Sudanese government sends the rebels a letter. On July 12, the Sudanese representative for refugees threatens to cut off support from Ramazani and his men. The legal requirement to support refugees runs out after a year and Sudanese hospitality has already exceeded this (They arrived over the course of 1964-65). So, Ahmed Babiker Isa, the minister in charge of refugees, tells them that they have to leave the houses they have been installed in by 1st September and that, after then, they will no longer receive the maintenance money they had been getting.
Our protagonist Ramazani does not react well to this threat. “The Congolese Revolutionaries Exiled in Sudan” write an open letter to the Director of African Affairs in Sudan, copying in much of the Sudanese government and sending a version to Voix du Peuple, a communist magazine in Belgium (the version I have).
He sees this move (no doubt correctly) as evidence the Sudanese government’s rapprochement with Mobutu and an abandonment of their cause. He notes with bitterness that, when they arrived, the Congolese fighters left a large quantity of gold, diamonds, arms and vehicles with the Sudanese government. If they are to return to Congo with Mobutu in charge, as the Sudanese want, they will need these resources back. The letter, demonstrating the brotherhood the Congolese had shown to the Sudanese, also reminds them that Congolese fighters had expressed their strong determination to join the Arab soldiers on the Middle Eastern front (i.e. in Israel) but that their offer had been ignored.
The open letter then presents the Congolese demands: that their period of asylum should last another 6 months, in which time they would go to visit their comrades in the South and prepare for their departure; then, that the Sudanese government should give them all 25 Sudanese Pounds to pay for a ticket wherever they wanted to go. It is signed by Ramazani as well as a man called Francois Sabiti and the “Regional President of Nationalist Women”, who marks it with a fingerprint, presumably as she is illiterate.
It is not precisely clear if or how this decision was enacted but we do have some information. On the 10th August Ramazani wrote to the Belgian ambassador in Khartoum to complain that Belgian radio had announced a rapprochement between the Mobutu government and the Rebels. It announced that the Congolese had left Sudan with the ambassador. Ramazani says that only 3 people out of the seven thousand Congolese in Sudan (along with their wives and children) had betrayed the principles of the revolution and normalised relationships with Mobutu. He assures the Belgian ambassador that he still believes armed struggle is the only way to fight imperialism on the continent.
After this, information becomes more sparse but a few things are certain. One thing that we can say is that Ramazani stays on in Khartoum. In April 1968 he sends an short article for publications in La Voix du Peuple in Belgium. He informs the editors that “were are living a hard life among fascists, but we all still hope to bring back a victory one day – they sabotage us but we must hold out. This is what our respective peoples demand.” The tone is embattled and his exhortations to fight barely credible. The title of the article that he sent in was “Conscience”.
A letter from March 1968 addressed to the Belgian Committee for Solidarity with the Congolese Resistance is more revealing. Sent from Khartoum, it begins by thanking the Committee for their work against the forces of imperialism (both American and Belgian) which never stop threatening the peace of the world. Then he goes on to say that, in his role in the struggle against imperialism, the thing he needs most right now is to improve his political knowledge. This might be achieved, he says, by studying a course in political sociology. Therefore, he is writing to ask for their help enrolling in a course in Belgium and securing a bursary to bring himself, his wife and four children with him. If there is a surer sign that your revolution has failed than enrolling in a political sociology course in Europe, I can’t think of it.
After this the letters dry up. There is just one final, tragic coda. One single page letter, in stark contrast to the handwritten booklets denouncing imperialism that we saw in 1967, is dated 20 March 1967 and sent to Belgium from the same PO Box in Khartoum. Ramazani has received a notification of change of address but has not responded. He apologises, as he has been ill and has not been able to reply to letters. Then he closes his letter by asking to receive the new editions of the journal (Voix du Peuple, I assume) as soon as possible.
It is a anticlimactic end to the letters of a man who began with so much righteous anger and rebellion. But these letters stand as a monument to a forget part of an unsuccessful and largely forgotten movement. As with Lumumba, whose heirs this rebels claimed to be, it is in the failure that we can find poetry. Had the Simbas been successful, there is every possibility that they would have been great villains. But since Ramazani lived out the late 1960s in obscurity writing pamphlets in Khartoum, he can remain mysteriously appealing.