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Some thoughts on Freddy's hunger strike, from a communications perspective

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I don't know Frederick Wangabo Mwenengabo. Never met him. But after reading about him in Adam Bowie's stories in the Daily Gleaner, I have nothing but admiration for him.  What he endured at the hands of the cruel and corrupt government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is more than any human being should face. His courage in fighting the good fight as a human rights activist against the unspeakable crimes visited upon the millions of innocent in his homeland is remarkable.


Freddy, as he is known to his friends, is now in exile in Canada, living in Fredericton, where he is continuing to try to make a difference in his country. This time by going on a hunger strike to try to get the Canadian government to boycott an upcoming conference in the Congo that it is scheduled to attend.


As much as I support his cause and admire his conviction, I wish he'd stop.


Sure, it would be nice if the Canadian government, and other true democratic governments didn't treat ruthless warlords as legitimate, but resorting to blackmail by refusing to eat isn't the way to go.


The problem of course, is that if the Canadian government concedes, it sends the signal that this tactic works. No question Freddy's cause is a legitimate one, but what about next time? Will we see someone go on a hunger strike to try to force the government to (fill in the blank).


Even Gandhi, who in fact did exact the change he demanded by a hunger strike, in fact three times, said that he didn't feel good about it. He called it “not quite pure”.


Gandhi did show though, that it can work, but from a communications point of view, hunger strikes only work when there is considerable, active and vocal public support for the person on the strike. I don't see it in Freddy's case.


His friends say his effort is gaining support. But that support doesn't seem to be mainsteam but rather confined to other human rights activists. Except for the occasional update in the media, and it for the most part only in this area, from what I can gather, Freddy's hunger strike is far from what people in marketing would call front-of-mind. It needs to be.


For a hunger strike to work, people have to rally in support. That's what it would take. Prime Minister Harper's advisors would have to see so many people on side, that politically he couldn't ignore it, or ignore it at his peril. He's not seeing that.


While I expect most Canadians support Freddy's objectives, perhaps what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo is so far removed from our reality that we simply can't relate to it. Or maybe it's because his hunger strike just isn't in our face? Maybe if he were doing this in a more public place? Maybe if there was a better organized effort to get names on petitions? Lots of maybes.


So his hunger strike is reduced to a point of interest, and maybe a passing thought of how what's happening in that far off land is such a shame, and they may feel sorry for Freddy and wish him the best, but it pretty much stops there.


Freddy did get a call from Fredericton MP Keith Ashfield, who told him he would bring his hunger strike to Prime Minister Harper's attention, but that was three weeks ago, and nothing since.  


Ashfield is a good, caring man. I expect he did what he could. But I wouldn't doubt that in the absence of public pressure, Freddy may be right in his assumption that Canada's interests in mineral extraction in the Congo over-rides human rights issues and that is why the Prime Minister is reluctant to upset the corrupt Congolese leadership when he doesn't have to.


And then there is the argument that more can be accomplished on the human rights front by attending these kinds of conferences and engaging the offending dictatorships than by boycotting. There is probably some truth in both arguments.


For the aforementioned reasons, I can see the Prime Minister not agreeing to Freddy's demands. But on purely humanitarian grounds he should at least call him and have that discussion. Let him know that the government of Canada isn't entirely insensitive to what is happening in that part of the world.


Freddy is doing what he feels he has to do. We have to respect that.  But at the time of this writing he is 35 days without food. He's getting weaker, and there is no indication he will stop. People on hunger strikes have been known to die after 52 days. In Freddy's case, that's two-and-a-half weeks from now (at the time of this posting). 


It will be such a shame if Freddy, who is such a good man, dies on our soil. If so, some will say it was his choice. In a sense I guess it is, but dismissing it as such is an over-simplification. This is much more complicated than that.


It's a tough issue. What are your thoughts?

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