research. training. advocacy.


No way back for Congo


On the 30th of June the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated fifty years of independence. Many ordinary Congolese feel however that there’s not much to celebrate. Day after day Congo is on the news with reports on massive human right violations, war, assassinations, corruption, government mismanagement, displacements, etc. Sadly enough, the actual situation in Congo looks very similar to that after independence. It is a story of déjà-vu’s, but also one of hope and looking forward.

When Belgium’s King Boudewijn I  handed over the running of Congo to the democratically-elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba on the 30th of June 1960, the new state wasn’t ready for self-governance. There was no political elite to fulfill the enormous task of administrating this vast country, as the Belgian colonists had blocked every form of political and socio-economical Congolese emancipation. Things were complicated further when the Belgian government and royal house deliberately obstructed the government of Lumumba by provoking a mutiny in the Congolese army and backing Katanga’s separation struggle. UN troops intervened, Lumumba was assassinated, Eastern Congo burned and suffered from the Simba insurgency and the bloody repression by the ANC (Congo’s national army). After five years of civil war, Mobutu, supported by the Western camp, took over, crushed the opposition and installed a Weberian Ideal Type of African dictatorship. 

Fifty years later the UN troops are once again present, there is still a failing political elite and an increasingly authoritarian presidency, and the national army stays the first and foremost threat to its own population. The country’s economic model focused on the export of raw natural materials nourishes the insecurity in the east of the country through its linkages with the international market and does not do anything to improve the miserable situation of the great majority of the Congolese people. Although history repeats itself, it is never in the same way.

Both the ONUC (United Nations Organization in the Congo, established in July 1960) and the MONUC troops entered the country with a peace-keeping mandate. In the end however, they became actively involved in suppressing secession (Katanga) and rebel movements (Nkunda’s CNDP, FDLR, LRA) in Eastern Congo. MONUC though, extends ONUC in mandate, size and duration. Last May MONUC was transformed into a mission of stabilization, named MONUSCO (Mission de l’ONU pour la Stabilization en RDC), with a mandate that stresses the protection of the Congolese civilians.

The east of Congo is still a zone characterized by armed clashes, displacements, refugees and massive human right violations committed by all armed actors. It is not surprising that many of Congo’s rebel movements originate or operate in Eastern Congo. First of all, Kinshasa is far away and the Congolese state is absent on the ground. Secondly, it’s by far the richest part of Congo due to its many natural resources (cobalt, gold, diamonds, cassiterite, copper, tin). Hence, there is a great incentive to fight for economical gains. Thirdly, it shares borders with conflict-ridden countries (Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan) whose rebels use Eastern Congo as a safe heaven or an operational base, leading to military interventions of neighboring states. Once they are military on the ground, they use their security concerns to exploit Eastern Congo’s mineral richness and create or support armed groups in the region to secure their interests. Fourthly, Eastern Congo is confronted with unresolved identity and land problems (the status of the Banyamulenge and Banyarwanda in the Kivu’s), aggravated with the influx of hundred of thousands Hutu refugees and decades of violence. Those grievances are often exploit by local and regional entrepreneurs of insecurity (states, warlords, militias, transnational economical and criminal networks) to legitimize their war whose main objective is to facilitate the plunder of Eastern Congo by creating disorder and anarchy.     

Likewise to Mobutu’s army, the FARDC is also unable to pacify Congo’s eastern provinces. Although the military operations against the FDLR –started in January 2009- destroyed some of its bases and forced the surrendering of some of its fighters, the reprisal attacks and the pillaging of some villages in the Kalehe area (South Kivu) show that the FDLR is still a threat for Kivu’s citizens. Another characteristic that relates the FARCD with Mobutu’s army is the great involvement in human right violations. Today again, in the operation against Uganda’s rebel movement ADF/NALU in North Kivu, there are reports of assassinations, rapes and armed assaults executed by FARDC soldiers.

Although the macro-economical indicators for the period 2006-2010 improved-  there was an annual GDP growth of 5 to 6 %, an increase of the total government revenues from 20,8 % of GDP to 27,3 %1- the economic crisis made life even tougher for the great majority of the Congolese. Every day thousands Congolese die (the overwhelming majority of diseases and malnutrition) – half of them children under age five-, two-thirds of the 67 million Congolese live on less than 1.25 US dollars a day and there are 1.9 million IDP’s who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Not surprisingly the DRC is ranked 176 of 182 on the Human Development Index. Public revenues greatly increased the last decade, but not enough to meet spending and development needs. Moreover, tax collection and management is well below capacity and held back by major structural flaws.

Notwithstanding international crisis hit the whole world, the export-orientated economic model of countries as Congo makes them more vulnerable for external shocks. The lower world demand and a drop in prices for raw materials, caused less governmental spending, a devaluating Congolese franc, rising unemployment and higher food prices. This sharply reduced the standard of living. Instead of focusing only on the mineral sector, Kinshasa must pay much more attention to the poor status of its agricultural sector. The overwhelming majority of the Congolese work on the land and depend on their crops to survive. Kabila likes to announce that under his regime Congo turned into one great building site. However, those big infrastructure projects are mainly limited to the disclosure of Congo’s mineral sector and in and around Kinshasa2, while the agricultural yields are dramatically low and the majority of the Congolese farmers still has to overcome tremendous obstacles to sell his crops on a local market. The regime should understand that real and sustainable development starts at the grass-roots of society. The energy and financial means invested in estate projects such as ‘La cite du Fleuve’ were better spent on the purchase of some agricultural equipment and the construction of roads in some local communities rather than in the interest of the happy few.

Many European politicians and Congo watchers –found in particular in Congo’s ex colony Belgium- are very critical for the regime, pointing on the huge corruption, the failing institutions, the FARDC’s involvement in human right violations, the trend to more authoritarianism, etc. Some go that far to compare Kabila with Mobutu. Since his election as president in 2006, Kabila narrowed the democratic space and strengthened the presidential cabinet at the expense of the parliament, government and judiciary. Political and civil opposition is silenced or co-opted, radio and television stations are closed, critical journalists and human right activists are threatened and murdered3. Decentralization reforms are postponed or rolled back, local elections are continually delayed (originally there were scheduled for autumn 2008) independent magistrates and governmental officials are replaced by loyal members of Kabila’s party and many important decisions are made by the presidential cabinet in exclusive, non-transparent decision-making structures4. The International Crisis Group identifies a trend to change the decentralized semi-presidential system back into a centralized presidential one5. The Congolese political activist and historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaia states that Mobutism is alive as never before with many old Mobutu loyals in the government, parliament and ruling party. He is very critically for the democratic transition: “Democracy without democrats is impossible. Gross of the Congolese politicians and activists in the civilian society are only interested in maintaining their power and access to revenues rather than in democratic governance”6.

It’s true that many things still go wrong in Congo, but there is no doubt that the country made a huge transition the last four years. Although the security situation stays problematic, the war in Kivu is over and the state could restore the territorial integrity of the country. State institutions were created, democratic elections found place, the relations with the region improved, the government tries to attract foreign investment by improving the business climate and for the first time in fifty years there is a government with a plan for Congo’s future. Kabila’s Cinq Chantiers involve massive infrastructure projects (roads and rail roads), the construction of hospitals, schools and power plants, and the creation of employment. That the situation improved is demonstrated in Goma. The war-wretched capital of North Kivu is now relative safe and business and infrastructure start to develop. Another difference between Mobutu and Kabila is that the former could rob and oppress for forty years the Congolese population under the supervision and approval of his Western allies, while Kabila is often very hard criticized by Congo’s main international donors7.

The hope that Congo four years after its first democratic elections in more than forty years  would be a bright spot in Central Africa after fifteen years of civil war, fifty years of state erosion and more than a century of authoritarianism and systematical deprivation, portrays a high sense of naivety and lack of historical understanding. Nonetheless, the political elite in Kinshasa must go on with the planned reforms, make an end to the impunity and take action to improve the living standard of its citizens. At the same time the international community must continue its engagement, coordinate better its efforts, criticize and put pressure on the regime when its necessary and prosecute those companies and individuals who continue to do business with armed groups in the mineral sector. In this sense, the decision of the NGO Global Witness to persecute the British government for not passing information to the UN about individuals and corporations who participate in the illegal traffic of Congo’s natural resources, can only be encouraged. 

1.- Cifres from African Economic Outlook,
2.- See the map of Le Monde Diplomatique: Philippe Rekacewicz, La Chine à l’assaut du Congo-Kinshasa, septembre 2009
3.- In June the tortured corpse of the famous Congolese human right activist Floribert Chebeya, was found in his car. He was on his way to a meeting with Congo’s chief of national security and member of Kabila’s inner circle John Numbi.
4.- Important decisions as the negotiating of the famous Chinese billion dollar contracts, the mixage process and the permission given to Rwanda to enter Congo to operate jointly against the FDLR.
5.- Congo: l’enslisement du projet démocratique, Briefing Afrique n° 73, 08/04/2010
6.- Vijftig jaar Congo in dertien vragen,, 02/07/2010
7.- See for example the harsh criticism expressed  by the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Karel de Gucht, in the European Parliament in December last year.

Related publications