Upon his election as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2006, Joseph Kabila launched a five-pronged socio-economic reconstruction programme termed Cinq Chantiers, focused on providing housing, jobs, water and electricity, and rebuilding physical infrastructure.
In July of this year, the DRC government initiated the Stabilisation and Reconstruction Plan (STAREC): a comprehensive reconstruction programme expected to cover the security, economic, judicial, health and education needs of twenty-six war-ravaged territories (administrative sub-divisions of the provinces) of the eastern DRC, and at a cost of some $1.2 billion solicited from the international donor community. One might question the appropriateness of embarking on a new and costly reconstruction plan before previous programme’s impact has been assessed, particularly given ongoing conflict in the east of the country, of which the underlying issues remain unaddressed. In pondering these questions, it is important to take stock of the historic undercurrents informing the values and decisions impacting on governance in this potentially prosperous, but much maligned state.
In early 2007, riots in the Bas-Kongo Province claimed the lives of some 140 people, in an event largely unreported internationally. Protestors battled police and soldiers, claiming that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Union pour la Nation (UN) coalition had been robbed of victory in January’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections; in the latter, President Kabila’s Alliance pour la Majorité Présidentielle (AMP) coalition – a political alliance formed after the 2006 general elections – won 80% of the seats.
Something deeper than election politicking underlies this simmering crisis. In past decades, Bas-Congo has been the scene of intermittent secessionist demands by the Bundu dia Kongo (‘Kongo Kingdom’), an ethno-religious grouping of adepts from the Kongo-speaking regions, formerly part of the dislocated Kongo Kingdom. Seventeenth-century Portuguese explorers marvelled at the political and military sophistication they encountered in this region, which spans parts of modern-day DRC, the Republic of Congo and Angola.
The political grievances of Bemba’s coalition thus take on a wider significance: they exploit long-standing demands for the restoration of an indigenous political system which people believe, rightly or wrongly, has more relevance to their lives than the succession of corrupt regimes which bestrew the DRC’s post-colonial history. They also serve as a painful reminder that the ethnic cord is easily manipulated by political interest groups.
Neither colonial-era violence, nor the Second Republic under Mobutu Sese Seko, succeeded in promoting a lasting sense of nationhood. Despite, or perhaps because of the violent means of its imposition, the colonial system reinforced rather than inhibited allegiance to traditional politico-religious belief systems. The DRC’s most popular syncretic sect, Kimbanguism, was perceived as a threat by Belgian colonists in the 1920s, and banned. Kimbanguism – officially ‘The Church of Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu’– has about three million members, primarily among the Bakongo of the Bas-Congo and Kinshasa regions.
A closed political system, the ‘Zaireanisation’ of economic assets by a venal political elite surrounding Mobutu, and divide-and-rule tactics intended to divert attention from the failings of the regime, were central to the development of an alternative value system based on self-interest within the population. The chaotic liberalisation of the mining sector was, for example, a direct consequence of this. ‘Parallel’ or ‘alternative’ modes of expression were adopted over time in response to the structural violence and economic marginalisation faced by the population in their day-to-day lives. Ingenious approaches to the problems of daily survival impacting on culture, politics, and the economy, shape the DRC’s reputation as a particularly vibrant and creative society. Yet these also pose a challenge to the task of nation-building today. ‘Parallel’ survival mechanisms are often at odds with formal process and procedure, making many of the country’s social and economic transactions inherently illegal.
A deliquescent state has failed to provide for people’s most basic needs. Disaffected communities in search of a sense of ‘citizenship’ revert nostalgically to structures that reinforce their sense of identity. And, supreme of paradoxes, Congolese of the older generation can be heard grumbling that ‘it was better in colonial times – at least then, there was a sense of discipline and order’. The conflict in Bas-Congo attests to this seething discontent.
Despite criticism of his autocratic governance style, Kabila is lauded for bringing about palpable improvements in the living conditions of many Congolese, though for a short duration, and bolstering national pride. Road infrastructure was improved somewhat, and importantly, salaries were regularly paid to state employees, including the military.
When the second ‘war of liberation’ broke out in 1998, these improvements gradually dissipated as the rebel Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) (which, with the support of neighbouring countries, had de facto control over eastern DRC until 2001), installed a corrupt Mobutu-esque dictatorship in the east. Given the deep political imprint which Mobutu left on his country, the ideological and political value systems were not markedly different in the west under Kabila; the war in its initial stages was about territorial control.
Transitory and self-serving as Kabila’s measures were, they nurtured a sense of pride and self-esteem amongst Congolese, explaining the great sense of loss upon his death. The fervour accompanying the presidential campaign of his son Joseph, particularly in the eastern Kivu provinces, resided in the hope that he would continue the work of his slain father, and in his promises to safeguard the territorial integrity of the DRC and bring peace and stability to the Kivus.
The depredations of the 32-year Second Republic, coupled with six years of war, destroyed local economic systems and networks, and left the east particularly vulnerable. This destruction includes: the degradation of road, rail and telecommunications infrastructure; increased geographical isolation of village communities; and, the atomisation of the territory into micro-administrations under the control of Congolese or foreign rebel forces, and even commanders of the National Army. Mining operations were also privatised, coupled with the harsh exploitation of mine workers, and the transfer of labour from agriculture to more profitable artisanal mining activities supported by local and international business, in which politics and corruption are intertwined. Widespread and unrecorded human rights abuses, including rape on a scale never before experienced in the Congo, cross-cut all of these developments.
Given the extent of social, infrastructural and administrative fragmentation, many Congolese rely on powerful local solidarity networks to cope in times of adversity. These networks were severely strained during the war. It is generally recognised within the international humanitarian community that in eastern DRC, bar the political and business elite, all civilians are vulnerable: the displaced are simply more vulnerable than everyone else.
Jules (name altered), a high-level Bukavu functionary and member of the provincial governor’s immediate entourage, is one of the few regularly-paid government employees. Yet he is open about his intention to relocate his family to Belgium; he distrusts politics and politicians and refuses to pay allegiance to a state that has made no positive contribution to his life. He cites as examples of this, the labour of his parents to provide for his education, that road repairs are undertaken by local communities, and that state-run health and education structures are close to total collapse.
Corruption, exclusion, and the normalisation of violence have unfortunately become defining characteristics of successive regimes. However, a unique opportunity presents itself at this pivotal moment. International aid promises large sums for economic and social reconstruction. With political normalisation, it is essential that the new government focuses on sustainable economic recovery programmes that diminish the lure of illegal, parallel activities. It is equally important that government put its own house in order, by developing and enforcing regulatory frameworks, particularly in the mining industry, and imposing sanctions on office-bearers involved in extortion and other forms of corruption. Furthermore, concerted efforts need to be made to ensure the safety of civilians, and in implementing security and judicial reform programmes.
National cohesion in the DRC can only be fostered through profound socio-economic transformation. The STAREC programme offers a glimmer of hope and may present the first steps to addressing this question, but will require the commitment of visionary political leadership.
Moreover, the international community’s engagement with the process of reconstruction will be crucial in helping to stabilise this country, tragically engulfed in conflict for over a decade. It is incumbent upon South Africa to support the DRC’s peace-building and reconstruction process. To play a constructive role in this regard, it needs to do so from a position that takes proper stock not only of recent events, but also the entrenched structural – often informal – dynamics that inform these processes.
There is a need to ensure the emergence of stable and democratic institutions, including the armed forces and the judicial system. The strategic importance of a stable, prosperous, DRC for sub-Saharan Africa cannot be overestimated, and as such, sustained efforts are called for to support its regeneration.
Finally, South Africans would be well-advised to be more understanding and accommodating of the hardships faced by citizens of conflict-ridden nations such as the DRC, in their quest for dignity and respect.
Marian Matshikiza is Great Lakes Project Leader in the IJR Transitional Justice in Africa programme.
© Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2009.