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From war to wealth in Africa: Congo must help itself

Better governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo could unleash its vast potential.

By Greg Mills / January 12, 2010

Kinshasa, Congo

“That,” said the head of the United Nations mission pointing to the great Congo River sweeping past, “shows why energy is more than just oil.”

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Later, in a boat puttering slowly down the Nsele River, we encountered a flotilla of dugouts lashed together transporting giant bags of charcoal in a two-day journey from neighboring Kongo Central Province for sale in the capital. Many of the sailors were naked. Good morning, Mr. Kurtz; hello, Marlow. Technology and life had scarcely budged in the 100 years since Joseph Conrad’s controversial novel “Heart of Darkness” was published.

Twelve years ago, one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II gripped this vast country, involving eight nations and affecting millions. Fighting persists in the east, home to the world’s worst sexual violence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) does not have to be a splotch of darkness at Africa’s heart, routinely exporting instability across its borders and keeping its people down and insecure.

But transforming from war to wealth won’t come from outside aid but by what the Congolese do themselves. It will come, too, from long-term investment by businesses, foreign and local. They, in turn, require policy predictability along with investor security – not a predatory, rent-seeking elite.

Congo’s infrastructure exists mostly only on paper. The airport in Lubumbashi is a yellow and blue-trimmed 1950s edifice proudly displaying the half-painted words “Aeroport Lubu,” replete with a giant picture of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – the former president who was assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph, the current leader. It’s a museum of derelict aircraft, including a biplane, Dakotas, and Soviet-era jets.

The sorry sight of Kinshasa’s Aeroport de N’djili is nothing compared with the chaotic bureaucratic gantlet one has to run in order to leave. There are at least a dozen security, immigration, and other checks, seemingly designed less to counter terrorism than to harass passengers and solicit money. This is hardly surprising where income is low and irregular: Policemen earn only $20 monthly. “How else,” a former official put it, “do you think that 10 million people in Kinshasa are fed? Did you see any industry there?”

Transportation here is a cruel joke. The DRC is nearly six times larger than California, yet has on paper just 2,500 miles of railway and 1,700 miles of paved roads. It has more than 6,000 miles of borders with its nine neighbors, but many of these links are unserviceable, limiting trade.

Treasures in the ground, but no wealth

One result is that most of its people are locked in situ and in penury. In a country once described as a “geological scandal,” a treasure-trove of diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, gas, and oil, per capita income of its 69 million people is under $300, the lowest in the world, save for Zimbabwe.

The main route into Kinshasa is down Lumumba Boulevard, named for Congo’s first prime minister after the country won independence from Belgium in 1960. He was assassinated mere months after being elected. Lumumba’s oldest son, François, has strong views on Congo’s development. The leader of the Mouvement National Congolais Lumumba (MNC-L), his father’s original political party, François says that the government has no strategic development plan but rather aims to just survive from day to day. “Its only interest is in power and money,” he argues, “not the Congolese.”