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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.

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A major problem is that, apart from its minerals, Congo does not produce anything that the rest of the world – or even the Congolese – wants to buy. Indeed, the same mineral treasure has disincentivized its governments from development, preferring, as dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko did for 32 years, to run the country by running it down.

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Congolese solola bien (literally, “talk to me nicely” – corruption) helps explain why the government wanted to trade $50 billion worth of mineral assets for $6 billion of Chinese infrastructure, until the International Monetary Fund objected. This development method raises as many problems of governance and transparency as solutions it offers.

Congo cannot feed itself, even though more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product is from agriculture. Permanent crops are planted on less than half of 1 percent of available land. In a country of enviable richness, where it is said “you can stick a broomstick in the ground and it will grow,” even flour is imported.

The Inga River hydroelectricity scheme is an example, again, of degradation, bad government, and missed opportunity. It should produce 1,700 megawatts, but manages less than half of that, due mainly to a chronic lack of maintenance. The much-touted ‘Grand Inga’ project has potential for an extra 39,000 MW, enough to supply much of the region, but this remains a distant dream in the absence of finance and presence of unmanageable political and security risks.

The government’s low revenue stream keeps it dependent on donors, which limits development – a vicious cycle. National revenue of $700 million is a paltry amount to provide services and infrastructure for a country disconnected from itself. Donors pick up the slack to the tune of $1 billion. The UN, meanwhile, provides 20,000 peacekeepers countrywide, though their presence softens the need for government to live up to its responsibilities.

A nation without a state?

The answer, the world has told Congo and other African countries for years, lies in better governance. The government agrees, seeing its challenges as three “transitions”: from conflict to postconflict, humanitarian assistance to durable development, and peace- to state-building. “What we need,” says the minister of planning, “is a vision of an administration, without which we will have a nation without a state.”

But how likely is governance when the country’s far-flung regions can’t communicate with one another or with the capital? When bad roads turn two-hour trips into two-day misadventures? Still, Congo has made progress. Ten years ago there were eight foreign armies, 50 militias, and millions of refugees countrywide. Today, there is an imperfect peace, though one with economic challenges in a country beset, in François Lumumba’s words, by “social inequality.”

Congo’s economic drivers – energy, natural resources, agriculture, and a burgeoning young population – offers many of the answers to the challenges addressed at the climate-change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is a bastion of clean energy and a basin of unspoiled rain forests. Realizing its potential demands transforming it from a failed to a functioning state. That’s easier said than done, but in Africa, defying the odds is a way of life.

Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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