From war to wealth in Africa: Congo must help itself

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

“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.”

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.”

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.

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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