New Internationalist

Zaire

Issue 219

new internationalist
issue 219 - May 1991

COUNTRY PROFILE

Zaire

Where is Zaire? 'The cock that leaves no hen unruffled' is the translation of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the full name assumed by President Mobutu in 1965. He is master of the cult of personality. The 'Supreme Guide', 'Father' and bearer of a self-awarded Oscar for Development has his portrait hung in every public place, printed on textiles and, before the re-instatement of the Church, at the altar.

But Mobutu, who seized power with a military coup in 1965, is popular because he has replaced violent uprisings and struggle for power following Independence in 1960 with 'unity' and 'peace'. For Africa's third largest country, riddled by a network of rivers, with a rainforest the size of Europe, and over 200 ethnic groups, such apparent stability is a feat which some believe can only be achieved by tyrannical rule and centralised government.

The alleged killings by police of 50 university students demonstrating in February 1990 against increased public transport fares and inadequate study grants illustrates Mobutu's method of peace.

Zaire's corruption, most recently exposed by the Belgian press, has soured relations between Zaire and its former colonizer. But the leakage of funds, coupled with the country's lack of basic infrastructure, compounds Zaire's difficulties. Missionaries provide nearly all education and health facilities.

Though primary education is officially compulsory, only half the school-age population progress to secondary education. Of the girls, only about one third enrol; their sisters are kept at home to work the fields or care for siblings while the mother sells produce in the market.

'Education means equality and opportunity' is the rhetoric. But there are no state funds for fuel, building materials and the unreliable transport facilities that thwart development and domestic and international trade.

Though less than three per cent of the land is cultivated, its fertility guarantees subsistence living. Outside the cities, no-one need ever starve. Though AIDS is widespread, children die from more basic diseases like malaria, and malnutrition.

Transportation is appalling. Office des routes, the Government office responsible for the upkeep of roads, is aptly nicknamed Office des trous (of holes). Like hydro-electrics and diamonds, tourism is as yet untrammelled.

So tracking the Virunga mountain gorillas or voyaging up the Zaire river is an exercise in initiative and bribe-dodging. But, once you've caught the Zairian sense of humour and shuffled to their pulsating music, life, as pop star Papa Wemba would say, is rosy.

Genevieve Fox

 

LEADER: President Mobutu Sese Seko

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $170 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Zaire
Main exports: copper, crude petroleum, diamonds, cobalt and coffee.
Imports: machinery and transport equipment, maize, wheat and other foods, chemicals and mineral fuels, mainly petroleum.
Industry: manufacturing, mining, brewing, textiles.
Crops: cassava, rice, plantain, maize. 70% of population in subsistence farming.

PEOPLE: 34.5 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 81 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Former Belgian Congo now suffering severe post-colonial decay.
Religion: Catholicism predominant, Protestant, local religions, Islam.
Languages: French official language, plus Lingala, Kiswahili, Tshiluba, and Kikingo.

Sources: The Africa review 1990, State of the World's Children 1991; Europa Yearbook 1990

Last profiled in November 1985

 

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Wide gulf between top earners and rest
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Could be self-sufficient but now depends on imports
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No recognition of women's work

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Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR) sole legal party.
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Women 53% Men 79% Gap also between urban and rural areas.
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No fair judiciary. Bribes and peremptory arrests.
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Low 53 years
(US 76 years)

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