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Democratic Republic of Congo

At Kinshasa International Airport, perhaps the most chaotic airport in the world, it is common for passengers to disembark with bundles of chickens tucked under their arms, or pulling along heavy loads of merchandise. Sometimes the strongest passengers, or those that can run fastest, are the ones that get seats on domestic flights during peak times at this, the main airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Quite often, one will have to bribe an airline official, or an airport security official, in order to get a seat on an overbooked flight.

Corruption runs deep in Congo and the breakdown of law and order that began under the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko remains palpable. Before he was ousted in 1997 by a force led by the late Laurent Kabila and supported by Rwanda and Uganda, Mobutu governed the former Belgian colony like a personal fiefdom.

He locked up opponents, used public funds as he wished, including on a palace in his village at Gbadolite and on European shopping sprees, while neglecting social infrastructure and leaving public servants – including soldiers and police – unpaid for years. That bred corruption as public servants sought to find their own salaries. It also led to civil war, which between 1997 and 2006 resulted in the deaths of an estimated four million people, mainly from famine and disease.

Now, however, Africa’s third largest country appears to be turning a corner: perhaps at no time in its post-independence history has its future looked as bright as it does today. This despite the fact that some politicians maintain personal armies, rape and plunder are rampant, huge swathes of the country are not under governmental control and teem with insurgents from neighbouring countries.

Joseph Kabila was last October elected president in the DRC’s first democratic poll in four decades. He has just named a 60-member cabinet led by veteran politician Antoine Gizenga, a former aide to the country’s post-independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Mobutu’s son François Joseph Nzanga Mobutu, who took fourth place in the first round of presidential voting, has a cabinet post too, and parties that rallied behind Kabila in the run-off are also represented.

The widespread violence many had predicted during the polls did not materialize, despite the fact that Kabila’s main challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba, former leader of the Uganda-sponsored rebel group Movement for the Liberation of Congo, had a personal army in Kinshasa. Bemba’s army has since been relocated from the capital, at Kabila’s bidding.

Occasional fighting, mainly involving government troops and local militia, continued until late 2006 in parts of eastern Congo. And many areas remain beyond government control. But General Laurent Nkunda, the last warlord to hold sway in the eastern North Kivu area, at the end of 2006 agreed a truce under which his forces will be integrated into the national army and he will take asylum outside Congo.

The current stability has whetted the appetites of such big names as AngloGold Ashanti, BHP Billiton and De Beers to inject more funds into the country’s burgeoning mining industry; while gas exploration, fishing and infrastructure development are also attracting greater investor interest. Besides being a net exporter of minerals, Congolese music enjoys great popularity across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond: the Exuberant music genre has been a hallmark of the country since the 1960s. Exuberance has not been a word easily associated with the DRC in recent years, but at least now things really do seem to be looking up.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled May 1991

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)