New Internationalist

Democratic Republic of Congo

May 2007

The breakdown of law and order that began under the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko remains palpable

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.

Wairagala Wakabi
Democratic Republic of Congo Fact File
Leader Joseph Kabila, became president in January 2001 after his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated. Won country’s first democrati
Economy GNI per capita: $120 – the world’s second-lowest after Burundi (Angola $1,350, Belgium $35,700).
Monetary unit Congolese Franc.
Main exports Minerals, including coltan (used in cellphones), gold, diamonds, copper, cadmium, zinc, cobalt, tin and uranium. An ongoing revival of copper mines and new investments in mining and gas are creating jobs and improving Treasury earnings. Most people work in agriculture, which contributes half the gross domestic product but, despite its vast and rich agricultural land, DR Congo imports huge quantities of food.
People 61.2 million. Annual population growth rate 2.8%. People per square kilometre 26 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 129 per 1,000 live births (Angola 154, Belgium 4). There is an acute shortage of health infrastructure and trained doctors. The HIV prevalence rate is currently 3.2%.
Environment The war in the eastern part of the country reduced wildlife numbers, including the Mountain Gorilla in the Virunga National Park. Poaching remains rampant and the River Congo is heavily polluted.
Culture Around 200 ethnic groups, including: Luba (18%), Mongo (13%), Azande, Bangi and Ngale (each 6%).
Religion Exact proportions are hard to discern, since syncretism (the blending of religions) is common and many people practise traditional religions in parallel. Catholic (41-50%), Protestant (32%), Muslim (1-10%). A third of the Protestants are Kimbanguist, a variant of the Baptist faith unique to the DRC.
Language French (official). Local languages include Kiswahili, Tshiluba, Kikongo and Lingala.
Sources World Guide, State of the World’s Children, Human Development Report.
Democratic Republic of Congo ratings in detail
Income distribution
Years of plunder of state resources created super-millionaires, but well over 50% of nationals are estimated to be living on less than a dollar a day.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
44 years (Angola 41, Belgium 79). The civil wars and the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS have lowered life expectancy from 53 years at the time it was last profiled.
Previously reviewed
Since 2003, higher levels of freedom have been enjoyed. But this applies only to the cities and a few other areas that the central government controls.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Thousands of Congolese women were raped during the civil war. Custom holds women inferior to men and polygamy is rampant. No affirmative action programmes.
Previously reviewed
Literary rate is 67%. School is compulsory for children aged 6-11 years but only 40% of them complete primary school. Education has been badly hit by the wars.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal for men and women and can be punished by five years’ prison under the ‘crimes against the family’ law. Many ordinary Congolese perceive homosexuality to be a ‘non-African’ practice.
NI Assessment (Politics)
DR Congo’s elections passed off peacefully and Kabila is co-existing with the opposition led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, a departure from past practice where opponents were harassed. A new senate and parliament have just been set up on the basis of a new constitution. But corruption is rampant, state control is non-existent in several parts of the country (which insurgents, including foreign ones, have taken over). Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of fighters are badly needed, as are efforts to promote reconciliation.

This column was published in the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy1
Previously reviewed
Previously reviewed
Position of women2
Previously reviewed
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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