Today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is remembering the 50th anniversary of its independence from brutal Belgian rule. But its people have little reason to celebrate, despite the grandiose festivities organised by the Kabila regime.
Eastern Congo remains deeply insecure, with the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens; the vast majority of Congolese are illiterate and deprived of healthcare; and the historic 2006 elections (the first since 1960) notwithstanding, democratic space is shrinking, not widening.
As in other African countries that obtained their political freedom from white domination, Congolese people dreamed of prosperity and dignity through hard work, of internal peace and good relations with the outside world. To quote Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba:
“We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make of Congo the centre of the sun’s radiance for all of Africa … We are going to keep watch over the lands of our country so that they truly profit her children.”
Fulfilling these aspirations was never going to be easy, even with competent, committed rulers. Unfortunately, the structural factors working against emancipation (no self-governing experience, institutionalised violence, etc) were compounded by two massive, interrelated problems: the almost total impunity enjoyed by Congolese regimes, and the west’s support for tyrants in exchange for access to Congo’s fabulous natural resources.
An American-Belgian plot assassinated the “dangerously autonomous” Lumumba, leading to a neocolonial restoration under the Mobutu dictatorship, which allowed western companies to feast on the formidable copper, cobalt and uranium reserves.
Meanwhile, the state withered away as social services and infrastructure were neglected and soldiers remained unpaid for years; statistics show that in the mid-90s, 75% of the budget went to “presidential private expenses”.
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide’s regional spillover, Mobutu’s time was up. The US-led international community gave a green light for a Rwandan-Ugandan invasion, with Laurent Kabila as its Congolese face.
Following regime change in May 1997, the west allowed Mobutu to die in peace and urged Kabila’s government to promote “national reconciliation”, conveniently refraining from prosecuting those who plundered the nation for decades.
Any hopes of a fresh start for central Africa were soon dashed when the former rebel-chiefs of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo fell out, triggering the bloodiest conflict since the second world war. Ten African states battled each other as well as dozens of militias on Congolese territory, causing the deaths of anywhere between 3 and 6 million civilians. Though the west was shocked by these atrocities, supposedly respectable multinationals made a fortune out of buying rare minerals from predatory governmental armies and rebels.
A peace agreement was negotiated under the aegis of South Africa and Belgium, leading to elections which returned Joseph Kabila (who had succeeded his father) to the presidency in 2006. Though this was significant progress compared with the years of all-out war, the western and regional partners of Congo again granted its leaders total impunity for the killing and systematic looting of natural resources that had occurred in the past decade.
Despite charges by the international criminal court against a handful of local pseudo-generals in Ituri region, their (inter)national backers in Kinshasa, Kampala and further afield are left alone. More than 95% of crimes against humanity committed since 1996 have gone unpunished.
As so often in Congolese history, in the name of stability, justice has simply been de-prioritised by the international community.
Opponents of this myopic choice were called pessimists because “Congo needs to move on”. Human rights icon Floribert Chebeya warned that while power is being concentrated by a clique of military hardliners and businessmen around Kabila, security remains absolutely abysmal, with thousands of women being raped annually in Eastern DRC. In today’s Congo, such criticism is unacceptable: on 2 June, Chebeya was assassinated.
Brussels, Washington and London still regard Congo as a “fragile democracy” and money continues to flow to Kinshasa. Never mind that there is no opposition worthy of the name; that the state does not control large swathes of the territory but allows its army to misbehave; and that critics are systematically intimidated or killed. Business must go on.
Congo’s 50th anniversary is an excellent opportunity for countries like Belgium, the US and Britain (the DFID pumped about £100m into DRC in 2009) to accept their devastating historical responsibility, rethink their assumptions about governance and security, and change their policy fundamentally.
It is high time the west replaced its 50-year-old illusion of prioritising ‘political stability’ with justice and accountability that has an emphasis on human rights and grassroots state-building. The root cause of Congo’s intractable crisis is the interplay of top-down authoritarianism, external manipulation and absolute impunity for those who violently exploit its people and resources: continued support for the “stabilising-factor Kabila” while accepting his failure to address atrocities by his security services implies repeating the disasters of the past.
Supporting the faith-based clinics, community-run schools and human rights organisations fighting for human dignity at the micro-level might not guarantee success either, but offers a far better chance of ending the “perennial” Congolese chaos in the next decade.
Paternalist, western-made designs have failed to improve living conditions, just like Kinshasa-centred patronage and authoritarian rule by Mobutu and the Kabila dynasty. So why not finally empower the Congolese themselves to make their own choices as they struggle to build a more just, more citizen-friendly state from the bottom up?
Harry Verhoeven, a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University.