Half of Africa is heading for hell, while in the rest life is improving surprisingly fast. Under Laurent Kabila, the new Democratic Republic of Congo could become the continent's dynamic heartby Richard Dowden / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
When laurent kabila flew into Kinshasa on 20th May he confounded a host of assumptions and predictions, and sealed the biggest change in central Africa for 37 years. His extraordinary past and enigmatic personality have been the subject of much speculation, but more elemental changes will determine the future of the 44m people who live in the new Democratic Republic of Congo. The myths surrounding the country are numerous. They are triggered by the name Congo itself and its associations with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, VS Naipaul’s Bend in the River and pictures of slaughter from the early 1960s when the Congo became independent. By arriving in Kinshasa more than a month early, Kabila confounded his own prediction. He thereby dented the widely held belief that nothing in Africa happens on time-even the revolutions are late. Kabila also confounded the assumption that, sooner or later, someone would fight for Mobutu. No one did, and Kabila did not have to negotiate. Defying the urgings of western powers and African leaders (in public), he just kept walking. Another wrong prediction made by diplomats and journalists last October was that Zaire would break up. Many thought that Kabila’s rebellion in Kivu would rekindle the spirit of secession in Kasai and Shaba (Katanga), both of which tried to leave the Congo in 1960. Travelling in Kasai and Katanga earlier this year, I got the impression that most people supported Kabila. They had more pressing concerns than secession-the main one being to retain some of the fruits of their labour and the wealth which was being extracted from beneath their feet. I was surprised at the speed at which the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo swept across the country. In retrospect, I should not have been. In 1994, I made a long trip through Zaire and concluded that the country did not really exist as a nation state. It was a Zaire shaped blank on the map. Mobutu had achieved this by privatising the state, making it and its funds his own. Everyone else had followed his lead. Officials, left unpaid for months, did not perform their duties unless paid to by citizens who needed an official stamp or permit. We call it corruption, but it was more like collecting a salary. It should have been no surprise, therefore, that no one was prepared to defend Mobutu. They were not being paid to. squalls of change Suddenly we are looking at a political upheaval in Africa almost as great as the end of apartheid in South Africa. It comes at a crucial moment for Africa, when half the continent seems to be heading to hell and the other emerging into the sunlight. There is no wind of change, rather a number of local squalls. These squalls are, on the whole, making life better for Africans by opening up economies and stimulating development based on real production, not aid. According to the IMF, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole achieved a 5 per cent growth rate last year, the best since the mid-1970s. Most of the successful economies are middle-sized-Uganda, Ivory Coast, Ghana. Of the four African giants south of the Sahara-Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa-only South Africa is functioning and that not brilliantly. Its per capita growth rate last year was minus 1 per cent, Nigeria’s was 1.2 per cent, Sudan’s 0.6 per cent (due to a good harvest) and the Congo’s minus 0.85 per cent. Despite these improvements the IMF estimates that, at present rates, it would take Africa 734 years to reach half the per capita level of wealth of the industrialised countries. But investment in Africa is rising. In the early 1990s, private capital flows almost dried up. That trend has now been reversed. Foreign investment in Africa increased from $5.2 billion in 1994 to $11.8 billion in 1996 (albeit most of it went to South Africa or into mining and oil). Perhaps most important of all is that Africans are beginning to invest their money in the continent’s economies. As long as Africa’s rich stored their money in Switzerland or London, there seemed little reason for anyone else to invest. Africa is also reaching a critical mass of educated people. Despite all the images of hunger and statistics of poverty, school enrolments have continued to rise, even up to tertiary level. In the past 15 years, illiteracy rates have fallen in sub-Saharan Africa from 60 per cent to 43.2 per cent. Infant mortality, too, has fallen. In most of Africa, despite the population rise, life has improved materially for the majority of people. In the 25 years I have been visiting, I have seen the children of people who went barefoot now wearing shoes. Are we reaching a point at which there are sufficient professionals-teachers, nurses, mechanics-to create a leaven of civil society? There is also renewed interest in Africa from the outside world, especially the US, which is recovering from post-Somalia stress syndrome. No US servicemen will get involved in Africa (except to rescue other Americans), but a new bill published in April with cross party support offers to help well governed African countries which are carrying out economic reforms. The final change is that South Africa has finally taken the plunge and got involved in Africa north of the Limpopo. Until now it has been tentative about doing anything-fearful of appearing to play the bully. Although its attempt at peacemaking in the Congo was not successful, it represents an irrevocable move into the continent. The Belgian legacy These factors provide the context in which Zaire has died and the Congo has been reborn. Bigger than Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe combined, the Congo borders nine countries. Imagine if it could quickly turn its politics and economy around, and soar off with a 7 per cent growth rate. Imagine if Kabila’s success helped bring peace to Angola’s oil fired economy. Imagine the Benguela Railway restored, making the riches of the copperbelt cheaply available again and imagine the Congo river providing hydro-electric power to electrify the centre and east of the continent. Imagine tourism restored in the Congo’s vast game parks, in the rainforest and the highlands in the east. Even without the country’s fabled mineral wealth, the Congo could be rich and prosperous again. It could become the dynamic heart of Africa, linking east and west, north and south-its people’s talents and energies set free by South African expertise and western investment. To make this dream come true Kabila has to get the relationship right between the Congo and the outside world. One hundred years ago, when European technology and know-how began to move into a continent divided into thousands of kingdoms of hunters and farmers, the Congo was carved out as a personal empire by King Leopold of Belgium. Following allegations in Britain of brutality, he was forced to hand it over to the Belgian state which was determined to run its possession on model lines. Contrary to received wisdom, it did so. While it certainly felt it had a mission civilisatrice, with all the paternalism and cultural insensitivity that implies, Belgian rule was neither like the British attempt to rule through the existing elites, nor the French attempt to turn Africans into Frenchmen. Belgium spent considerable resources trying to improve the lives of the people by health and education programmes. Its treatment of workers, especially in the copperbelt, was held up by progressive minded whites in southern Africa as a model for British ruled territories. At independence, as today, literacy rates in the Congo, were-and are-almost double the continental average, a legacy of Belgian rule. The Belgians got everything right except the politics. Unlike the British, they were happy to train Africans to the highest technical levels, but they made no effort to train people for senior posts in the police, army or administration. That is why Belgium has such a bad reputation for decolonisation-no Africans had been trained to assume political or administrative control and at independence in 1960 there were only about 30 Congolese university graduates. The longterm result of the Congo crises of 1960 and 1964 was that political change cost the country its economic and social development. Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister, feared that the Belgians wanted to retake the Congo. In retrospect his fears look like paranoia, but they helped spark the flight of the Belgians which left the country bereft of technical experts and administrators, and set back the cause of African nationalism by decades. The images of horror in the Congo were held up in South Africa as “what happens when they come to power,” providing a boost to apartheid. When Mobutu finally assumed complete power, he changed the country’s name to Zaire and made it a one party state. He then turned the party and the state into instruments of his own personal power. While the World Bank and the IMF continued to give him millions of dollars, the terms on which other foreigners dealt with Mobutu were those of brown envelopes stuffed with dollars. Only the catholic church was strong enough to stand up to him. Everyone else was dependent on him for their positions and wealth. Mobutu was maintained in power by the Americans, French, Belgians, Israelis and Germans. This was seen as a cold war imperative and Mobutu was believed to be the only man who could hold the country together. Apart from Congo’s $14 billion debt, Mobutu’s legacy is twofold. First, he failed to maintain the country’s infrastructure: mining plants were left to run down and rust away; roads disappeared; railways fell to pieces; production of copper fell from 500,000 tons to less than 50,000 tons. Second, there was a collapse of the moral order: from the lowliest doorman to ministers, everyone grabbed what they could. Rebuilding the economic base will require huge investment, but changing attitudes will be more even difficult-provided Kabila and his new government do not succumb to the old ways themselves. Much depends on what terms the Congo will re-engage with the world. Will it be a source of cheap minerals? A beggar living on aid? Or a closed off country where the hassle factor makes doing business prohibitive? Despite some misgivings, Kabila has worldwide support. His southern and eastern neighbours wish him well and, outside Africa, only France continues to sulk at his success. But the rich friends are demanding that in return for their help, Kabila takes some measures which he may not like. He will be asked to pay off at least part of his army, perhaps 25,000 strong, to hold elections, respect human rights and create accountability. All of which will look to Kabila like diluting his authority. If he is clever, he will he be able to hold on to power but look like a democrat. Kabila does not look that clever. He is a bad listener and has monarchical tendencies. He is reticent to talk about his past and refuses to define his principles. Thirty years ago he was a follower of Pierre Mulele, in turn a follower of Lumumba. Mulele believed in the thoughts of Chairman Mao but he also encouraged Mulele Mai-the belief that he and his true followers were immune from bullets when they covered themselves in a magic potion. Another Mobutu? Could Kabila become another Mobutu? He may want to, but he cannot. First because the people of Congo do not want another dictator. But more importantly because Mobutu had personal control of a structure. His levers of power were personal and not transferable. They passed away with his departure. There is nothing to inherit. During his last years Mobutu ruled, not by tight repression, but by allowing other barons and power centres to emerge in exchange for a cut of their profits. For example, East Kasai, the diamond province, became virtually autonomous and Mobutu allowed this to happen in exchange for a percentage of the diamonds. These alternative power centres still exist and will not give up their hard won autonomy without a fight. Kabila can rely partly on his military power, but if he wants to turn Congo into a stable political system, he will have to do deals. So far he has banned all political activity except by his own followers and closed down several independent radio stations. He has appointed a government which includes his recent acolytes, mainly exiled young pro-fessional Congolese, a couple of politicians from a radical internal opposition party and two second rank members of the mass opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, but not its leader Etienne Tshisekedi. In Katanga he also sidelined a popular but demagogic local leader, Gabriel Kiyungu wa Kumwanza. On the other hand, his troops were disciplined in captured territory and let local people elect their own leaders. Kabila has given himself almost total power while promising a constituent assembly by 17th July to draw up a new constitution which will be voted on in a referendum to be held at the end of next year. Elections are promised in April 1999. On the economic front Kabila speaks of a social market and emphasises the social responsibility of companies. Mwana Nanga Mawapanga, his finance minister, says that a new investment code will be drawn up which will force companies investing in the country to commit themselves to transference of skills and building infrastructure. If he had taken over the country 30 years ago, Kabila would undoubtedly have been another “toad king,” as Wole Soyinka has dubbed those dictators who sit on their countries while their people starve. Now he will try to devise some sort of “democratic” system to legitimise his rule. He may imitate the formula of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, whose “no party” democracy allows a degree of freedom of expression. Western countries have reluctantly come to accept this because Museveni has carried out economic reforms they approve of. As one diplomat put it: “If you get the economics right you get a discount on democracy and human rights.” The biggest danger Kabila faces lies in the origins of his own movement. The powerful people around him are Tutsis. The anti-Tutsi feeling which flared when his rebellion began has been rekindled now that the people can see that their liberators are indeed Tutsi. “We welcomed them even though they were Tutsis,” said one Kinshasa resident. “They got rid of Mobutu but we do not want them as rulers.” They will be opposed not because they are bad but because, like the Belgians, they are foreigners. If the Congo is lucky Kabila will rule subtly but firmly. If he gets it right, some of the winners in the new scramble for Africa might actually be Africans.