The Congo’s Best Chance

21 August 2006

The Congo’s Best Chance

 By Gwynne Dyer

As soon as the election results were announced in Kinshasa on Sunday and it became clear that President Joseph Kabila had won less than half the votes in the first round, the shooting started. Army troops loyal to Kabila showed up outside the compound of the main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba, his guards opened fire (or returned it, depending on whom you believe) — and the United Nations had to send in twenty armoured personnel carriers to extract the American, French, Chinese and other foreign diplomats who had been meeting with Bemba.

Not a happy omen for those who hope that this election can end the long nightmare of the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) by producing a president whom everybody would accept as legitimate. Most people assumed that it would be Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country without benefit of elections since his father, former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, but he only got 45 percent of the votes in the first round of voting.

The runner-up, with 20 percent, was Bemba, who will now face Kabila alone in the second round of voting (probably on 29 October). Bemba will pick up votes from some of the other presidential candidates who were eliminated in the first round, but it’s almost inconceivable that he can catch up with Kabila, so the question is: will Kabila’s victory be the starting gun for another civil war in the Congo?

The Congo, with 60 million people, is one of Africa’s biggest countries, and it has certainly been one of the worst-governed. It has only recently emerged from a civil war that also involved six other African armies and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of four million Congolese. This is its first free election in forty-one years. If your dream is a future of peace and prosperity, you definitely wouldn’t want to start from here.

Yet fully 70 percent of the population turned out to vote. Despite their poverty and all the disappointments of the past, ordinary Congolese still see some hope of a better future — and so do the foreign countries that provided 17,500 troops, the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world, to ensure that the election happened at all. Are they all wrong?

For almost half a century the Congo has been a symbol of how bad things could get in Africa: a huge, resource-rich country where nothing works any more, where even the roads have vanished, where most people live in misery, poverty and despair. But that’s not what most African countries are like, and it needn’t have been the Congo’s fate either.

The Congo got its independence in 1960, but its former Belgian rulers were determined to hang onto the rich mines of Katanga province even if they had to leave the rest of the country, so they sponsored a separatist movement there. When that didn’t work, they and the US government (which feared that the Congo was going Communist) conspired to overthrow the new president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and subsequently had him murdered.

The man who ruled the Congo for the next 32 years, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), was a former sergeant in the colonial army, rapidly promoted to general by Lumumba and then chosen by the CIA to replace him. He stayed in power for a generation by taking over the state’s revenues for himself and his supporters, and NOTHING got spent on maintaining the Congo’s existing infrastructure, let alone improving it. So the country went back to the bush.

Lumumba’s surviving allies fought back, including Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who spent twenty years leading a futile guerilla struggle in eastern Congo. (At one point, in 1965, he even had Ernesto “Che” Guevara and a hundred Cubans helping him, but to no avail.) Kabila ended up in exile in Tanzania, and his son Joseph grew up there, so Joseph ended up speaking Swahili, the lingua franca of Tanzania and the eastern Congo, but not a word of Lingala, the language that serves the same purpose in the western Congo, including Kinshasa — and he speaks French, the Congo’s official language, with an English accent.

Mobutu’s time ran out when the Cold War ended, because without the “Soviet threat” the US lost interest in supporting him. Laurent-Désiré Kabila led a revolt in the eastern Congo that drove Mobutu into exile in 1997, but the war turned into a free-for-all that wrecked what was left of the country, and when Kabila was assassinated in 2001 his son Joseph, aged 29, took over as unelected president. A truce in 2002 brought a kind of peace to the country, but at the expense of making the four biggest warlords vice-presidents.

The current election is an attempt to move past that corrupt but necessary bargain and provide the Congo with a properly elected parliament and president for the first time since 1961. It may not work, and even if it does, the Congo will be starting over again poorer, more divided and less developed than it was at independence 46 years ago.

But if the peace can be kept and the income from the mines can be invested in basic services and infrastructure, the Congo could be transformed in a decade. What is required is not a miracle, but the political stability that comes from democratic legitimacy. The effort is worth making, and it hasn’t failed yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. “For almost…either”; and “Lumumba’s…accent”)