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Governing through decay? The Workings of a Transnational Congo

A federal organization of the Congolese state remains a political impossibility whose mere shadow invokes nationalist backlash often framed in the language of “balkanization”
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Mboka […] esi ekufa, “the country has already died” – this is how President Tshisekedi summarized the state of affairs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during a speech in January 2022. Blunt as it was, this perhaps not-so-spontaneous description reflects what many Congolese and outsiders think about governance, statehood and the management of public affairs in Africa’s second-largest country. Formed out of what Belgium’s ruler Leopold II negotiated with other colonial entrepreneurs during the 1885 Berlin Conference, the DRC and its predecessor entities (Zaïre, Belgian Congo and the Congo Free State) have become a prime example for pundits and cynics discussing bad governance, or the simple lack thereof. Unsurprisingly, such ahistorical and context-free classifications do not tell us much about the DRC itself. Yet, why then would a sitting president allude to such imagery with regards to his own country?

The simple answer is that Tshisekedi has been keen to highlight the multiple social, economic and security problems he had inherited end of 2018 from an over 100 years long legacy of exploitation and violence. At times, this conveniently eclipses his government’s own record that has lately come under criticism. In what has been a recurrent punchline, he recently attributed the excessive police behaviour during demonstrations in May 2023 to the lack of training under previous governments.

A more complex answer lies in judging to which extent Tshisekedi’s remarks were accurate, and consequently, to situate the main drivers that would make the DRC “a country that has (already) died” and an epitome of state failure, poor governance and what does not work – a question as much debated in the DRC as outside the country. For instance, while Tshisekedi’s punchline refers to the track record of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, who had ruled the DRC since his father Laurent-Désiré was killed in 2001, much of the DRC’s conundrum spans over longer historical evolutions, such as indicated in the striking similarities of colonial and more recent, war-related sexual violence, to name but one example. Indeed, current-day abuses by Congolese security forces reflect a longue durée of domination and violence that inform policing and order-making since Leopold II’s infamous “Congo Free State”, free only for those making a killing with rubber and other extractive businesses and much in line with what Mbembe once called “private indirect government”.

So, beyond hackneyed classifiers assigning different condescending and infantilizing properties to African and other post-colonial states, a growing crowd of thinkers developed the curiosity to invert the puzzle and ask what works, rather than using degenerative metaphors developed by 1990s mainstream Western political science. A fair part of this debate has been devoted to the DRC, where the proverbial “système D”, referring to se debrouiller, the art of muddling through has become a weakly understood anchoring for attempts to better understand how governance actually works across the different spheres of public and political life in the DRC. Three important, yet vast fields to look at in this context are, primo, the structure of the state itself – on paper as well as in terms of de facto rule, secundo, the conduct of politics, more precisely how political coalitions and majorities are formed to steer government and state business, and tertio, the ways in which accountability vis-à-vis the people is enacted, or prevented.

The Structure of the State

The DRC is, and has been through its post-independence history, a unitary state with varying degrees of decentralization across subsequent constitutions. The latest constitution, from 2006, created 26 out of previously 11 provinces, even though reality only caught up with the written letter in 2015. If in principle, this territorial reform was intended to make sub-national entities more viable, the material and socio-economic development across provinces has remained uneven, with some provincial capitals lacking basic administrative and road infrastructure while others are characterized by thriving urban centres and intense domestic and cross-border trade. This reflects the colonial politics of centres for accumulation and peripheries for exploitation, which found a neat continuation after independence. It has led some to suggest breaking up the country altogether or enforcing a federal state organization. But as a result of secessionist tendencies in the 1960 – in Katanga region and southern Kasai –, as well as Mobutu’s very own vision of charismatic, pyramidal rule – illustrated both by the 1970s Zaireanization and the subsequent breakdown –, a federal organization of the Congolese state remains a political impossibility whose mere shadow invokes nationalist backlash often framed in the language of “balkanization”. Not to mention that it would be naïve to believe that a federal state organization alone would resolve the governance challenges associated with unitary, bottom-up states.

The current framework governing decentralization contains distribution coefficients that define how much revenue is supposed to flow to central government institutions, and then back to decentralized entities. However, it has never been fully implemented. This obliges provinces to engage in parallel forms of extraction and taxation, and invites provincial authorities to find their place in patronage networks usually articulated from Kinshasa. The capital itself, and its institutions, reproduce other discrepancies between de jure and de facto governance. A semi-presidential republic on paper, much of the political and budgetary might is concentrated in the presidency itself, where many ministries and departments are mirrored – in particular those considered relevant to sovereignty. The security sector is a key example, where the Maison militaire, the private staff to the president, often trumps the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff of the Army both when it comes to procurement or operational planning. The Republican Guard, a Praetorian unit assigned to protect the president, largely escapes parliamentary control and is often deployed in situations outside its narrow mandate. Moreover, despite a significant uptick in military funding and programmes to digitize payments known as “bancarisation”, frontline soldiers do not always receive their salaries and civilian protection suffers from parallel chains of command, including the sub-contracting of pro-government armed groups in the context of the so-called M23 crisis.

The Conduct of Politics

A second sphere relates to the conduct of politics, in other words, the interplay of coercion and seduction that frames Congolese politics since Mobutu and longer. This relates to the mixture of a paternalist model of political rule imported by colonial administration and the indigenous construction of a so-called African strongman – even if such ideal types are not comprehensive enough to explain the complex patronage logics in Congolese politics and society. Dominant thought often frames these dynamics as inherent, parochial patterns to explain corruption, nepotism or other personalized forms of governance and social organization. However, the conduct of politics in the DRC defies simplistic narratives. Organizing political loyalty is a much more complex process that involves transactional elements – most notoriously represented in the tradition of doling out rents in the form of luxury cars to members of parliament – and the DRC’s very own version of the “strength of weak ties”, by which political actors organize their careers in between upwards loyalty and mobilizing support bases. A case in point is the Union sacrée de la nation (USN), DRC’s current parliamentary majority. In several ways, the USN embodies a functional attempt to steer a consensus-oriented political system in which co-optation serves as central strategy to galvanize presidential and government power.

The USN was initiated right after the collapse of the coalition between Kabila’s Front commun pour le Congo and Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le changement and served as a lever to form a broad-based, eclectic majority made out of Tshisekedi’s initial electoral alliance and an array of other political formations in parliament (parties and party groupings). With its cracking majority, the USN has a double utility for Tshisekedi – it allows centralized policymaking by the presidency and the possibility to leverage factions against each other to retain control over the political scene. In so doing, it shares a few commonalities with Mobutu’s one-party state – even though it is less centralized and more ideologically diverse except a common denominator of supporting Tshisekedi. Not unlike Mobutu’s MPR, the USN employs careful balancing of coercion and seduction, as recently illustrated in the government reshuffle that brought (back) heavyweight politicians Bemba, Kamerhe and Mbusa, anticipating potential opposition and seeking northern and eastern electorates for the coming elections scheduled in late 2023. The scattered character of the USN, its low common denominator and the preponderance of the presidency in policymaking, in turn, have stymied much of DRC parliamentary action, with few substantial laws being passed.

The Quest for Accountability

Finally, the intersection of DRC’s structural logics of DRC as a polity (de jure and de facto), and the character of its politics within that formal-informal framework, has implications on how accountability is made and unmade vis-à-vis the population. The DRC is a peculiar example of a social contract in as much as it signposts formal, structural mechanisms of accountability while actual interaction between citizens, institutions and representatives is predominantly shaped by extra- or para-institutional logics. There is a wide belief that a social contract in the DRC no longer exists, or maybe never has according to Rousseau-inspired definitions. Often, this is explained by emphasizing the country’s reliance on extractive rent rather than taxation of productive labour and the detachment between the electorate and executive or legislative branches. Yet, recurrent polls have shown the extent to which populations dissect politics, aspire to partake in representation such as elections and seek to promote and sanction representatives according to their performance. Despite, and perhaps due to this vibrant political arena, the patronage logics underpinning this tenuous accountability game often lead to framing political interests around identity. As communities or groups express aspirations and grievances, representatives are savvy in reframing these into ethnic, clientelist politics – not seldom based on populism and, worse, rampant xenophobia against the different Kinyarwanda-speaking communities.

A similar tendency exists in the context of burgeoning licit and illicit taxation as the ubiquitous phenomenon of checkpoints demonstrates. Rooted in colonial histories of movement control and extraction, checkpoints are today vivid social spaces across most of the DRC. As much as a wide variety of state agents and others use them to make ends meet and channel back revenues to their hierarchies in exchange for lucrative postings – known as “reporting”, interactions at checkpoints generally involve negotiation, justification and a fine balance between extracting enough to satisfy one’s needs but not so much as to definitely disgruntle those one wishes to still also tax the next day. And, while there are cases of voluntary payment against the provision of services, e.g. security provision by soldiers and armed groups in eastern DRC, there are other instances where a lack thereof has led to boycott or riots.

The Transnationalisation of Congo

All these observations notwithstanding, it would be short-sighted to think that matters of governance and state capacity in the DRC are purely subject to home-made logics or influences. Ever since the colonial horrors of the Congo Free State, few places on Earth experienced such a screaming level of internationalization, foreign intervention and transnationalism. The longue durée of identity politics and manipulation of ethnicity is but one glaring example. If the now famous denouncements of Roger Casement and others against blood-soaked Leopoldian rule are now somewhat echoed in the ways in which Congolese civil society and whistle-blowers are taking on homegrown embezzlement scandals and impunity, the transnationalisation of Congo has remained a consistent phenomenon that keeps taking different shapes in essence and scale.

If examples are legion, two pivotal aspects – conflict and elections – reflect well how the outside world keeps shaping Congo and interferes into how the country is managed and manages itself. The first is Congo’s very own “Thirty Years War” since the early 1990s. If there is little doubt over how the crumbling Mobutu government encouraged contestation over identity, citizenship and the distribution of resources such as land, the arrival of genocide perpetrators from Rwanda has fundamentally altered existing conflict dynamics in subsequent wars since 1994. An ally of the Habyarimana government, Mobutu played a key role in undercutting the minimal distance for refugee camps to international borders – allowing for interahamwe and ex-FAR to rearm. Yet, little of that would have been possible without the UNHCR’s and the international community’s complacency. In what followed, a mix of regional interference and international inertia has contributed to an important paradox: while few wars generated more funds for peacekeeping and aid, political commitment often remained limited. The UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC, replaced by MONUSCO in 2010) reflects this friction: deploying as the so-called second Congo war neared its end, it was initially a muscled force and played a notable role alongside EU interventions in Ituri and during the 2006 elections. Ever since, it has been marginalized by Kinshasa even though it retained a logistic and financial footprint that earned it epithets such as being “like our public administration, just with more money” by sarcastic Congolese observers. This portly character is also fashioned by MONUSCO’s institutional set-up, combining troop contributors, civilian agents and political leaders with diverse and contradicting interests. Now, as UN peacekeepers faces popular discontent for consistent inactivity with regards to (at least) parts of its protection mandate, eastern DRC is on the verge of yet another streak of transnationalisation. While foreign belligerents persist, notably the Ugandan-originating ADF insurgency and the Rwandan FDLR, a successor to the genocidal forces that arrived in 1994, regional forces take over from UN troops. At the same time, foreign mercenaries celebrate their return after a long absence, and add to an eclectic mix of belligerents akin to the wars of the 2000s.

Perhaps an even more important example though is the ways in which the world partakes in co-producing the imagery of the DRC in terms of governance and the conduct of public affairs. While any interference, benign as much as malign, is contributing to that, the still young history of elections is emblematic. Not unlike elsewhere, there is a significant fetishization of polls and ballots in the DRC. This is not to say that Congolese would not cherish elections in principle – the contrary is the case. However, the mere electoral ceremony is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for the Congolese quest for self-determination and a truly decolonized future. This is a point not necessarily shared among a so-called “international community” eager to measure the DRC’s well-being by whether or not ballots are organized any other five years. Paradoxically, this allows for situations where official electoral results depend more on the first Western congratulations than the electorate’s choice. Non-western actors, in turn, persist in stoic restraint on those matters, pursuing a less ceremonial but more pragmatic approach in absorbing the management of the DRC’s land and resources in joint ventures with state institutions willing or obliged to comply. Nonetheless, the disparate set of international interveners in the DRC agrees in paying lip-service to the broader tenets of development, stability and progress.

To be fair, no one could really know whether the DRC would develop prosperously and under its very own terms in the absence of the plethoric range of actors that make it perhaps the world’s most transnational republic, and certainly a rare country where colonial interference ranges as far as to the very teeth of its own independence leaders. However, whether it is elections, conflict resolution, transnational money laundering networks and failed efforts to regulate the DRC’s mineral wealth, the preponderant role of outside actors, from neighbours to faraway countries, is inevitably shaping the contested order-making across most spheres of governance – to an extent where it becomes hard to trace the exact origin of the DRC’s protracted governance challenges. Some blame Kabila and Mobutu for recurrent police violence, others wonder if it is inspired by colonial continuities and the contemporary inspirations worldwide from Trump and Johnson to Bolsonaro, Xi, al-Sisi or Macron. Some focus on the role of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi in various rebellions over time and others highlight the discrimination of Kinyarwanda-speakers, the mismanagement of public funds and the litany of failed demobilisation programmes led by successive Congolese governments and their international partners. However way one looks at it, Mboka […] esi ekufa is active and intransitive in syntax. The question of who kills the country remains thus an open one as responsibility for the DRC’s governance problems is widely shared – domestically and internationally.

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