Congo, Democratic Republic of (Zaire)

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Congo, Democratic Republic of (Zaire)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) originally emerged on February 23, 1885, three days before the end of the Berlin Conference, as the International Association of Congo. The country was renamed the Congo Free State (CFS) on July 1, 1885. The CFS subsequently became Belgian Congo in November 1908, and it remained a Belgian colony until June 1960, when it achieved political independence. It was known as the (Democratic) Republic of Congo from 1960 to 1971 and as Zaire from 1971 to 1996. President Laurent Kabila (1939–2001) renamed it the DRC in May 1997.

geography and people

The DRC has jurisdiction over a territory covering approximately 2,350,000 square kilometers (907,100 square miles) in central Africa, making it the twelfth largest country in the world. It has 37 kilometers (23 miles) of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and shares borders with Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola. Most of the country lies within the hollow of the Congo River basin, except the eastern region, which is the highest elevated and the most rugged area of Congo.

The DRC had an estimated population of 58 million in July 2004, divided among more than 230 ethnic groups. This population size makes the DRC the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, second only to Nigeria with 145 million. The last official census in July 1984 indicated a population of 29.7 million; the current estimate represents a staggering increase of 85 percent in twenty years. Congo is not overpopulated, however. Average population density remains relatively low, at fifty-five persons per square mile, with unequal regional distribution; the capital city of Kinshasa has more than four hundred inhabitants per square mile. Although urbanization began as recently as the 1940s, the urban population has increased to almost 40 percent of the total. The Congolese population is young, with 87 percent under the age of forty-five. The size and composition of the population are affected by uncontrolled, illegal, and continuing immigration to Congo from neighboring countries.

political background

From 1885 until the annexation of the CFS to Belgium in 1908, King Leopold II (1835–1909) of Belgium was the legislator, chief executive, and chief magistrate of the CFS. The king's first act was to assert his authority over the Congo Basin by declaring all lands that were not effectively occupied by African communities as belonging to the state. A mix of trade barriers and state monopoly expanded state resources, especially in early 1896 when rubber became the hottest commodity in the world markets. By 1906, the king derived more than 45 percent of state revenue from direct taxes paid on rubber by the African population.

Although economically lucrative, the development of a rubber economy was devastating to the African population. Africans who gathered wild rubber were overworked, coerced, and underfed. Millions of Africans were either killed outright by Leopold II's agents or died from mutilations inflicted by those agents, exhaustion or injuries from forced labor, or exposure to inhumane conditions. Pressures from the international community forced Leopold II to officially cede the CFS to Belgium in 1908. The colonial government reinforced controls and institutionalized forced labor in 1917. However,

it also implemented economic reforms that encouraged foreign private investments. As a result, Belgian Congo became one of the few European colonies to achieve a relatively fast economic growth after the Great Depression (1929–1933).

An accelerated program to provide Africans with decent housing, primary education, and hospitals took place after World War II (1939–1945); as a result, the medical infrastructure in the colony became the best in tropical Africa. Nonetheless, Belgian rulers never prepared the Congolese for self-rule. At the time of independence on June 30, 1960, not one Congolese administrator was capable of overseeing the administrative system left in place by the Belgians.

This situation became apparent a few days after independence. The army rebelled and several mutinies spread throughout military garrisons. On July 11, 1960, the mineral-rich Katanga province seceded , followed by the diamond-wealthy Kasai province in August. The formula adopted by the provisionary constitution, called Fundamental Law, was at the root of social upheaval in early years of independence. It recognized a threefold division of powers: between the central government and the provinces, between the two legislative houses, and between the head of state and prime minister. More specifically, the duality of executive powers meant in theory that the president would be cast in the role of the Belgian king, acting largely as a figurehead , with effective power vested in the hands of the prime minister.

In the context of the newly independent Congolese setting, however, this system planted the seeds of a major conflict of jurisdiction between the president

and the prime minister. In September, tension mounted between President Joseph Kasavubu (c. 1910–1969) and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961) regarding the division of powers. The ensuing legitimacy crisis resulted in a coup d'etat led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu (1930–1997; also known as Mobutu Sese Seko) in an effort to neutralize Lumumba, who was perceived by the West as pro-communist. In February 1961, Mobutu returned power to Kasavubu, and Lumumba was murdered during the same month in Katanga.

Political instability followed, as opposing groups struggled for the control of the central government. Two governments, Leopoldville (renamed Kinshasa) and Stanleyville (renamed Kisangani), claimed legitimacy. The United Nations (UN) reconciliation efforts ended the dual governments in 1961. The UN troops withdrew from the DRC in June 1964 after defeating the Katanga secession. While the UN was withdrawing, a rebellion broke out in January 1964. By the end of December 1966, however, it had ended. The main cause of the revolt was the popular perception that Congolese leaders who had replaced white rulers were just as bad and oppressive.

On November 24, 1965, General Mobutu took power again, under the pretext of curbing the ethnic basis of political demands that had been polarizing the Congolese society. He banned opposition parties and ruled Congo as a dictator for more than thirty years. Mobutu consolidated his rule by several constitutional amendments. The most important amendment occurred in August 1974 that institutionalized "Mobutism." This law implicitly made Mobutu president for life and above the law.

Although Mobutu seemed firmly in control in the mid-1970s, a rebel group called the National Front for the Liberation of Congo invaded the Katanga province from Angola in March 1977 and May 1978. The invaders were driven out both times, by Moroccan troops and Western soldiers, respectively.

Another major challenge to Mobutu's power came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as he could no longer garner Western support under the pretense that he would—if not courted by the West—turn to the communists. In April 1990, President Mobutu liberalized his political system. By December, a large number of new parties had been established, and they all requested a national conference to set new institutional arrangements. After several false starts, the conference sat until December 1992 and dissolved the National Legislative Council (which had been elected in 1987 from a list of approved candidates from Mobutu's party) and replaced it with a 453-member transitional legislature, the High Council of the Republic (HCR). Mobutu refused to recognize the council, however.

In early 1993, the ensuing legitimacy crisis between the president and the opposition-dominated HCR resulted in the appointment of two rival governments. In January 1994, the HCR and the then-defunct National Legislative Council were reconstituted as a single body, becoming the High Council of the Republic–Parliament of Transition, whose role was to oversee the activities of a transitional government. In June 1994, Mobutu agreed with the appointment of Leon Kengo wa Dondo (b. 1935) to a fifteen-month term as the interim prime minister.

Four days after assuming power, Kengo found himself hosting nearly 1.2 million Hutu refugees from Rwanda who had abruptly entered eastern Congo after the Tutsi-led army took power in Rwanda. The influx of refugees increased tension in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, as local politicians used the Hutu refugees to exploit rivalry over nationality and land rights between the Congolese of Rwandan origin—Banyarwandan and Banyamulenge—and other groups in the region. Meanwhile, Mobutu refused to allow a transition to democracy and continued to exploit these ethnic divisions.

In late October 1996, Mobutu's undisciplined army put up little resistance when Kabila's rebel group, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo/Zaire, along with Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers, seized the town of Goma and other eastern parts of the country. Many of Mobutu's opponents joined the movement as it advanced across Congo. On May 17, 1997, the rebel army entered the capital city without resistance from government forces. Twelve days later, Kabila proclaimed himself president of Congo. Mobutu died in September 1997 in Morocco after a long battle with prostate cancer.

The second Congolese war in less than two years began in August 1998 and was triggered by Kabila's decision to expel his former allies, the Rwandan and Ugandan troops. Kabila was saved in extremis by Angolan and Zimbabwean armies as part of the military alliance of the Southern African Development Community. Many commentators have described the anti-Kabila war as Africa's first world war because it involved several wars on the Congolese territory: four of Congo's neighbors fighting their own rebel groups, Congolese rebels fighting against Kabila, and Congolese rebels fighting against one another. The result was catastrophic in eastern DRC. Estimates remain controversial, but perhaps as many as 4 million people perished during the war.

A peace summit was convened in Lusaka in late June 1999 that culminated in the signing of an accord a month later by the presidents of the DRC, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. None of the rebel leaderships was represented. The most important aspect of the accord was the organization of an inter-Congolese dialogue. Kabila was assassinated on January 16, 2001, however, leaving the country half-occupied by foreign troops and rebel groups. Joseph Kabila (b. 1971) succeeded his father and his speeches gave the West and regional players some hope for a renewal. A peace deal was signed in April 2003 in South Africa that resulted in the formation of a government of national reconciliation. According to the deal, Kabila, the president, would lead the transitional government, assisted by four vice presidents from the two main rebel groups, the government, and civil society.

a brief economic and social background

The DRC is a country endowed with vast mineral resources, and copper has remained the cornerstone of its wealth since colonial times. Although the political instability that followed independence in 1960 resulted in severe economic dislocations, it never affected the mining sector. Thus, early Congolese leaders maintained the colonial infrastructure despite the early years of political turmoil. When Mobutu took power in 1965, he embarked on and implemented several economic policies that worked relatively well. From 1966 to 1973, the economy expanded at an average annual rate of 4.9 percent in real terms. Mobutu's efforts to control the economy and sustain his patronage system in late 1973 met with catastrophic results, however.

The practice of patrimonialism gave free reign to the enrichment of the president and his clients in government. Corruption became the norm; out of greed and fear for their own survival those at the top institutionalized this corruption and locked their subordinates into these practices in a systematic, normative way so that wrongdoing was the rule. Thus, during his long dictatorship, Mobutu and his associates used government funds as well as foreign aid to amass huge personal fortunes, which they invested abroad. In 1985, foreign debt represented 241 percent of exports, or 112 percent of the gross domestic product. Therefore, by 1985 Mobutu and his associates had effectively sold Congo to its foreign creditors.

By the end of Mobutu's reign, which was marked by extreme greed and rampant corruption, in May 1997, the economy had deteriorated to the extent that Congo had no adequate roads, no adequate schools, and no operational hospitals. These dislocations further deteriorated as a result of civil wars. Most citizens reacted to economic dislocations by resorting to the unofficial economy and ethnic associations for help. The consequence of these dislocations has been disastrous to children who have paid the price of civil wars and also have borne the burden of disease. First, children as young as ten years of age joined rebel groups. Second, children, who in 2004 accounted for roughly 20 percent of the population, accounted for 80 percent of all deaths, which were mostly attributed to malaria. Moreover, malnutrition as a result of poverty is rampant. Among adults, AIDS has spread widely; with 4 percent of its population testing positive for the disease, the DRC has become one of the most infected sub-Saharan countries.

political life during the transitional period

The rise of Laurent Kabila marked a period of high hopes for the Congolese and their neighbors. The West also expected a positive change, from several decades of greed and corruption to democracy and clean management. Kabila dashed these hopes, however, with his leadership style. He outlawed public demonstrations and banned political party activity. More specifically, numerous subsequent demonstrations were violently dispersed. Furthermore, Kabila centralized power in the presidency and appointed his relatives to important positions in the government. He also suppressed any debate over macroeconomic strategy. In the process, he increased control over the polity to fetter the emergence of any opposition faction capable of challenging his authority. With party activities suspended, Kabila encouraged the formation of "committees" to act as a link between the government and citizens.

The DRC had no functioning constitution as of 2004, although a referendum for a new constitution was planned for late 2005. The transitional legislature, which was formed by Laurent Kabila and reshaped after the formation of the government of reconciliation in 2003, had no oversight power over the executive. The judiciary also lacked authority. The judges were ill-trained and subject to manipulation by the executive branch. Military and government officials everywhere have appropriated many of the functions traditionally reserved to the judiciary. Moreover, regional military officers represent the real centers of power in the provinces despite the appointment of civilian governors. Security forces and the military commit numerous extrajudicial killings, and citizens are denied the right to a fair trial. In sum, the government has a poor record with respect to human rights.

The 2003 accord, concluded after more than a year of talks brokered by the South African government, outlined a two-year transitional period intended to lead the country to its first democratic elections since independence. Although the transitional government promulgated a new law that guaranteed political plurality, there remained no assurance that democratic elections would be held as scheduled in 2005. For those in the government, keeping their positions at the expense of democratic elections meant maintaining access to state spoils. It was partly for this reason that Laurent Kabila's associates found it convenient to designate Joseph Kabila as his successor.

As life during the transition period became less predictable, people tended to discount heavily the future. The result was an increase in opportunistic behavior on the part of state managers. Thus, democratization and development goals were set aside and opportunistic behavior gave way to greedy behavior on the part of decision-makers. The incentive to capture the state to penetrate and transform the political system was no longer the driving force behind state managers, who preferred to pursue personal enrichment.

See also: Dictatorship; Political Corruption.


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Kisangani N.F. Emizet