Issue 11 - Article 14

Democratic Republic of Congo (May 1998)

May 1, 1998
Humanitarian Practice Network

One year after the Alliance of Forces for the Democratic Liberation of the Congo overthrew the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, there is little sign that foreign donors or the private sector are about to make the investments necessary to help the government restore the national economy. Roads, rail, river transport, telecommunications, water and power supply systems are all in need of major rehabilitation. Were progress to be made with the infrastructure, food security, trade, administration, health services and private sector investment would all benefit immeasurably.

Both the government and the ‘international community’ bear a share of responsibility for the slow start.

Battered by its failures in the Great Lakes, the UN system is in disarray and short of funds. At the moment when it needs to convince the government of its good faith and ability to help, it has been distracted by controversy over UNHCR’s role in dealing with Rwandan refugees, a suspect communication from UNICEF’s Goma office to Kenya and human rights issues in the Congo.

The UN Secretary General’s withdrawal of the human rights inquiry team was an indication both of the UN’s weakness but also of the irritation felt by the government of the Congo at its methods: the team had started at Mbandaka, a place through which the ADFL had not passed en route to the capital, and then proceeded to North Kivu, where it can reasonably be argued that the Government of Rwanda should be as much a subject of investigation as the new government of the Congo.

At the same time, the closure by the government of AZADHO, the Association Zairoise des Droits de l’Homme, the internal exile of Etienne Tshisekedi and periodic harassment of journalists confirmed foreign nervousness over Kabila’s attitude to free speech and opposition in the run-up to the elections he says he will hold next year.

International NGOs are unsure of where they stand when the government publicly refuses to accept donor assistance via foreign NGOs. They, like the UN, are bruised by the experience of the Rwanda genocide and the disaster of the camps in Zaire and Tanzania. The experiences of Rwanda, Burundi and the Kivus have also coloured the perceptions of the local authorities as regards foreign aid, human rights and humanitarian endeavour.

The co-existence on the eastern borders of victims and perpetrators of genocide remains an unsolved problem. A side effect has been to distract attention from the liberation of 45 million Congolese from the bankruptcy and corruption of the Mobutu years. Mobutu’s neglect paradoxically gave birth to many Congolese NGOs which, together with the churches, were responsible for what health and education was available to the population during the Mobutu years. These manifestations of civil society should encourage foreign partners, but few have yet had much support.

Kabila has snubbed such emissaries as Jesse Jackson (from President Clinton), Sadako Ogata (UNHCR) and Carol Bellamy (UNICEF). He has tried, understandably, to repudiate the $13 billion foreign debt amassed under Mobutu, although it now looks as if a face-saving payment of $5 million per month might enable the government to continue relations with the Bretton Woods institutions. His attitude is undoubtedly influenced by the success of his neighbour Yoweri Museveni in seizing power in Uganda and building a no-party state.

The difference is that Museveni took pains over ten years to make the NRM a credible mass movement, whereas the ADFL is an alliance which came to power so fast it had little opportunity to build on popular support for the removal of Mobutu and his methods. Of its four founding members, one is President, one is dead in still unexplained circumstances, one is in detention and the other works in the President’s office.

As for the private sector, mining companies find it difficult to be sure of their potential investments when the national archives of mining concessions and records of agreements are in complete disarray. Yet the potential for mining companies to generate resources for the government represents the one alternative to the embrace of the World Bank and the IMF. Pragmatists recognise that, whilst the private sector may have the capacity to rebuild the national economy, this will not happen until more confidence-building measures have been taken by government, donors and aid organisations.

It is true that public security has improved since the defeat of Mobutu’s forces, the currency is stable and there is no alternative government in sight, but the authoritarian tendencies of an inexperienced government are much in evidence. The instability of the Kivus and the efforts of exiled supporters of Mobutu to destabilise the government will feed such tendencies for the foreseeable future, as will the slow progress in re-starting the economy.

It is also hard to see how the President’s undertaking to hold elections next year can be kept without a massive investment in road repair and communications. This does not seem likely and the blame for it has to be attributed partly to a lack of engagement between the government and donors.

They, with the aid organisations who implement projects, have a long way to go before they can alleviate the clouds of suspicion and misunderstanding under which they currently operate.

Thus the UN is short of credibility, money and competence for the task in hand; the US has restricted its efforts so far to small-scale projects through OTI, the Office of Transition Initiatives; and the EU is only supporting health and road repair on a limited scale.

What might help is an imaginative gesture from a major donor to complete the missing section of the road from Goma and Bukavu to Kisangani for example, or to rehabilitate the railway system in Katanga. Neither of these would require enormous amounts of money, but they would generate some of the goodwill and confidence now needed if the Congo is to realise even a small part of its potential.


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