According to the un’s Human Development Index, the Democratic Republic of Congo is just about the world’s worst place to live.footnote＊ Bad things in Niger, and some very marginal improvements in the drc itself, have recently moved it up from the bottom spot it occupied in 2011, but you get the picture. Not incidental to this dismal ranking was a seven- or eight-year international war in which, according to the Lancet, nearly four million people died.footnote1 There are reservations to be entered about both of these results: the kind of complex comparisons included in indexes like the undp’s are capricious, with rankings changing according to the relative weight you assign to each of the proxy indicators—life expectancy, education, per capita gdp. The narrow range of the proxies included also conveys a rather stunted idea of what is, at times, the most delightful place. One can imagine that if the Human Development Index had given great pop music, a sense of irony, or antelope stew with sorrel and palm nuts their due, then Congo would have scored rather better. Likewise, it is hard to know what to make of mortality estimates in a region where there has been no census since 1984. Whatever the exact figure, only a small proportion of the deaths during the Second Congo War were caused by direct violence: the majority succumbed to collapses in food production, health systems and wider infrastructure.
While exacerbated by war, these deteriorations can themselves be traced much further back in time, across three decades of economic regression, in which Congolese gdp shrunk to less than a fifth of its former peak and industrial capitalism, however underdeveloped, ceased to be the dominant mode of production.footnote2 This essay will examine the origins of the drc’s current malaise and, in the process, take issue with some of the arguments put forward in the burgeoning literature on the country. For though it gets few column inches in Western newspapers, the catastrophic mess that Congo represents has generated an impressive quantity and variety of serious scholarship. The drc is not only the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, covering nearly a million square miles, and, at an estimated 67 million, its third most populous (the capital Kinshasa is now a mega-city, its breeze-block sprawl encompassing somewhere between 7 and 9 million souls).footnote3 It is also, symbolically and geographically, the heart of the continent. As the biggest ‘failed state’ in the world, nowhere offers a broader canvas for rumination about the wealth of nations, the failings of the inter-state system or the condition of Africa itself.
The central question at stake here may be posed like this: why have the processes of accumulation failed to produce a consolidation of capital, an economically powerful ruling class and sustained patterns of national investment? The standard explanations—low demographic pressure, reliance on primary commodities, deterioration in the terms of trade, structural adjustment, a violent history, corruption—cannot in themselves explain why the post-independence trajectory of Central Africa diverges so far from that of other late-developing regions. This article will also criticize the two currently most popular, though contrasting, diagnoses: first, that too many restrictions on markets and free enterprise stifle growth; and second, that African forms of clientelism, or ‘neo-patrimonialism’, oblige the ruling class to dissipate resources that would otherwise give rise to capitalist forms of accumulation. These arguments go hand-in-hand with a marked shift in African studies, away from explanations that favour ‘dependency’ and towards those that emphasize ‘agency’. Africa’s problems are, so this story goes, made at home—foreigners are merely used by regional actors as part of indigenous political projects. On this reading, poverty, loan-dependence and violence are political strategies chosen by African elites.footnote4 A corollary of the ‘local agency’ approach is the rejection of theories that identify Western capitalism or imperialism as part of the explanation for Congo’s plight. Arguing in part against Congolese conspiracy theories that depict ‘the whites’ as committed to a project of central African balkanization, a majority of Western scholars now tend to argue that the drc’s problems do not have a ‘singular logic’ and interpretations should therefore resist attempts at ‘simplification’.footnote5 According to this version of events, the ‘Congo problem’ results from too little Western interest: conflict minerals, or the deals signed by dodgy businessmen, are only the fault of core capitalist countries in a very limited sense—as disinterested sins of omission, committed by rich countries too lazy to engage with the Congo’s complexities and too apathetic to legislate.
This essay goes against these trends. Denying the ‘agency’ of powerful outsiders is even more implausible than denying it to powerful Africans, and urban myths should not be used to discredit all theories of political interference. To be sure, such elites don’t always agree, and don’t always get their way; the social outcomes that result are, as always, not quite what anyone intended. Nevertheless, analysis needs to be clear about which groups have greater leverage. And while there is much to be said for ‘complexity’, there are serious problems with the ways in which this trope is used to explain the Congo’s trajectory since the end of the Cold War while excluding, as causal factors, the (complex!) dynamics of the drc’s integration into international capital circuits and the international state system that defends them. What follows, then, hopes to combine a critique of these prevailing explanations with a disciplined investigation into the drc’s political and economic path since independence. It will pay particular attention to the processes by which integration into the world economy has helped to undermine local capital formation while, overseen by a weak state, the wealth of the country has leaked away abroad. First, however, it will briefly consider the impact of pre-colonial conditions of instability and coercion, and the developmental legacies of the late colonial state.
Demographics and development
An influential account of central Africa’s history focuses on the problems that land abundance and low population pose for the consolidation of political power. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Congo basin, much like Western Europe, underwent an increase in both economic activity and war. But while for some European states internal and external conflicts were a laboratory for new and more productive forms of debt financing, African leaders tended to raise the capital needed to finance authority by selling the means of production, both human and ecological. Historians have located the origins of this strategy in Africa’s relative labour shortage: unable to control subordinates who could easily disappear into the vast tracts of unoccupied land when things got tough, rulers saw forms of ‘outsourced exploitation’, notably the transatlantic slave trade, as an attractive alternative.footnote6 There is substantial empirical evidence in favour of such a hypothesis: labour was clearly the pre-eminent factor of production in these low-tech, agrarian societies; a significant part of a population that was relatively sparse to begin with, and already severely affected by the epidemics and low fertility caused by European encroachment, was sold on to obtain imported currency objects—bolts of cloth, muskets, copper wire, cowries, etc. The other trade goods that capitalism demanded of African modes of production, like ivory or rubber, were reliant on the harvesting of natural systems until their collapse.footnote7
In this way central African social formations do appear to have become locked into a dynamic, reinforced by European merchants, where individual prosperity—conceived of as rights in people and theatrical dispersals of wealth over retinue—became dependent on aggregate impoverishment, by exporting, or pushing beyond breaking point, the means of production. These factors seem to have produced an instability that has permeated wider aspects of social life. Thus the frantic fluidity, inventiveness and creativity of Congolese cultural forms, social structures and political formations—but also their incessant tendency towards fragmentation and division—reflect desperate attempts by people to control or remain attached to networks of patronage; patronage that is always leaking out of the region, networks that are themselves constantly in the process of being violently disrupted. But while demographic explanations provide important parameters, low populations on their own explain little. Indeed, densely populated Rwanda and Burundi suggest the opposite conclusion. Since independence, these ‘false twins’ have been open sores of violence and Malthusian poverty, with genocides and mass migrations repeatedly destabilizing their neighbours—above all the Congo itself—though neither has been subject to the features generally invoked as the ‘deep’ causes beneath central Africa’s current woes: spared the worst incursions of the European or Arab slave trades, both have fertile soil and a relatively old state tradition.footnote8 The relationship between earlier trajectories and the present problems of the drc or the wider region are not straightforward. The violence of economic extraction and the low populations in the nineteenth-century Congo basin are part of the story, but their impact cannot simply be read off in the politico-economic situation of today.
Violent extraction reached its apogee under the Belgians, following the establishment of King Leopold ii’s Congo Free State in 1885, gifted by the European powers assembled at the Congress of Berlin. Seeking to generate a fast profit, the ‘Free State’ began to exploit commodities that required little investment. Principal among these was rubber, for which industrial demand had soared after the invention of ‘vulcanization’, a process that rendered it heat-resistant. It was initially harvested from the wild, extracted as sap from a variety of tropical plants, trees and creepers found in remote, rainforest regions. Most of those involved in the harvesting of wild rubber—the inhabitants of the tropical forests of the Congo and Amazon basins—were not fully integrated into the capitalist system and could only be persuaded to meet the rapidly growing demand through a series of ever more violent impositions: Leopold’s ‘Free State’ was a paradigmatic Raubwirtschaft (predatory economy). Adding economic urgency to this coercive dynamic was the fact that rubber-tree plantations had been established in Malaya and elsewhere and it was apparent that the high price of wild rubber was not going to last forever.
The incredible brutality of social relations in the early colonial period led to falls in the population on a scale that may have been even greater than those wrought by the transatlantic slave trade.footnote9 Disruption and disease killed more people than direct violence, and population decline was linked to an epidemic of venereal disease that drastically cut fertility. But the disruption was obviously caused by the incursion of capitalist trade, and the upsurge in venereal disease was closely connected to the brutalizing of social relations, which extended to the sexual sphere.footnote10 In some respects, this drew on longer histories of violence—rubber and ivory trading began before Leopold’s rule, and the area had been at the epicentre of European and Arab slave trades. Once again, Africans were the victims, but were also intermediaries and perpetrators.footnote11 The Belgians, like the slave and commodity traders before them, relied heavily on local specialists in violence, investing authority in a series of warlord figures whose retinues did most of the dirty work. This ‘decentralized despotism’ has been invoked as another explanation for the failure of post-independence Africa to thrive.footnote12 It is certainly a crucial factor in the subsequent woes of the region, but such alliances were the stock-in-trade of commercial dealings in many parts of the world. On their own they are an insufficient explanation for what sets central Africa apart.
But ‘red rubber’ and the wider economy that accompanied colonial plunder differed from pre-colonial violence in some important ways. By the 1920s, at least, this involved not merely pillage but also processes of state-led primitive accumulation, with the resources garnered providing the seed capital for a later period of industrial-paternalist development. Forced labour was still important, especially in the rural sector, but there was a marked shift from despotic to capital-intensive forms of exploitation.footnote13 While it is less talked about in the West than the Free State era, this later industrial-paternalist period is much more present in popular memory in the drc—as also in Belgium. In order to comprehend the disasters to come, it is necessary to understand something of this late colonial state. The institutions which structured African lives in the post-Leopold colony were fourfold: the state, the church, the corporations and the ‘customary’ sphere.footnote14 The corporations which dominated the economy were predominantly Belgian-owned, but British capital also played an important role. Alongside Unilever’s palm-oil plantations, the Tanganyka Concession Limited (tcl) owned a 16 per cent stake of the Union Minière de Haut Katanga (umhk), the vast and startlingly profitable complex of cobalt and copper mines in the south-east of the country. The churches, above all the Catholic Church, were responsible for education and health provision. They were thought critical to the colonial project in ideological terms, ‘capable of changing the native mentality’ with ideas of discipline and authority.footnote15 Beneath this, life in the rural sector was run by ‘medallioned chiefs’, who combined elements of the intermediary system inherited from the pre-colonial and Free State period with bureaucratic and ersatz-traditional functions. The state itself, headed by around 10,000 white administrators, penetrated all the other spheres, offering generous concessions to corporations and subsidies to the Catholic Church, while overseeing the rural hinterlands via the ‘micro-administrative grid’ of officially appointed chiefs, who were given the unpopular but profitable responsibility for collecting taxes and recruiting labour from the villages.footnote16
At independence the Congo had become, after South Africa, the most industrialized country in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 35 per cent of the adult population engaged in wage labour.footnote17 For this sizable minority, the 1950s had been a period of rising incomes and expectations. In an effort to stabilize its workforce, the umhk had improved pay and conditions for its employees in the south-eastern copper and cobalt mines; from the mid-40s onwards, turnover of staff was just 3 per cent, whereas across the border in British Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), the copper mines had a 50 per cent turnover.footnote18 Education was also expanded in the late-colonial period, pensions, child allowances and a minimum wage were introduced for (some) African workers, and the public health system was said to be ‘the best in the whole tropical world’.footnote19 Yet the benefits of social transformation were highly uneven, and deep fault-lines traversed the colonial state. While the towns experienced a rapid advance in living standards, the countryside, home to perhaps 90 per cent of Congolese in 1955, remained a zone of poverty and forced labour.footnote20 Areas of extreme abandonment were sometimes quite close to the most privileged enclaves of welfare capitalism. One such was the Kwilu district, not far from the capital Kinshasa (then Leopoldville). Another was north Katanga, which was relatively close to the industrial complexes of the umhk in the south of the province. Kwilu and the north of Katanga would be centres for violent pro-Lumumba resistance in the years that followed independence.
A further contortion in this uneven social geography was caused by the Belgian practice of favouring peoples from one geographical area and then ‘exporting’ them to do work in another, setting in train processes of intense economic rivalry and ethnogenesis. The initial cause of such favouritism could be quite contingent, but the social dynamics set in motion then acquired a strong degree of path dependence. Favoured groups received greater access to education and were considered particularly suitable for certain types of work. Over time, members of these groups—by now self-identifying—acquired networks that they used to secure jobs for friends, relatives and ethnic confrères ‘back home’. This imperative to help ethnic fellows was often felt all the more acutely given the fierce resentment that such groups had, by now, come to attract from other Congolese.footnote21 The epicentre of rubber-based primitive accumulation lay in the forested region in the north of the country, while the subsequent industrial expansion this permitted was concentrated in the copper mines of Katanga in the south-east. The violence necessary for effecting this accumulation had been carried out by the Force Publique, the white-officered body that would become the Belgian Congo’s army, and in the main the ranks had been recruited within the northern regions. One group particularly favoured were the Bangala, ‘the people of the river’—an ethnic category the Belgians had more or less conjured from nothing, assigning the term, and a supposedly ‘superior’ and ‘warlike nature’, to the heterogeneous peoples who lived along the middle stretches of the Congo River.footnote22 As independence suddenly appeared upon the horizon and Western intelligence agencies scrabbled around to find Congolese leaders who could ‘get things done’, a number of their most useful contacts traced their origins to the forests of the north. Among them was Joseph Désiré Mobutu, a native of Équateur province, educated by the Christian Brothers, who had served in the Force Publique for seven years before turning his hand to journalism.
Perhaps the most crippling weakness of the state lay at the apex of the system. At independence in June 1960 there were just sixteen university graduates in a total population of 20 million: the first university, with thirty-three students and seven professors, had been opened in 1954. There were no Congolese doctors, engineers, lawyers or economists—and no black officers in the Force Publique either.footnote23 Educational advancement and career progression for Africans was severely and explicitly limited; the future Congolese president Laurent Kabila’s father had arrived at the highest possible position available for an African on becoming ‘main postal clerk second class’.footnote24Pas d’élite, pas d’ennuis—‘no elite, no trouble’—was a popular catchphrase in Belgian colonial circles.footnote25 In the settlement hurriedly put together when agitation for independence became irresistible, almost all of the top grades within the civil and military services were still occupied by Belgians. The main levers of economic power would remain in Belgian hands.footnote26 It was made clear that for the majority of Africans, independence would offer little prospect of improvement. The commander of the Force Publique, General Émile Janssens, famously explained the situation to his troops by writing on a blackboard: ‘Before independence = After independence’, triggering the mutiny that precipitated a slide into chaos.
Stillbirth of a nation
There is no doubt that Western forces played a central role in the botched and bloody processes that followed, from the secession of Katanga to the murder of Patrice Lumumba and elevation of Mobutu, who had been taken up by the Belgians in 1957, and became a key member of the close-knit ‘Binza group’ centred around the cia station chief in Kinshasa, Larry Devlin.footnote27 To understand Western hostility to Lumumba it is necessary to look at the economic conjuncture the new government confronted at independence. The infant state had inherited a higher debt burden than other colonies in Africa; the tax base was narrower and over-reliant on rent from concessions, while most of the downstream profits generated by Congolese commodities were made in Belgium.footnote28 The obvious conclusion was that, to be viable, the state would have to get a better deal from the Belgian and British-owned copper and cobalt mines in Katanga. Global copper prices were high and Western leaders were nervous about any suggestion of economic nationalism.footnote29 The sense of alarm was heightened by the fact that Katanga had supplied the uranium used to destroy Hiroshima. In London and Brussels, hostility to Lumumba was also shot through with far-right and white-supremacist ideology—Janssens lived out his span in Belgium deeply involved with far-right politics, while independent Katanga had its cheerleaders in the Conservative Party’s Monday Club.footnote30 But it was also wrapped up with an attention to profits: the average return on industrial investments in the Belgian Congo during the years leading up to independence had been 12 per cent.footnote31
When the governor of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, took advantage of the Army mutiny to declare the province’s independence in July 1960, his move was strongly backed by the umhk, which immediately loaned the new state 1.25 billion Belgian francs and began to pay its taxes directly to Tshombe. While there was a domestic constituency for independence in the south of the province, above all among the Lunda, it was fiercely opposed in the north, where the Luba-Katanga were in the majority.footnote32 Flush with umhk money and surrounded by Belgian advisors, the Katanga government recruited a force of white mercenaries who committed a series of atrocities. One of the figures formed by this conjuncture was Laurent Kabila; from the Luba-Katanga group himself, he was one of the young militants in Jeunesse Balubakat, pitted against Tshombe. But though the war had a strongly ethnic character, there were also class and generational aspects to the struggle. Many ‘elders’ within the Luba-Katanga—older men who had been privileged as part of the state, either as Belgian-appointed ‘chiefs’ or as petty functionaries—also supported Tshombe’s separatist party, conakat, as the protégé of white capital. Kabila’s own father was one such elder: he was executed by his son’s militia.footnote33
Within twelve weeks of the independence ceremonies, Lumumba had been ousted. Dulles had cabled Devlin ten days before to say his removal was ‘a high priority’.footnote34 The un troops that Lumumba had naively called in to put down the secession had an American commander. They effectively safeguarded Tshombe’s regime, and allowed Lumumba to be overthrown by Mobutu and Joseph Kasavubu in September 1960, after he had appealed to Moscow—unavailingly—for help. Devlin mentions in his memoirs that he ‘explored the feasibility’ of killing the Congolese leader, acting on a request from Eisenhower, but it seems to have been Belgian forces that did the deed.footnote35 With Lumumba out of the way, and the cia working closely with the new central government, Washington changed its line on Katanga, now seeing the continuing warfare there as a source of destabilization. In late 1962 Kennedy authorized an all-out assault by the un. This brought Tshombe’s surrender and the reintegration of the province in January 1963. The externally circumscribed limits to Congolese autonomy had been clearly defined.
But if he was in part a cia creation,footnote36 there was a significant level of popular support for Mobutu in 1965 when, as Army chief, he moved to ‘clear away the squabbling politicians’ and assumed full emergency powers, proclaiming himself Lumumba’s true heir. Buoyed up by high copper prices and generous Western loans, Mobutu initiated a lavishly funded campaign of cultural nationalism that included renaming the country as Zaire. His economic advisers organized a successful devaluation of the currency, curbing wages and inflation; trade unions were brought under government control. Nationalization of the umhk—subsequently called Gécamines—in 1966 gave a sheen of popular legitimacy to the regime’s economic policy, though the deal was a con: the umhk’s parent firm, the Société Générale de Belgique, was granted a lucrative contract to manage the state-owned company and continued to market Gécamines copper for years, with a hefty mark-up; foreign companies still reaped the downstream profits on processing Zaire’s ores.
From the early 70s, when copper prices plummeted, foreign loans became an important addition to mineral rents. To begin with most of the money came from private creditors and was often used to pay for grandiose projects, like the Inga hydroelectric dams. These initial loans did leave some infrastructure in place, but there was clearly a large amount of folie de grandeur involved, with scope for kickbacks on a massive scale.footnote37 From the other side of the deal, anticipation of a stake in Zaire’s economic growth surely ceased to be a realistic ambition long before private lending by Western banks actually dried up. In this, Zaire’s catastrophe emerges not as sui generis, but as an extreme variant of a wider pattern of financial mise-en-dépendance. Investment dynamics in faraway places may have pushed apparently irrational investment behaviour elsewhere. One incentive came from ‘loan origination fees’, paid upfront to the lender. Loans brought lucrative business to Western financial centres, with the money often re-transferred abroad into accounts managed by the creditor banks. Private lending started to decline from the mid-70s, and by the early 80s had largely been replaced by loans from Western governments and multilateral financial institutions, which in theory came with tougher conditions. But for this staunch Cold War ally, imf and World Bank evaluations proved remarkably understanding; in 1986 the imf described Mobutu’s economic policies as ‘broadly satisfactory’, and lamented the fact that his efforts had not been rewarded with larger increases in foreign loans and grants.footnote38
In the Zairian system that consolidated itself in the 70s and 80s, a small political inner core—as much a court as a class—would be kept on board with appropriated assets and spadefuls of cash derived from import monopolies, rents on mineral resources and international loans channelled directly into Mobutu’s account. Confidential World Bank reports noted that in 1978 the governor of the Zairian central bank had instructed Gécamines to deposit 30 per cent of its export earnings into a presidential account, while the following year, off-the-books sales included 200 tons of cobalt to Switzerland, 10,000 tons of copper to South Africa, and 20,000 tons to China.footnote39 Clothed in the vocabulary of economic nationalism, the 1970s ‘Zairianization’ programme amounted to little more than a chaotic grab for medium-sized firms and assets by the ruling class, which left the multinationals well alone. Much of the Zairian business elite built their subsequent fortunes on assets acquired though Zairianization.footnote40 This was accompanied with constant reminders of their precariousness—a spell in prison was as much the mark of the inner circle as a Swiss bank account. The wages of government employees were paid through printing money: a strategy that, in the absence of adequate economic resources to back it up, had predictable inflationary results. The rest—the vast majority—would have to survive as best they could.footnote41 On one calculation, median living standards declined by over 2 per cent a year under Mobutu, with over 70 per cent of the population in absolute poverty by the mid-80s—by which time his personal fortune had risen to $4 billion.footnote42
Neo-patrimonialism or capital flight?
In these circumstances, a large literature has argued that some distinctively African pattern of government ‘resource dispersal’ has underlain the continent’s woes. Mobutu’s personal handouts and Zaire’s particularly catastrophic economic decline are seen as an almost ideal-typical example of such ‘African despotism’. This form of distribution is often referred to in Weberian terms as ‘neo-patrimonialism’—the ‘neo’ indicating that the apparatus of a modern state is used to administer patronage, yet without the forms of institutional separation between individual networks and office said to be characteristic of modern forms of authority.footnote43 There can be no doubt that this represents an important phenomenon. Stealing money, corralling economic opportunities, motivated in part by the desire to acquire or maintain social networks, are certainly notable and long-standing features of political life in the drc. But the problem with this hypothesis is that almost all industrialized economies, from Europe to East Asia, were remarkably corrupt during the early stages of their economic take-off, from the rotten boroughs of eighteenth-century England to the mafia-like Chaebol that have controlled growth in modern South Korea.footnote44 The institutional separation of individual and office, insofar as it ever really happens, is usually the consequence, not the cause, of economic development. Conscious of this problem, many writers contrast Asian and African ‘corruption’, and point to a more ‘developmental’ form of patrimonialism, related to forms of initial accumulation.footnote45 In East Asia (and in Africa’s new high-growth states), so the story goes, money appropriated is accumulated—and thus available for investment in production—by an individual or a small group. In most of Africa, by contrast, a moral economy which prizes dispersal over a retinue, together with the existence of competing politico-economic networks, dissipates the resources that could otherwise lead to capitalist accumulation.
This argument may be a step up from the platitudes of the development industry about ‘corruption’, but it still does not withstand close scrutiny. African elites have a higher level of capital flight relative to gdp than their equivalents in other parts of the world, and keep a larger proportion of their wealth abroad.footnote46 This conclusion emerges starkly from the pioneering work of Boyce and Ndikumana in estimating African capital flight—unrecorded capital flows—by examining discrepancies in balance-of-payments and direction-of-trade data, including misinvoicing and unrecorded remittances. During most of Mobutu’s reign, they estimate average annual capital flight at around $1 billion a year in constant 2010 dollars, with a dip to $446 million in the late 80s corresponding to lower commodity prices.footnote47 The significance of this is that—contra neo-patrimonial explanations of low growth—Africa’s big men would appear to devote a much smaller part of their resources to clients than their counterparts in other regions.
There is an inherent contradiction between the reality of African capital flight and the idea of excessive cultural imperatives on the Big Man to redistribute: money stashed in tax havens has, by definition, resisted the clamour of extended social networks. This is not to discount the political importance of patron–client ties, or the conspicuous dispersal of wealth. Indeed, the Mobutu regime was a kind of theatre state, where singing and dancing in return for cash from the Big Man became a central feature. The point is that this was a kind of fetishism, with the person of the powerful cast as generative of wealth. Yet while the powerful cultivated their image as a fruitful bough, the gifts made to underlings in these performances were in reality a tiny fraction of the whole, obscuring the fact that most wealth was being funnelled offshore. Gifts between members of the ruling class can be quite substantial, and for this reason patronage and class are not, as is often assumed, contradictory. The greed shown by African rulers with regard to foreign loans was not unusual, nor were their card tricks with regard to debt and credit. As Marx wrote in the nineteenth century: ‘The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the possession of modern peoples is—their national debt.’footnote48 But the African trajectory differs in an important respect from the classic capitalist one. Here the alienation of public debt incurred from foreign loans involved re-shipping it offshore—and thus undermining capital formation. Though it is ignored or pushed to the margins by conventional Africanist accounts, capital flight provides a far more elegant and empirically robust explanation for the failure of accumulation in Sub-Saharan Africa than ‘neo-patrimonialism’ or ‘the politics of the belly’. This pattern, which would continue and even quicken after his overthrow, was a central aspect of Mobutu’s disastrous legacy.
By the end of the 1980s, this politico-economic haemophilia had begun to generate a qualitative change in the social formation. Hyper-inflation, a series of massive pyramid-selling scandals, and the collapse of the banking system pulled away the monetary underpinnings of Zaire’s economy. Wages, shrunk by inflation to virtually nothing, were paid with months or years of arrears. Government employment was valued not for the salary but as a position from which to negotiate patronage, cut deals, or sell off the accumulated stock. Ostensibly large bureaucratic institutions like the civil service or the army were in fact nests of small, quasi-familial cells. More senior figures within the government services packed out the rolls of employees with ‘fictifs’—non-existent staff who nevertheless drew a salary. The sums accumulated in this way were often diverted into the hands of money changers plying their trade on the street, who managed conversions in an increasingly dollarized economy and doubled up as a kind of informal banking system.
Against this backdrop, opposition to Mobutu had been growing, spearheaded by the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (udps), a political formation launched by disaffected Mobutistes in 1982. By the late 1980s it had become a force to be reckoned with, drawing mass support in many parts of the country. Meanwhile the Cold War, whose imperatives had protected Mobutu for so long, had come to an end. A massacre of opposition students in Lubumbashi by the security police in 1990 prompted Belgium, the usa, and the World Bank to suspend aid. Mobutu, sensing that his Western allies were drifting away, played a final hand. He unbanned political parties, and in 1991—under considerable pressure—allowed the Conférence Nationale Souveraine to be established, charged with drafting a new constitution as a preliminary to multi-party elections.
So began la transition, which, while it would not arrive anywhere much, spawned a series of political motifs that would recur throughout the 1990s and 2000s. One such motif was the use of proliferation and imitation. In place of the old party-state, hundreds of parties were established—many of them simply ‘partis alimentaires’, ideology-free ‘eating parties’ designed to sell their support to various power-brokers, and filled with hungry cadres in search of (often pathetically small) financial rewards. Splits could be fomented within real political formations as leaders were tortured then bribed, rivals appointed then dismissed. Another motif that would repeat itself ad nauseam in the decades to come was the inability of Étienne Tshisekedi—leader of the udps and of the ‘radical opposition’—to take his chances when they came. Bizarrely legalistic in a state where the rule of law counted for nothing, Tshisekedi was repeatedly pulled into constitutional wrangles about who was to chair the Conférence Nationale Souveraine or whether or not he was the prime minister, and failed to mobilize his vast popular support at the moments when it might have counted. Cautious where he needed to be bold, choosing the path of action when it was too late, bargaining with a weak hand; worst of all, he was unlucky. As the 1990s wore on, it became clear that Mobutu had the measure of his domestic opponents, with the street calling the whole thing Connerie Nationale Souveraine—sovereign national bullshit.
Gécamines had continued to function until the early 90s, with copper still a pillar of the economy. The company possessed a degree of operational independence and had held up comparatively well: the ruling class mostly just stole the profits, rather than pillaging the productive infrastructure. Nevertheless, it was clear that decades of underinvestment were taking their toll. September 1990 saw the collapse of the Kamoto mine, which alone had accounted for 30 per cent of all Gécamines production in previous years.footnote49 Still more damaging were the divide-and-rule tactics deployed by Mobutu as he tried to cling on to power. This is what finally wrecked industrial mining in Katanga in the 1990s. Having entered into a secret pact with Mobutu, an erstwhile member of the opposition, Kyungu wa Kamwenza, was named governor of the province. Within days, Kyungu had launched a wave of incendiary propaganda against Katanga’s ‘non-native’ ethnicities—above all the Luba-Kasai, who made up an important section of Gécamines’ skilled workforce and were the support base of the udps. Trumpeted by the state media, Kyungu’s declamations sparked a series of pogroms that left thousands dead, forced tens of thousands to flee and gutted Gécamines of most of its key personnel.footnote50
Artisanal mining had been on the rise since the mid-80s, but with the further regression of the economy in the following decade it became the predominant form of extraction, employing millions of diggers using largely pre-industrial techniques. As the country’s infrastructure disintegrated and roads became impassable, heavy lifting was largely done by hand. In these conditions, mining became both less productive and less profitable. With de-industrialization, diamonds—mined in the lawless interior by teams of urban migrants, using techniques that would have been familiar in the Bronze Age, or smuggled across the border from Angola—became the mainstay of the economy. This economy was controlled by a series of violent and flamboyant warlords, who were surrounded by retinues of women, praise-singers, and street children—Mobutu’s son Kongulu, popularly known as Saddam, was one such character. In these circumstances, popular jacquerie was not directed by any kind of hegemonic leadership and went nowhere. This was particularly evident in the case of the two great street-level lootings that swept Kinshasa in the 1990s. Unpaid soldiers ransacked the property of regime supporters and foreign businesses deemed to be supportive of Mobutu, with help from the capital’s civilian population. A rebellion that could have seized the strategic nodes of an illegitimate power instead merely imitated the predatory conduct of the Zairian elite. It was as if the stormers of the Bastille had arrived to find the king already selling the stones for building materials.
Invasion from the east
It was against this backdrop that the Rwandan genocide, and the huge influx of Hutu refugees into Zaire which followed, took place. Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (rpf) had taken power in Kigali, ousting the French-backed génocidaires. Kagame and his principal ally, the Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, now turned their attention to the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where the remnants of the old regime had taken shelter. The rpf saw the camps as an existential threat, supplying a base to Hutu revanchists as they plotted their return to power (with Mobutu’s tacit support). But the refugees also had every reason to fear the rpf. A suppressed report, written for the un by Robert Gersony, showed that Kagame’s troops had killed tens of thousands of civilians between April and August 1994; Gersony emphasized that the ‘great majority’ of those killed had played no role in the massacre of Tutsis.footnote51 The report was buried at the insistence of Kagame’s new Western allies: the Clinton administration was scrambling to make up for having looked the other way during the genocide and rushed to embrace the rpf. Many refugees who refused to return home did so not because of guilt, nor because of coercion by Hutu extremists—although both factors certainly played their part—but because they were all too well informed about the reception that was waiting for them.footnote52
In 1996, having told Washington in advance that he was planning to intervene, Kagame sent the Rwandan Patriotic Army (rpa) across the border, with Ugandan troops backing them up.footnote53 While their initial plan was to disperse the camps, Kagame and Museveni soon realized that the Zairian Army was hungry, unpaid and in no mood to fight. They pressed on towards Kinshasa to dispose of their old enemy Mobutu altogether. As they ploughed ahead, the rpa force harried and killed Hutu refugees, making no effort to separate those responsible for the slaughter from the broader population.footnote54 Between 200,000 and 300,000 refugees died in the course of the rpa’s offensive. The operation had the blessing of Rwanda’s new allies, who ran interference for Kagame at the un. Susan Rice—then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, later to become Obama’s un ambassador—returned from her first visit to the region with a simple message for her colleagues: ‘Museveni and Kagame agree that the basic problem in the Great Lakes is the danger of a resurgence of genocide and they know how to deal with that. The only thing we have to do is look the other way.’footnote55 The Clinton Administration did not just look the other way, but actively supplied the rpa with logistical support and training.footnote56
Recognizing that a full-scale invasion to overthrow Mobutu would need a Congolese face, Rwanda and Uganda cobbled together a new movement, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (afdl), which assembled the leaders of several largely defunct rebel groups. The two most important figures in the new alliance were André Kisase Ngandu and Laurent Kabila. When Kisase clashed with his Rwandan sponsors, they had him killed, leaving the more pliable Kabila as the afdl’s front-man.footnote57 Kabila had taken part in the Lumumbist Simba rebellion of 1964, and briefly fought alongside Che Guevara during his ill-fated Congolese adventure. While his supporters maintained a certain presence as a maquis in South Kivu over subsequent decades, Kabila himself was principally based in Tanzania: by the time he was plucked from obscurity to head the afdl, he was more of a small-time businessman than a revolutionary.footnote58 Kagame’s government, backed by a largely supportive international media, insisted that it was the afdl, not the rpa, that was leading the fight against Mobutu. In May 1997, as his army crumbled, Mobutu fled to Togo, then Rabat, where he would die a few months later. Kabila was installed in Kinshasa, and Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There is no doubt that the majority of the Congolese people welcomed Mobutu’s departure. But enthusiasm for Kabila’s administration soon wore off. The new president sidelined the civilian opposition and eventually banned their parties altogether, sending Tshisekedi into internal exile. Dissidents were imprisoned, demonstrators were shot. Kabila’s Rwandan backers made themselves deeply unpopular in eastern Congo, where they acted like an occupying force.footnote59 Western governments soon tired of the new ruler as well. Kabila’s autocratic tendencies were no worse than those of the ‘new African leaders’ like Kagame, Museveni or Ethiopia’s Zenawi, then being feted by the Clinton Administration; but they had an ear for the rhetoric of the times, while Kabila sounded like a 70s time capsule. He was also broke. Per capita gdp had sunk to $134; external debt stood at $13 billion—over 200 per cent of national income. In demanding that international creditors simply write off the debt accumulated by Mobutu, on the grounds that it was their fault anyway, Kabila’s logic was impeccable; but for a man who had witnessed the Congo’s post-colonial history at first hand, his grasp of where power lay was astonishingly weak.
Congo’s second war
Having been chosen because he was considered easy to manipulate, Kabila was also proving quite intransigent in his dealings with Kigali. The rpa massacre of the Hutu refugees had put the Congolese president in a fix: to deny all responsibility for the killings would be tantamount to saying he had exercised no control over the rpa as it brought him to power. Trying to escape from this dependence on external support, Kabila dismissed his Rwandan advisers and ordered the rpa to leave Congolese territory in 1998. Kagame and his lieutenant James Kabarebe responded with a lightning offensive on several fronts, again with Ugandan support, hoping to overwhelm and decapitate the administration they had installed. Instead they managed to alarm the most powerful military force in the region, Angola, which suspected them of trucking with its own unita rebels. With Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia weighing in on Kabila’s side, it soon became clear that there would be no rapid victory for the Rwandan–Ugandan alliance. The war would drag on for years, with horrendous consequences for the Congolese people.footnote60
Following the template that they had used for the afdl, the Rwandans and Ugandans created another proxy force, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (rcd), while Uganda also nurtured a group of its own, Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo (mlc). The mlc had a stronger indigenous base than the rcd, at least in Bemba’s home region of Équateur. A media magnate (and admirer of Berlusconi) whose father had been one of Mobutu’s closest associates, the mlc leader saw the formation of his own militia as a sensible business venture. Asked if he had elicited the support of Mobutu’s old business cronies, Bemba had a simple message: ‘If they want to invest, now is the time. When I get to Kinshasa they’ll have to queue up to reach my office.’footnote61 As the war progressed, similar motivations came into play for all of the belligerent parties—especially Rwanda and Uganda, whose armies pilfered gold, diamonds and coltan from eastern Congo, harvesting big profits on the world market. Rwanda’s income from coltan alone was estimated to be $80–100 million in 2000.footnote62 It was in part because of disputes over the Congolese booty that Uganda and Rwanda came to blows: their troops clashed in Kisangani, the centre of the diamond trade, and the rcd splintered between pro-Ugandan and pro-Rwandan factions, adding another layer of complexity to the bloody conflict.
Kagame’s second invasion of Congo again received the green light from Washington, as Robert Gribbin, the us ambassador to Rwanda, later acknowledged: ‘The United States accepted Rwanda’s national security rationale as legitimate. We also recognized that the rcd was a proxy, directed in many respects from Kigali.’footnote63 It was clear from an early stage that the us and other Western states were determined to back Kagame come what may—an attitude that had serious implications for the development of the conflict. The rpf received a great deal of political and economic support from the leading Western powers—aid typically accounting for 40–50 per cent of the Rwandan national budget—even as a series of reports highlighted its particular responsibility for the persistence of the fighting in the Congo. Time after time Kagame’s government issued angry denials; time after time powerful friends had their back. As recently as 2012, Obama’s envoy Susan Rice intervened at the un Security Council to dilute its condemnation of another Rwandan proxy force in eastern Congo and to ensure that Kigali was not identified by name as the guilty party.footnote64 It is hardly surprising if Congolese conspiracy theorists have come to believe that ‘the whites’ and international capital are in league with Rwanda to balkanize their country and ransack its mineral wealth.footnote65
But this narrative is overstated.footnote66 The immediate triggers of the war—long-standing hostility to Mobutu on the part of many regional actors; the security concerns of the rpf (and its desire for revenge)—preceded the desire to profit from Congolese ores. Western mining giants have long profited from the copper belt, but they have done so under contracts signed by Kinshasa. The Clinton State Department’s central Africa policy seems to have been driven not so much by economic lobbies as by its own self-image as enabler of a better future for the countries under its dominion, even as it bankrolled the butchers. Kagame acted with the Americans’ blessing, but not at their behest. And while minerals were indeed essential to the perpetuation of the war, given the scale of de-industrialization most of the mining was artisanal: ores dug out by hand. As we have seen, this low-productivity extraction is far less profitable than capital-intensive mining. When the price of coltan fell in 2001, much Congolese production was rendered uneconomic.footnote67 The disorder of war may have allowed people at local and regional levels to profit from the exploitation of Congolese minerals, but it is unlikely to reflect the wishes of international capital. Overall, the Congo war hindered the penetration of capital far more than it encouraged it.
Can we then dismiss the dynamics of international capitalism as a major cause of the conflict—as much liberal scholarship has done? I believe not, and to understand why, we need to look at class. This is something that is deeply unfamiliar in African studies, where it is taken for granted that ‘vertical’ social ties rooted in ethnicity and patron–client relations are inimical to class. But, as René Lemarchand has argued, one of the fundamental social realities underpinning the disasters of the Great Lakes region has been the huge class of ‘masterless men’—excluded youths in an economically stagnant region, who have been the foot-soldiers of war as well as the diggers of minerals.footnote68 The haemorrhage of money from the drc into Western banking systems has produced the worst of both worlds: a violent dispossession, bringing to mind classic accounts of primitive accumulation, which has made traditional peasant life almost untenable in large parts of the Congo just as more and more young people have come of age.footnote69 At the same time, the capital necessary to generate higher levels of productivity, which might incorporate some of the rural dispossessed as wage-labourers, has seeped north.
From Kabila to Kabila
Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2001 opened up a new phase in Congolese political life. Much about the killing remains unclear. We know that Kabila fell victim to disgruntled kadogo—teenage soldiers from Kivu who had played a key role in the 1996 offensive, and who served as the president’s bodyguards. The kadogo had good reason to hate Kabila after a series of betrayals, but were most likely encouraged by more powerful agents.footnote70 Whatever the truth may be, Kabila’s death opened the way for his son Joseph, who quickly moved to shore up his position. Western media sang the praises of a ‘modernizer’ who knew how to push the right discursive buttons. Kabila’s maiden speech before the Congolese parliament indicated that he was ready to make compromises with all parties to the conflict, and wanted to secure a better relationship with donor countries. His offer was grasped by the West, and in short order both aid and (some) debt rescheduling materialized. In 2002, hostilities between the major parties were officially declared at an end. This was not matched by the reality on the ground, where plunder and disorder continued, especially in the eastern provinces; but it did allow for some degree of institutional consolidation by elites in Kinshasa, in concert with the international partners who had sponsored the peace deal.
Augustin Katumba Mwanke—often simply referred to as akm—now emerged as one of Kabila’s closest advisers. akm had returned to Congo after the fall of Mobutu and used his connections with the afdl leadership to secure a post as governor of Katanga, his native province, where he forged some lucrative ties with mining interests. Joseph Kabila appointed akm as a minister, and his influence over the new president’s economic programme was obvious. The mining code was rewritten, and a series of deals saw the majority of Congo’s mineral assets sold off to foreign companies. A transitional government, replete with warlords, has-beens, partis alimentaires and curiosities plucked from nowhere, helped themselves to the spoils of office.
The 2006 elections—the first held in Congo since 1965—blended a carnival atmosphere with flashes of deadly violence. Étienne Tshisekedi blundered once again: still insisting that he was the legitimate prime minister, the udps leader disastrously misread the popular mood by calling for a boycott; some of his supporters decided not to register, while many others defected to the new party established by Jean-Pierre Bemba. As a result, the only political organization with a genuinely national reach was absent from the poll. Joseph Kabila defeated Bemba in the second round of the presidential election, and his supporters were the largest group in the new Congolese parliament. The country was deeply polarized in the aftermath of Kabila’s victory. In opposition strongholds like Kinshasa, few believed that Kabila had really won; his challenger was only persuaded to concede by the threat of prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Kabila then cemented his electoral triumph with a military one: Bemba had to flee to Belgium after clashes between his militia and Kabila’s troops that left hundreds dead in Kinshasa.footnote71
It was clear nevertheless that Kabila fils had forged a viable electoral coalition. Although there were substantial irregularities in the poll, the Swahili-speaking regions of the country had voted for him by a thumping majority. Kabila had also managed to attract some votes in Bandundu, thanks to the support of Antoine Gizenga, a veteran of Patrice Lumumba’s government who had come third in the first round of the presidential election and urged his supporters to transfer their allegiance to Kabila; this prevented Bemba from making a clean sweep of western Congo. Gizenga was rewarded with an appointment as prime minister. Many were tempted to explain this electoral divide between eastern Swahili-speakers and western Lingala-speakers as the manifestation of a deeper ethno-political identity: Kabila’s supporters often cast the westerners as die-hard Mobutu loyalists. In fact the east–west polarization was highly contingent, as events were to prove. Kabila’s backing in the war-ravaged eastern provinces came above all from the perception that he was the best man to secure the fragile peace.
While Kabila was consolidating his position, the Congolese economy began to recover from its catastrophic plunge during the war. Most of the growth after 2003 was concentrated in the mining sector, where production rose sharply: riding the China-driven global commodities boom, copper output had surpassed its mid-70s peak by 2011.footnote72 The new wealth was most evident in the south-east, the heartland of the mining industry (and the home region of Kabila and other regime barons). But it could also be seen elsewhere: Kinshasa, whose apocalyptic pre-modern indigence had long made it an exception to the shopping malls and squalor of contemporary African cities, began to fall into line, with improved roads, atms, a speculative property boom and a branch of Zara. Signs that all was not well lay close to the surface, however. Local elites and their global creditors had pushed through the privatization of Congo’s subsoil without taking any account of popular opinion, which was strongly opposed to such measures.footnote73 Infant, juvenile and maternal death rates started getting worse again after 2007, having registered modest improvements in the first half of the decade.footnote74 It could have been that such phenomena constituted ‘just so many idyllic methods of a primitive accumulation’, in Marx’s famous phrase, evident in many a transition to capitalism. But all the signs were that the great river of money was sweeping out to sea, just as in the past, leaving little in its wake.
The mining sell-offs encompassed multiple actors, with several re-appropriations, annulments and conflicts along the way, but certain elements are nonetheless clear. In contrast with earlier times, very little employment has been generated in the post-2002 mining boom: Freeport, the largest company in the sector, has created fewer than 5,000 jobs. Furthermore, the growth of industrial mining has the potential to displace the vast number of Congolese who depend on artisanal mining for their livelihood—indirectly, perhaps as many as 10 million.footnote75 The revenue accruing to the state from mining concessions is therefore essential if Congolese society is to benefit. Mines were flogged off at bargain-basement prices by Kabila Jr and Mwanke, with the bulk of mineral rents not flowing through official channels and not staying in the country.footnote76 Capital flight, now routed for the most part via tax havens linked to the City of London, appears to have increased since Mobutu’s fall. Between 2005 and 2010 nearly $7bn was spirited out of the country, with a record $3bn in 2007 alone.footnote77 All in all the drc had lost close to $34bn in capital flight over the period from 1970 to 2010—more than 250 per cent of its 2010 gdp (Table 1).
One of the key figures in this maelstrom has been Dan Gertler. Gertler first came to the drc in 1997 at the age of twenty-three, and struck up a friendship with Joseph Kabila, who trusted the young Israeli enough to send him as a diplomatic envoy to Condoleeza Rice in 2002. Gertler now has stakes in companies that control almost 10 per cent of world cobalt production, and a personal fortune of $2.8 billion.footnote78 According to the ngo Global Witness, ‘five of his deals have resulted in the Congolese state losing out on some $1.4 billion, almost twice the country’s annual spending on health and education combined’.footnote79 In 2010–11, the state-controlled Sodimico sold a batch of mining licences—estimated to be worth $1.6 billion—to Gertler-linked companies registered in Hong Kong and the Virgin Islands for just $60 million.footnote80 As the political environment stabilized, bigger players began to invest in the drc, and Gertler has been their middleman of choice. The Anglo-Swiss giant Glencore worked closely with Gertler to acquire a majority stake in one of the drc’s leading copper producers, Katanga Mining, employing complex financial chicanery and funnelling half a billion dollars in soft loans to Gertler’s offshore empire.footnote81 Meanwhile, Kabila’s henchman Augustin Katumba Mwanke helped mastermind economic pivots towards Pretoria and Beijing. In 2010, an important oil concession on Lake Albert was granted to Caprikat and Foxwhelp, two companies registered (again) in the Virgin Islands. The named beneficiaries were both South African: Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of Jacob, and Mark Hulley, the president’s lawyer. Mvelaphanda Holdings, a firm owned by anc veteran Tokyo Sexwale, took part in the deal.footnote82 Mvelaphanda’s ceo Mark Willcox also helped to establish offshore trusts that control important mining concessions in the drc, with the ubiquitous Gertler very much involved.footnote83
akm’s fingerprints were all over another business arrangement, this time with China, that was part diplomatic triumph, part scandalous fire sale. With Kabila under pressure to deliver something tangible after his election triumph, a consortium of Chinese banks and state-owned enterprises signed an agreement with Congolese parastatals, reserving a 62 per cent stake for themselves. Envisaged at first as a $9 billion loan, the deal contained a strong barter element, with the Chinese consortium helping to build infrastructure and being paid back in minerals rather than cash.footnote84 Mobutu’s odious debts still hung around the drc’s neck at the time, and Kabila’s government had no independent access to capital markets: the only way of securing credit lay through the imf’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (hipc) programme, where debt relief was tied to the usual requirements of the Washington Consensus. Congo, whose post-war stability depended on various parties being given a slice of the (aid-dependent) government pie, was not considered a good pupil, and debt forgiveness had not advanced very far. The Chinese deal gave the drc something to bargain with, and it graduated from the hipc programme in 2009 with nearly all of its debts written off.footnote85 The Chinese companies also built some useful infrastructure where there had been nothing before.
So far, so good. But the loans came at an extortionate price: the Chinese consortium was originally granted huge tax exemptions, worth at least $20 billion over the lifetime of the deal—by which point the drc would have exhausted most of its copper reserves. Some of these exemptions at least appear to have found their way into the final agreement.footnote86 The imf’s hand lay behind some of the other dubious aspects of the deal. At its request, state guarantees for repayment were cancelled, the loans were reduced in size and the barter element was pared back drastically. The last point was especially controversial: one of the great advantages of the barter arrangement is that it is difficult to stash a road or a bridge in a tax haven. The same cannot be said of the cash proceeds from the joint venture that will now come on-stream sooner, thanks to the imf.
At the same time there has been much more to the Chinese presence in the drc than infrastructure and impersonal loans. Many Chinese have established small shops in major urban centres and, unlike earlier waves of Lebanese and South Asian traders, most of them are based outside the downtown areas. The influx of cheap goods from Ngwanzu—tellingly the slang Lingala word for China is derived from the southern manufacturing city of Guangzhou, where cheap consumer durables are bought—has provoked an ambivalent response from the Congolese. In Kinshasa the Chinese speak the local language, Lingala. At the same time, they are the subject of a tense and often hostile mockery. Part of this relates to the poor-quality goods the Chinese sell—ya Ngwanzu has become an adjective in Lingala, denoting fake or no good, a quality that is opposed in the local ideology by mikili, an appreciative term for the fetishized version of northern Europe to which Congolese youths dream of escaping. Hostility also relates to the fact that the Chinese have tended to supplant Congolese themselves in the petty import trade; well into the 2000s it was the Congolese who profited from selling Chinese goods in the neighbourhoods. And part of it relates to the actions of the Chinese government discussed above. A slogan used by Kabila Jr about the cinq chantiers or ‘five building sites’ of national reconstruction was quickly rendered by the street as Chang Chang Che, a clear and dismissive reference to the perceived Chinese support for Kabila’s project.
Life after Joseph
In the meantime, the political coalition assembled behind Kabila in 2006 had fallen apart. His re-election in 2011 proved a shambles. Tshisekedi, by now 78, decided to run, and the udps fielded a slate of candidates for the national assembly. The vote was rigged by Kabila’s party in such a clumsy and transparent fashion that both the Carter Centre and the eu’s observation team deemed the final result to lack any credibility. The Catholic Church had bought mobile phones for an army of poll monitors in remote districts: Kabila’s government responded by cutting phone signals for several days. Votes from the opposition stronghold Kinshasa were disallowed on a gargantuan scale; the results from Congo’s regions were rife with anomalies. There had been plenty of manipulation in 2006, but there was little doubt that Kabila would have won anyway. The same cannot be said of 2011. Western governments prevaricated: they had never warmed to Tshisekedi, and many had some lingering attachment to Kabila. But the drc’s president could in any case rely on stronger backing from his new business partners—China was a staunch ally, while South Africa’s Jacob Zuma was the first to recognize the election result.
Kabila’s valued advisor akm died in a plane crash the year after the election, and since then his government has often seemed paralysed. Under the constitution, presidents must stand down after their second term, but Kabila’s associates have a lot of blood and treasure riding on the status quo: several kites have been flown for an extension of his time in office. Spurious attempts at ‘national reconciliation’ have been combined with the brutal repression of opposition protests. Municipal and regional elections have been repeatedly postponed: in January 2015 the government’s latest gambit, linking the elections to a new census, provoked major demonstrations in a number of cities—including eastern towns like Goma and Bukavu. Popular anger was often directed at Chinese-owned shops, but also at more straightforward government targets. The police responded brutally, killing at least twenty-one protesters in Kinshasa, but the opposition won a confidence-boosting victory, forcing Kabila to retreat.footnote87 Former allies such as Katanga’s multi-millionaire governor Moise Katumbi have started to posture as alternatives.footnote88 Nothing is certain yet, but there are signs that rulers and ruled alike are starting to think about life after Joseph.
There is little immediate hope that a change of administration will disrupt the fundamental pattern of capital flight and haemophiliac appropriation identified in this text.footnote89 ‘Dissident’ elites are as much a part of that system as Kabila himself. At the same time, copper prices have plunged with China’s slowdown, falling below $6,000 a tonne in early 2015 for the first time since 2009, and mining giants are cutting their production forecasts.footnote90 Whatever the future may hold, two points with clear political implications emerge from the preceding analysis. The first is that, in line with the perceptions of the Congolese street, and contra the view cherished by Africanist scholars and the development industry, Congolese development would be greatly encouraged if the drc’s ruling class was under more intense pressure from below to distribute resources among clients—the more they distribute, the less they have to put away in tax havens. The second point is that scholarship cannot isolate Congo from the dynamics of global capitalism. This is not just a matter of resource privatization and giveaway mineral rents, oiled by multi-million-dollar kickbacks. The channels for funnelling value away from on-shore jurisdictions into a netherworld of ‘treasure islands’ benefit from a state-of-the-art grid that Western elites have a big stake in leaving safely buried. The various tax havens are ‘spider’s webs’ with, at their centre, northern financial hubs like Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland or the usa.footnote91 The British Virgin Islands, which seem to be the major destination for much of the drc’s recent capital flight, have a very strong connection to the Square Mile. The flows that have helped sap capital formation in Africa’s giant involve a considerable shift of economic surplus from the many to the few, and from South to North.