Trudging through the muddy, crammed alleyways of Katindo military base in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it's hard to imagine why anyone would enlist in the national Army. Inside a tattered tent that functions as a hospital, two dozen soldiers lie huddled in fetal positions or sprawled on their stomachs, wounds seeping onto thin mattresses stretched over weeds and the churned black mud of a lava field. Some stagger about on crutches. The camp's squalor outstrips even the feeble standards of the country's slapdash metropolises or the U.N.-administered tent cities for more than a million displaced civilians.
From hundreds of miles across Congo's vast expanse, soldiers have come here, to North Kivu province, to fight in a conflict that has ebbed and flowed for more than a decade. Paid erratically and forced to hobble or hitchhike their way to the war's front, they could easily abandon their posts. But Rosette Bilonda, the wife of one soldier, doesn't see it that way. It's our country. That's why we came here. That's why we're fighting -- for our country.
Love of country? What country? To some theorists, the Democratic Republic of the Congo doesn't actually exist, an inconvenient fact that renders the willingness to die for Congo a touch surreal. The only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists, Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills argued on ForeignPolicy.com last month.
But tell that to the 68 million Congolese who live in the heart of Africa, and they'll be perplexed. No matter how dysfunctional or failed, Congo exists because the Congolese exist. A shared history of collective suffering, a fear of foreign influence, and a staunchly embedded nationalism have forged a Congolese identity that is real, if messy. On the ground, the country and its people exist, and there's no doing away with either.
Viewed from faraway capitals, Congo might as well be a giant inkblot on the world map, spilling across Africa's immense center, arbitrarily collecting in its midst a vast array of mineral deposits, more than 200 ethnic groups, a cacophony of languages, and a vast rain forest second in size only to the Amazon. It was just such a random assortment that King Leopold II of Belgium claimed as his own one-and-a-quarter centuries ago -- using little more than a quill pen on a map. As Herbst and Mills rightly argue, today the country's population is spread thinly across the territory, living on just 10 percent of Congo's soil. The rest is largely jungle, making efficient, functional law enforcement, and even basic infrastructure, a pipe dream.
As in Leopold's time, Congo remains an attractive playground for foreign and homegrown looters -- whether from the dregs of armed rebel factions kicked out of Rwanda or Uganda, other neighboring countries, or mineral-hungry multinationals. The pillagers hide in the country's failure. Congo's people, meanwhile, are plagued by a seemingly interminable war in the east and sporadic small bursts of secessionist violence in other provinces that are brutally put down by a badly disciplined army.
And yet, in five weeks of travel across the country, I never encountered a single person -- whether lawyer, businessman, tin ore miner, displaced villager, vagabond, evangelical pastor, or local militiaman -- who questioned his or her sense of being Congolese.
True, Congolese is a slippery term and sometimes fraught with contradictions. But then, so are all nationalities, particularly the polyethnic, multilingual kind created on a whim by a foreign king for his private enrichment. The country doesn't exist because of its government's monopoly of violence, but the Congolese nation lives in the abstract -- it is an imagined political community, to borrow anthropologist Benedict Anderson's formulation.
Congo, in short, exists because 68 million Congolese believe they belong to it.
And unlike the country's borders, the idea of being Congolese was never imposed. To be Congolese is to share a complex memory of tragic historical events: the collective suffering of Leopold's colonial rule, the deaths of 5 to 8 million who perished in that time, the brutal 32-year kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, and a fratricidal war triggered by his ouster that at one point drew in the armies of nine bordering countries.
Despite his otherwise terrible record, Mobutu, a leopard-hat-donning, magic-cane-wielding caricature of the African Strong Man, is often credited with deepening Congolese nationhood. As part of his Authenticit campaign, he threw out foreigners, thrust a new, African name on the country (Zaire), and forced every citizen to perform works occasionally on behalf of the country. It wasn't democratic, but it was Congolese.