You might expect that the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- which suffered under what was arguably the most brutal colonial administration in sub-Saharan Africa, a dismal three decades of repression under strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, and a regional war that resulted in the deaths of some 5.4 million and counting -- would want to move on from its past. But the country's 50-year independence celebration on June 30 will do exactly the opposite: In an attempt to recreate that historic day in 1960 when Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, took over the reins of leadership from Belgium's King Baudouin, President Joseph Kabila has invited the former colonial power's current sovereign, Albert II, to be the guest of honor. Yet try as Kabila might, casting himself in the same light as Congo's iconic independence leader is proving a difficult sell these days. It's much more accurate to say that he is the new Mobutu.
The two leaders have a disheartening amount in common. Mobutu, archetype of the African strongman, was fond of pink champagne, leopard-skin hats, and pushing political opponents out of helicopters while his backers in Washington footed the bill. Mobutu siphoned vast profits from Congo's mineral wealth and presided over a willfully dysfunctional state. Kabila is less audacious -- so far -- but his government has a similar penchant for silencing political opponents. As to his backers, it's true that the good old days of Cold War money have ended, but what Congo has now is equally good: loads of donors, from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union to bilaterals like Britain, the United States, and France, who hold their noses but don't let bad politics chase them out.
Now 50 years into Congo's woeful history as an independent country, the stakes are as high as ever to get things right -- and the consequences as dire if yet another leader chooses self-perpetuation over progress.
Why? Because today's Congo is about as dismal as a country can get. Nearly 80 percent of the country's 70 million people survive on less than $2 a day, annual government spending on health care amounts to just $7 per person (only Burundi spends less), and one out of every 10 infants never makes it to childhood. Three hundred thousand refugees are still afraid to return home despite the official end of the war seven years ago, and most of the country's 2 million internally displaced people fled their homes since 2007. And even as foreign rebels and homegrown militias continue to stalk the eastern borderlands and a new rebellion gains ground in the remote north, Kabila is calling for Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission -- already struggling to compensate for the shortcomings of a singularly incompetent national army -- to begin pulling out. The symbolic withdrawal of 2,000 of the United Nations' 20,000 peacekeepers seems to have sated the young president's appetite for more sovereignty ahead of the June 30 celebrations. But many fear that with further downsizing Congo could backslide into generalized chaos.
Few had heard of Joseph Kabila before 1996 when he emerged from exile in Tanzania to serve as an officer in a Rwandan-supported rebellion led by his father, Laurent. When the rag-tag force swept practically unopposed across the vast country, Western governments reveled in Mobutu's downfall. But before long, Kabila the father, with his rampant cronyism and bizarre affinity for Marxist rhetoric, was eliciting gasps of horror from the likes of U.S Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. His decision to break with his Rwandan backers in 1998 helped plunge Congo into the deadliest conflict since World War II. Laurent was assassinated by his bodyguard three years later, and his son, Joseph, took the reins. It was hoped that he would be a new leader, a symbol of progress and reconciliation. And when he won Congo's first democratic election in four decades in 2006, he did so much to the relief of Western diplomats who thought him flawed, but vastly preferable to his chief opponent, the populist former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba.
But any chance that Kabila, then 35, would usher Congo toward a new era of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights soon fizzled. In January 2007, just weeks after his swearing in, Kabila ordered police to clamp down on a small politico-religious sect known as Bundu dia Kongo, which was protesting what it alleged -- and not without reason -- was the rigging of the gubernatorial election in western Bas-Congo province. More than 100 members of the sect were shot or stabbed to death, and the security forces would return about a year later and slaughter over 200 more.
"The fact that we said nothing and the U.N. hushed up their own report into the incident told Kabila everything he needed to know about how much he could get away with in the future," one Western diplomat, who was posted to Congo at the time, told me.