Democracy Lab

Is Congo Finally Getting Its Act Together?

After decades of corruption and conflict, the Democratic Republic of Congo edges toward statehood.

Note: This article is an abridged version of the Legatum Institute's publication, "Curing the Mal Zaïrois: The Democratic Republic of Congo Edges Toward Statehood."

In the heyday of the kleptocratic dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, the conventional wisdom about then-Zaire's economic problems was that they all boiled down to le mal Zaïrois (the Zairean malady), a phrase coined by the larcenous Mobutu himself in 1977. That malady was corruption, which infiltrated every aspect of society and corroded the effective functioning of the state. But Mobutu was of two minds about the disease. Stealing, it seems, was OK -- within limits. As Mobutu famously put it: "If you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way. But if you steal too much to become rich overnight, you'll be caught."

The most plausible reason for Mobutu's blatant promotion of corruption (apart from the fact that it made him very, very wealthy) was its value in maintaining the mechanism of governance that he perfected -- one the German sociologist Max Weber called "patrimonialism." The Mobutu state was not based on the creation and enforcement of rules, but on the maintenance of a vast web of informal patron-client relationships. Patrons (the rulers) typically control scarce resources that they allocate at their discretion in exchange for services and support, and clients (the ruled) are rewarded for loyalty to the patron.

Many, however, argue that these changes have been superficial, and that le mal Zaïrois has just mutated into le mal Congolaise.

Today's Democratic Republic of Congo seems a long way from Mobutu's mal Zaïrois. There have been two democratic, albeit flawed, presidential elections (in 2006 and 2011), both won by Joseph Kabila, whose father removed Mobutu from power in 1997. They were the country's first elections since 1960. The government is moving toward a style of governance that is more responsive to the population's needs. Many, however, argue that these changes have been superficial, and that le mal Zaïrois has just mutated into le mal Congolaise.

At its core, this is a question about whether the structure of the state has changed, or is, at least, changing, since Mobutu's exit from power. Between 1996 and 2003, the country endured two devastating civil wars that claimed millions of lives, wars mainly caused by a spill-over effect from the ethnic conflict in neighboring Rwanda. Have the wars altered the features of the Mobutu state, or does patrimonialism remain the most attractive way (from the perspective of its leaders) to govern the country? Congo's prospects for economic growth and evolution into a stable, democratic society rest on the answer.

The country first experienced independence from brutal Belgian colonial rule in 1960, but quickly launched into crisis. When Mobutu, who was head of the army, took over via a military coup (allegedly sponsored by the CIA) in 1965, his first objective was to consolidate power. He was confronted with powerful independence movements in the mineral-rich Katanga and Kasai regions, as well as an armed rebellion. The Congolese government was not only short on political legitimacy, but woefully short on human capital and administrative experience; the top echelon of the civil service had been staffed solely by Belgian colonials. Thus Mobutu faced a deeply fractured ex-colony. He had a bureaucracy and army of sorts, but could not rely on anybody's loyalty.

Confronted with this challenge, Mobutu did not go the Madisonian-constitutional route of creating state institutions. Instead, he chose to establish and maintain a vast network of informal patron-client relationships -- a network that was integral to his control of Congo. This involved dispensing resources and favors to people of influence who, in turn, dispensed them to others below them, creating a pyramid of obligations flowing to and from his office. Such a strategy would work only if the clients couldn't shift allegiance to another patron bearing gifts. So Mobutu also shrewdly sidelined potential candidates. Members of the political elite were shuffled from one position to another, thrown into prison, rehabilitated, cast into exile, only to be rehabilitated again.

The structure was not only corrupt, but exploitative of society. Mobutu extended his patronage machine to incorporate far more people than public finances could pay for. A key tool of patronage is employment in government, which ordinarily requires a budget to pay salaries. In the Congo, people were hired without a salary, but with the ability to extort money from those on the next level down in the pecking order. This came at huge costs to societal welfare. On top of this, civil servants were not chosen on merit, but by who could best serve Mobutu's political and social networks. Clients had no incentive to work hard or even to undertake their nominal jobs. And this legitimized form of predation undermined incentives to invest in productive enterprises that could be seized as prizes.

It should be no surprise, then, that the economy began a long, steady contraction in the early 1970s as the country acquired massive foreign debt. Yet as a political strategy, it was a huge success: Mobutu consolidated his authority and managed to hang on for 32 years.

Why did patrimonialism prevail in Congo in a form that had such pernicious effects on the economy? The major issue is that ethnic heterogeneity and size, coupled with secessionist movements, made it inherently difficult to govern by rules. The secessionist movements of the 1960's persisted into the 1970's. Two armed conflicts, Shaba I and Shaba II, aimed at creating an independent Katanga state in southeast Congo in 1977 and 1978, and drew the involvement of foreign powers. It's also worth considering that the success of Mobutu's strategy in winning and holding power may have reflected the patrimonial nature of Congolese ethnic groups before colonialism. (Other explanations, such as resource wealth, the legacy of Belgian colonialism, and Mobutu playing Cold War alliances to generate financial support, don't make the case for patrimonialism quite as well.)

But it's still fashionable to argue that the changes in today's Congo aren't making any tangible difference. The big question is whether the structural factors that led Mobutu to organize the state his way have changed, thereby reducing the relative attractiveness of patrimonial governance.

It appears that the underlying structure of Congolese society really has changed.

Actually, it appears that the underlying structure of Congolese society really has changed. Firstly, since 1965, Congo has become much less heterogeneous, in the sense that (most) people have begun to identify as citizens of a common state. During the two Congo wars, neither Katanga nor Kasai were inclined to secede (as they had in the 1960s and 1970s), even though it would have been easy for them to do so.

History suggests that civil wars can change societies in ways that fundamentally alter their development paths. An important example is the English civil war between 1642 and 1651. Prior to the war, King Charles I viewed attempts to build a modern state as dangerously destabilizing, and opposed economic reform (such as the enclosure of common land) because he thought it would threaten traditional patrimonial ties in the countryside. The civil war radically transformed English society, giving rise to radical groups, including the Diggers and the Levellers, that demanded institutional change. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Charles II abandoned his father's patrimonial rule, as it was no longer feasible, and switched to a Weberian, rule-based model of governance.

Civil wars also have a way of empowering new elites or changing the balance of power. In 1965, Mobutu was able to undermine the elites that threatened his authority, since African elites accumulated power only after the Belgian colonial rulers left. By contrast, the second civil war ended via a power-sharing deal known as the Sun City agreement, which put in place a transitional government and made it far more difficult to sideline elites in the future.

While it would be a stretch to claim that the civil war fundamentally transformed Congo's polity, it did change the role of elites. The other major power-sharing deal was the "1+4" arrangement that confirmed Joseph Kabila as president, but made Jean-Paul Bemba, head of the armed opposition group Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC), prime minister. It created four vice presidents, one from each of the two main armed opposition movements, one from the Kabila government, and, significantly, one from the unarmed political opposition.

The combination of an emerging national Congolese identity, the new elite political geography, and the Sun City agreement may provide a basis for a social contract that makes the construction of a modern, non-patrimonial Congo state feasible. Often, coercion and violence are used during state-building because it is difficult for the various elites to reach consensus and guarantee that everyone's interests are protected. This is where the Sun City agreement is significant, as it provides the mutual security that elites need to manage the transition to a rule-based modern state.

In fact, after President Kabila's re-election in 2011, he appointed Augustin Matata Ponyo as prime minister, who in turn appointed a cabinet; since then, no minister has been fired or reassigned. It seems that Mobutu-style governance, in which no one glimpsed power long enough to become a serious rival, is a thing of the past.

On the other hand, there are a slew of barriers to building a stable and modern Congolese state. First, one of the most important factions in the second civil war, the Rwanda-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Goma (RDC-Goma) refused to sign the Sun City agreement, and conflict continues to plague the eastern part of the country. (In the photo above, displaced Congolese flee the region after deadly clashes in July 2013.) A modern state should command a monopoly on violence, but this is obviously not the case in Congo; numerous militias remain on the political stage, and as recently as this year, the major eastern cities of Goma and Lubumbashi were overrun by them. That this situation has persisted since 2002 suggests that the elites who signed the Sun City agreement have decided that they would rather manage the people of eastern Congo militarily (with the help of the United Nations and, more recently, Malawian, South African, and Tanzanian troops), than strive for a more inclusive social contract.

Second, it's possible that the Sun City agreement will unravel. Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader the aforementioned MLC faction and one of the four vice presidents, was arrested for crimes against humanity and exiled in 2008. A successor of his stature has not emerged, and Kabila may now be tempted to change the constitution to remove the two-term limit he now faces, which would spell trouble for a democratic future.

Mobutu still casts a long shadow. Third, Mobutu still casts a long shadow. Patrimonial rule left the state with many autonomous power nodes. For example, last year, the Congolese government hired an additional 62,000 civil servants, as senior members of the civil service extended their networks to bind more clients to them. In 2012, the World Bank cancelled a grant initiative to Congo because the consults hired to select qualified grant recipients colluded with government officials to produce a fake list. Similarly in 2011, the IMF suspended loans to Congo over mining transparency issues. According to a 2013 report by the Africa Progress Panel (a watchdog group headed by Kofi Annan), the Congo lost about $1.4 billion by underpricing sales of mining assets in what was plainly business-as-usual patrimonial deal making.

In this context, Prime Minister Matata's recent decision to switch civil servants' salary payments from cash to electronic bank transfers is significant, because it cuts at the heart of patrimonialism. Under the old system, the people at the top of the civil service got a pile of cash that they distributed to their clients below them, while keeping a bit for themselves. Their clients, in turn, distributed it to the people below them, keeping a bit for themselves, and so forth. Clients who didn't show sufficient loyalty were left out of the spoils chain. With electronic payments, Congolese civil servants will not be getting their wages from their patrons, but directly from the government.

It is a radical change. The prime minister received threats from military officers, but he did it anyway -- and Kabila backed him up. Now he is going after the civil service bonus system, which is so opaque that nobody actually seems to understand it.

There are reasons for cautious optimism about the future of Congo. Congolese society has changed significantly in the 16 years since Mobutu was exiled and, for the most part, the changes have nudged the country toward a path on which economic and political development will be possible. Much, however, hinges on whether the current political settlement can hold together, and whether Kabila, who is just 42 years old, will step down from the presidency on schedule in 2016. If he does not, it's likely that the Sun City accord will collapse, and that, like Mobutu, those in charge will decide that deals, not rules, are the way forward.

PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Who's the Biggest Loser in the Ukraine-Russia Deal?

It's not Putin, Yanukovych, or even the EU. It's the Ukrainian people.

Vladimir Putin's Dec. 17 meeting in Moscow with Ukraine's politically besieged president, Viktor Yanukovych, must be viewed as quite a victory for Putin. The Russian president's first feat was to tie financially troubled Ukraine to the Kremlin by offering a $15 billion and a significant discount in gas prices, luring it away from the European Union. The second victory was one of authoritarianism over democracy, and the third of corruption over European legal reforms. As far as political wins go, this was the equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, magically solving several problems at once. Moreover, it didn't cost Putin anything.

Yet this deal can also be seen as a victory for Yanukovych, personally. The EU had tried to persuade him to opt for the rule of law and democracy -- freeing his prime opponent from prison, for example, in return for limited financial assistance and access to Europe's market. But Yanukovych strung the EU along, pretending to be serious about negotiating accession before turning abruptly to Moscow for the international financing he needs to sustain Ukraine's debts until the presidential elections scheduled for March 2015. Now, with Ukraine temporarily stable financially, he and his family can afford to indulge in increasingly authoritarian rule and the practice of siphoning off corrupt payments.

The main losers in this deal, clearly, are the Ukrainian people. A vast majority of Ukrainians wanted Yanukovych to sign the extensive European Association Agreement, expecting to gain from access to its markets and job opportunities, but most of all to reinforce democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine. He promised repeatedly that he would do so, for example saying in Kiev on Nov. 6: "By choosing to get closer to the European Union, we are making a pragmatic choice for optimal and rational modernization." But when the moment arrived for a decision on Nov. 29, he did not sign anything at all with the EU. The key question today is whether the Ukrainian people will accept this treatment, or whether they will be succeed in their demand that the unpopular Yanukovych is forced to resign.

The large opposition has camped out peacefully for over three weeks on the Maidan, the Independence Square in the center of Kiev. Braving cold temperatures, hundreds of thousands of protesters seized Kiev's main public square and clashed with security police, embarrassing the government and causing it to apologize for the use of force. Tensions have mounted -- though the protests are expected to remain peaceful if the government does not overplay its hand. The opposition's immediate goal is to attract a sufficient number of defectors from Yanukovych's faction in parliament so that they can oust the government. On Dec. 19, they counted 217 opposition deputies, but they need nine more defectors to reach a majority.

If the opposition fails, Ukraine may enter the sad authoritarian path of Belarus and Russia, consigning it to a bleak economic future, dependent on Russia and hobbled by a corrupt system that enriches Yanukovych's cronies. The joint announcement made by Putin and Yanukovych at a news conference at the Kremlin on Dec. 17, encompassed no fewer less than 14 bilateral agreements which took the West by surprise. After all, these two men have not agreed on anything since April 2010, when Yanukovych prolonged the Russian lease of the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042 for an illusory reduction of the price of the gas Ukraine imports from Russia.

So far, only one insubstantial agreement has been published. Both sides have maintained great secrecy about the negotiations and the details of their agreements, leaving the Ukrainian opposition to fear that its president has all but given up sovereignty to Russia in one way or the other. One suspicious agreement concerns a bridge over or tunnel under the disputed Kerch Strait at the Azov Sea.

Details will continue to emerge, perhaps pulling the bigger picture into focus, but right now it appears that this deal is heavily one-sided and greatly favors Russia. Yes, Moscow's sovereign wealth fund is supposed to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian bonds. But this is not a grant, it's merely a line of credit that will have to be repaid; the terms are not concessionary. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov has stated that Russia intends to purchase two-year Ukrainian Eurobonds for $3 billion with a yield of 5 percent. International Monetary Fund loans are much cheaper and last longer, so it is clear that Ukraine's motive was political more than economic. Presumably, this means that the Russian government will sell some of its U.S. treasury bills, whose two-year yield is 0.34 percent, in order to finance the loans. Yes, Russia's risk increases, but many fund managers do deals that tap low-cost funds from one source and make money from charging higher rates on loans.

Russia has also agreed to abolish various trade sanctions against Ukrainian exports to Russia from railcars and steel pipes to chocolate. This would represent a gain for Ukrainian producers seeking Russian markets but cut off from them by the sanctions. According to World Trade Organization rules, however, the Russian-imposed sanctions were illegal and it is a shame that the United States and the EU did not act more forcefully within the WTO on behalf of Ukraine.

Russia also cut the price of its gas exports to Ukraine for the first quarter of 2014 by one third to $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, providing considerable cost savings for Ukraine's energy-dependent producers and consumers. But this is not a gift either; in fact, it's an approximate market price. By insisting on inflated prices, Gazprom has lost large sales to the Ukrainian market. Not surprisingly, Gazprom's shares rose on the news of this price cut. Yet, the price is to be revised each quarter -- and, given prior experience, it's far from clear that this level will hold.

Finally, a few agreements were concluded on production cooperation involving large Antonov transportation airplanes, shipbuilding, and construction of space rockets. Ukraine has valuable industrial assets, but advanced manufacturing requires cooperation with their old Russian partners, who had been instrumental in setting up production lines. Such cooperation should have occurred long ago, but Russia was more interested in punishing Ukraine than in mutual cooperation like this.

Presuming that Ukraine does not default on its bonds, Russia has not, and more likely will not, lose anything on this deal. It has only eliminated some trade sanctions against Ukraine, a step that costs Moscow little and could benefit Russian consumers. In the end, Putin's successful hardball strategy has come at very little cost and very significant gain. It has blocked Ukraine from orienting its economy toward the West and enhanced Russian power and prestige in its former territories. For Yanukovych, it's a win, too. While he might be hated on the Maidan, he's now free to continue to rule in a manner that is both corrupt and authoritarian. The big losers are the Ukrainian people, whose future he has jeopardized. The question remains whether they will tolerate being treated like this.

AFP/Getty Images