De­spite a good start, the DRC pres­i­dent is seen as aloof and alien­ated from his peo­ple, and the coun­try is char­ac­terised by es­ca­lat­ing re­pres­sion, in­sta­bil­ity and volatil­ity

Financial Mail - - FEATURE / DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO - Wil­liam Clowes

One morn­ing last Novem­ber, Con­golese pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila’s mo­tor­cade bul­lied a path through Kin­shasa’s traf­fic to­wards the Palais du Pe­u­ple (Palace of the Peo­ple), which houses the se­nate and the na­tional as­sem­bly. Ka­bila rarely ven­tures into public view, and speaks even less fre­quently, but he wanted to rem­i­nisce about his 16 years in power.

At the Palais, Ka­bila told leg­is­la­tors that he had in­her­ited “a coun­try in tat­ters, a non­state” be­dev­illed by a “vi­cious cir­cle of hy­per­in­fla­tion and the de­pre­ci­a­tion of the na­tional cur­rency”. He claimed to have stopped a civil war and re-es­tab­lished the uni­tary state, mid­wifed the adop­tion of a new con­sti­tu­tion and the birth of democ­racy, and presided over years of un­in­ter­rupted eco­nomic growth. This au­to­bi­og­ra­phy — with the pro­tag­o­nist as paci­fier, uni­fier and na­tion builder — was re­ceived rau­cously by the pres­i­dent’s par­ti­sans.

True, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, for­merly known as Zaire, was in an in­fer­nal con­di­tion in Jan­uary 2001, when Joseph Ka­bila suc­ceeded his fa­ther, Lau­rent-désiré, who had been as­sas­si­nated by a body­guard.

Just 29 at the time, Ka­bila un­ex­pect­edly found him­self head of a vast state shorn of huge chunks that were con­trolled by rebel armies backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

His ar­rival “un­locked a lot of progress”, says Stephanie Wolters of the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies.

The po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte en­joyed the good­will of a pop­u­la­tion ex­hausted by con­flict. “I was in ex­ile in Cape Town and I asked my church to pray for him,” says Al­bert Moleka, a for­mer heavy­weight in the Union for Democ­racy & So­cial Progress, Congo’s oldest and largest op­po­si­tion party. “Ev­ery­one wanted to give him a chance,” he says.

Ben­e­fit­ing from in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, Ka­bila bro­kered the with­drawal of Rwan­dan and Ugan­dan troops and con­cluded a peace deal. In July 2003, a tran­si­tional govern­ment was in­stalled in which Ka­bila shared power with four vice-pres­i­dents.

The Con­golese voted over­whelm­ingly for a new con­sti­tu­tion in 2005 and a year later Ka­bila tri­umphed in the coun­try’s first demo­cratic elec­tions since 1960. “The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity moved quickly to or­gan­ise the elec­tions to give Ka­bila a mod­icum of le­git­i­macy and le­gal­ity,” says Mvemba Di­zolele, a Con­golese lec­turer at Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, of the polls.

If most ob­servers can sym­pa­thise with Ka­bila’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the early years, they’re less in­dul­gent to­wards the pres­i­den­tial ver­sion of what fol­lowed — the pe­riod af­ter he had con­sol­i­dated power and le­git­i­macy.

High min­eral prices have un­der­writ­ten sharp growth through much of Ka­bila’s elected pres­i­dency, peak­ing at 9% in 2014, but those heady days are over. Low cop­per and oil prices slashed growth to 2.5% in

2016, while the Con­golese franc has shed half its value against the dol­lar since last year and in­fla­tion has leapt to over 25% af­ter sev­eral years of sta­bil­ity.

The Con­golese, at present be­ing pum­melled by de­te­ri­o­rat­ing pur­chas­ing power, now won­der what the boom years brought them. “The in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions kept say­ing Congo was one of the fastest-grow­ing economies in the world, but ev­ery year we go from cri­sis to cri­sis and . . . growth is not re­flected in ev­ery­day life,” says Di­zolele.

The govern­ment’s an­nual bud­get has never ex­ceeded Us$9bn, a pal­try sum for a coun­try of be­tween 75m and 85m peo­ple.

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