Some days ago we went out for dinner with Mark; the very friendly IRC TUUNGANE boss here. I told him about my frustration with the seeming lack of contribution by Congolese people to public projects. [See the July 6 post “How to get a Dutch guy frustrated”]. Mark said that he was also frustrated about this when he arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said, however, that he heard about two reasons that could possibly explain it (and that calmed him down in the months after that):
1. There is war, rebel groups, etc. in the Democratic Republic Congo. Consequently, it is likely that if you build e.g. a school it will be destroyed. As a result, people simply do not think long term.
2. From 1965 to 1997 Mobutu Sese Seko was in power. This guys sucked (and the West kept him in power); taking as much as possible from the country for himself. He and his government employees – who were also known as “gros legumes” – are the example cases of kleptocracy. If one builds e.g. a school, it was expropriated by the state.
So, is peace and a non-expropriating state the answer? And if this is now so ingrained in Congolese society how long will it take to get it out?
One additional thing on point 2 – I heard this from somebody in Bukavu and checked it only just now – there is the understanding that Mobutu had an article (article 15) added to the Zairian constitution when he was in power that instructed government agents to “debrouillez-vous”.* That is, “fend for yourself”. Incredible! This also makes me look very different now at the famous words in Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” ;)
* Actually, such an article was never really written down in the Zairian constitution. However, Crawford Young and Thomas Turner - two famous Africanists - did find a provincial document that did literally instruct the authorities to “debrouillez-vous”. This was the province of South Kasai.