Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

DR Congo, a land of greased palms

Congolese displaced children beg for biscuits

By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

"I can't get a permanent job in Congo because its not what you know round here that matters, it's who you know."

I was in the car park of a hotel in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I had just asked a man, who I was employing for a few weeks as a guide, what he did when people like me were not around.

His answer - about cronyism trumping merit and hard work - says a lot about what is wrong with DR Congo.

The young man in Goma spoke five languages - three African and two European - fluently.

He could also "get by" in several other tongues. He had a university-level education, was resourceful and hard-working.

'Not what you know...'

In most countries around the world, those skills would make him highly employable. But not in DR Congo.

DR Congo army parade
Army officers claimed the salaries of 300,000 soldiers when in fact there were only 130,000 - and pocketed the difference
Corruption and Governance in DRC

In DR Congo - riven by war, but just as importantly poisoned by bad leadership - those qualities are not enough to get a decent job.

So the young man was coping with what temporary work he could get from passing journalists.

It is highly wasteful of human resources, but I have seen it before.

A "driver" I once employed in the capital, Kinshasa, was - I later discovered to my intense embarrassment - a fully qualified chemical engineer.

He could not get a job because he had not greased the right palms.

"It's not what you know, but who you know" is another way of saying corruption is one of DR Congo's major problems.

A recently published study by Congolese academic Dr Muzong Kodi goes beyond anecdotes like these to analyse the roots of corruption.

Unusual and pervasive

Dr Kodi, a former lecturer at the University of Zaire (as the country was once known), now based in London, gives some unusual examples of how pervasive and varied corrupt practices can be in DR Congo.

He explains in detail how:

  • Army officers claimed the salaries of 300,000 soldiers when in fact there were only 130,000 - and pocketed the difference
  • Trade union officials sometimes do not represent the interests of their members - but are bribed by corrupt bosses to keep workers quiet
  • A body claiming to audit state firms was paradoxically unaccountable itself - and unknown to the public.

King Leopold II of Belgium (1835 - 1909)
Under King Leopold's rule, maiming was used to punish forced labourers

The rot seems to have begun in the mid 1880s when the Belgian King, Leopold II, grabbed half of central Africa and called it "Congo Free State".

In fact, there was little "free" about it - apart from the freedom of the king's rubber and ivory agents to implement what Dr Kodi calls a "brutal regime of forced labour".

"Cruel punishment was meted out to those who did not meet the quotas set for them," Dr Kodi writes. "Their villages were burned to the ground, people's limbs were chopped off."

Cruel exploitation continued after an ill-prepared local population obtained independence in 1960.


Dr Kodi writes that the Congolese were immediately confronted by "chaos and anarchy engineered by the multinationals and other foreign interests in the Congo".

Local politicians and soldiers did not help much, either.

Shortly after independence, a soldier, Mobutu Sese Seko, seized power and began copying King Leopold's dictatorial style.

Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu amassed a personal fortune estimated to be as much as $5bn

Mobutu ruled from 1965 to 1997. He finessed Leopold's dictatorship with institutionalised corruption based on systematic political and financial patronage - a system that became known as kleptocracy.

Dr Kodi argues that there has been a "striking similarity" between the styles of government from the time of Leopold through to more recent regimes.

The academic says most governments in Congo have been "predatory" and "characterised by greed, corruption, massive violations of human rights and the commission of all kinds of crimes with impunity".

Dr Kodi analyses the various attempts at bringing about "good governance".

He explains how an "Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission" was itself dysfunctional and corrupt.

Turning a blind eye

He gives the history of how a detailed parliamentary inquiry into corrupt contracts was, "for unknown reasons", not debated in parliament itself.

But what is to be done about it all?

Dr Kodi argues that, despite all the talk of encouraging "good governance" the outside world did not help DR Congo by encouraging the formation of a post-war transitional government which, being essentially a collection of unelected warlords, was the complete opposite of the representative and transparent administration that ordinary people wanted.


And, he says, the run-up to the 2006 elections was characterised by donor countries turning a blind eye to corruption in order to have a half-successful poll.

Planners of the United Nations-sponsored peace and electoral processes might sympathise with these arguments - but also ask what other choice they had, given limited resources.

The book ends with a series of detailed recommendations - to the Congolese government, the private sector, the international community and others.

One recommendation struck me as going to the heart of a dilemma.

It was that donor countries should get together with Congolese civil society groups to identify "the reformers and the non-reformers in the Congolese political establishment".

They should then work together, Dr Kodi says - with the "reformers", it is understood - to "overcome resistance" to good governance and anti-corruption programmes.

Sounds like a good idea.

Maybe it will mean the men hanging around in hotel car parks waiting for foreign correspondents to employ them will one day get decent, permanent jobs.

But the dilemma is this: What do you do if the "non-reformers" have the guns?

Corruption and Governance in the DRC, by Muzong Kodi, is published by The Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

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