Kongo youth and adults in Kinshasa, DRC 2010. By UNICEF Sverige via Wikimedia 

I met Jeremy (not his real name) at a gathering of university students in Nairobi sometime in October. A native of Bukavu, he had grown up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time of our meeting, he had gotten admission into Canadian university to study for a degree in engineering. He was in Kenya to learn English.

At the edge of the chattering group, I asked him about his home country and the upcoming elections there. In response, Jeremy launched into a passionate tirade against Joseph Kabila, the president whose refusal to step down at the end of his constitutional term in 2016 ushered in a period of political instability in the country that lasts to this day.

In the wistful way that only those who never lived through Mobutu’s presidency could put it, Jeremy declared to me that the now-deceased former president, whose kleptocratic and deeply inept regime was responsible for much of the mess that the country finds itself in it today, was the best president the country had ever had.

But he did not need to compare the current president to the renowned kleptocrat for me to see how bad things were. When a temporary lull fell upon the group we were part of, Jeremy stopped speaking and looked around nervously. When he could speak again, he told me he had stopped speaking because he thought he “had been heard.” Apparently, it had become a natural tendency in Kinshasa for one to watch every political word one said.

A twice postponed election

On 23rd December, the DRC will go to the polls. These elections were supposed to take place in November 2016. Joseph Kabila, who was then serving the tail end of his second and last constitutional term, was not supposed to be on the ballot. Then the elections were postponed, being set for April 2018.

Shortly before the postponement, Kabila hounded Moise Katumbi, the man with the greatest odds of succeeding him, into exile. Katumbi is the former governor of Katanga, the country’s most prosperous province. He had resigned as governor, broken ranks with Kabila and thrown his hat into the ring for the presidential contest.

The only other viable successor, the late Etienne Tshisekedi, had his home besieged by the army. Kabila was making it clear that he would not go out easy. What followed were deadly demonstrations. Peace processes initiated by various mediators, including the Catholic Church (perhaps the most functional institution in the country), raised hopes then came crumbling down as the government failed to keep its promises.

Joseph Kabila kept a firm grip on power. Towards the end of 2017, the election was postponed once again, this time to December 2018, to the chagrin of opposition politicians. As opposition built up against Kabila’s brazen power-grab and protests grew more passionate and violent, the DRC tottered at the precipice. It was threating to plunge back into a full-blown civil war.

Looking back: war and exploitation

It might not seem like it, but the DRC has been rather peaceful lately. It has seen much worse times. Between 1998 and 2003, Africa’s deadliest war, and the world’s most lethal since WWII, raged within its borders. It pitted six other African countries against one another, jostling to have a say in who would control the country and its resources.

To this day, some of these countries maintain proxy rebel groups that are still active in the DRC, mostly in its hilly, forested and mineral-rich east. They act as cover for a large industry of illegal extraction and expatriation of minerals that have become essential to the functioning of most modern of modern society. The computer or phone on which you are reading this probably flickers on because its battery has cobalt from DRC.

But the turn-of-the-century violence was not the first that the DRC had seen. For most of its history, it has known little else. To understand the magnitude of the problem, one has to go back to the very foundations of modern Congo, which were built on the ambition of one man, the leader of a European country over seventy times smaller than the DRC.

At the Berlin Conference (1884/1884), several European countries, made prosperous by their industrial revolutions and emboldened by desires of conquest, carved out spheres of influence for themselves out of a map of Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium was granted personal control of 2.6 million square kilometres of land in central Africa. The land teemed with trees and was underlain by untold quantities of minerals.

By all indications, it was a sympathy grant. Belgium was tiny country and its imperial ambitions were untenable; moreover, the other powers did not seem to have much use for the land they granted to Leopold. By most counts though, this sympathy grant was also the conference’s most tragic mistake.

Shortly after the invention and popularisation of the car and the pneumatic tyre, the need for rubber turned Leopold’s new patch of land into the largest open prison of the time. Congo Free State, as it was called, abounded in natural rubber trees. To meet the new demand for rubber, Leopold ceded various pieces of the land to private companies to exploit and share the profits with him.

Congolese rubber was soon cushioning rides in horseless carriages across Europe and America. For the native peoples of the Congo though, the ride was far from cushy. Tapping rubber often involved multiple-day solo treks into the forest, against danger from beast and starvation, under the threat of flogging or death (for oneself and one’s loved ones). Quotas were enforced through beatings and, in the (quite frequent) extreme, amputations.

Entire villages were razed to warn other villages against non-performance. Women were raped to motivate to their husbands to collect more rubber. As more and more of Congo’s resources became essential to modern comforts, enchanting Leopold’s handymen with the promise of infinite profit, pressure on the natives of the region reached inhuman levels.

By the time Europe, led by Britain, came to its senses and pressured the Belgian government to wrest control of the region from the king, 10 million of the region’s 25 million people had been killed. They had barely had time to recover from the Atlantic Slave trade, which had ended barely a century before, and which had itself exacted an untold toll on the population.

‘Independence’ under Mobutu and Kabila

Belgium’s administration of the region, which began in 1908, brought some respite to the natives, but it did not prepare them for independence, which began on 30th June1960, the region becoming the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three months later, a coup backed by Belgium and the US brought Joseph Desire Mobutu to the helm of the young country.

Mobutu’s regime, which would last until 1997, deserves an article on its own. Michela Wrong’s excellent “In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz,” will well serve readers keen on more than a cursory glimpse into those years. For this article, it suffices to say that Mobutu’s regime, while it did not exactly bring the Congolese to the misery to which Leopold had submitted them, came a close second.

But the end of Mobutu did not bring peace. Shortly after his flight into exile, Africa’s Great War, with which I started this narration, tore through the country and claimed the lives of almost 5.3 million people over five years. The war gifted the country with Joseph Kabila, then 26 years old, and the son of Laurent Kabila, who had deposed Mobutu and was assassinated in 2001.

He has been the president ever since, presiding over the rickety country with a highly incompetent government. As a 2006 article from the “Independent” put it, the DRC is “the most blighted nation on earth.” One wonders how the Congolese people have been able to bear it all. The answer can be found in the fact that they have never had a real chance to control the destiny of their country.

Throughout their history, external influence has been an overwhelming force. What better way to cope than resignation? Michela Wrong captured it well when she wrote, “the disaster Zaire became, the dull acquiescence of its people, had its roots in a history of extraordinary outside interference, as basic in motivation as it was elevated in rhetoric.”

The polls return

It is against this backdrop that the significance of the upcoming 23rd December elections can be understood. No matter how long it has taken to come around or how skewed it eventually turns out to be, this presidential election will constitute the first peaceful transfer of power the DRC has seen since its very beginning.

And, yes, it is quite likely that it will be a skewed poll. Emmanuel Ramazany Shadary, the ruling party’s candidate, will face a field of 20 opponents. While having state resources behind him already gave him a huge advantage, he got a major jolt when an attempt by opposition parties to field a joint candidate failed miserably.

Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, the only candidates who could muster consequential followings, have been blocked from running. Etienne Tshisekedi died last year. Shadary, a largely unknown Kabila loyalist, who is under sanctions from the US and the EU for his role in the ruthless repression of protesters since the original postponement of the elections, does not promise much for the DRC, but he seems to have a clear path to the presidency.

In the face of this helpless situation, and with the history of the country in hindsight, it might be tempting to give in to cynicism. It is a temptation to which my new friend Jeremy seemed to capitulate when we spoke. But it would be wrong to give in, especially now. The foreign interests that have for so long kept Congo on its knees might still be there, enchanted by its immense wealth, but the world they operate in has changed.

Grounds for hope: the example of Angola

To those who find this temptation particularly strong, perhaps hope can be found in the example of the country to the South of the DRC. When Jose Eduardo dos Santos ceded the presidency of Angola to João Lourenço in September 2017, after being in power for 38 years, many, including dos Santos himself no doubt, thought the change would be cosmetic.

Lourenço was, after all, a long-time collaborator of his predecessor, and had served in his government in various capacities. Nobody would have been surprised if the soft-spoken man had continued his predecessor’s system of cronyism, nepotism and corruption. No one expected change.

As it turns out, Lourenço didn’t have any qualms about pulling a fast one on everyone. He has been busy tidying up the government and tightening the noose around those who benefitted from dos Santos’ misguided largesse. By all indications, he is sparing no one, not even the immensely rich children of his predecessor.

It might occur to you that this hope is an infantile one, but the Congo has never respected sensible hope. When the 46 million Congolese people who have registered to vote turn out on Sunday December 23rd, they must not do so looking back, perhaps wistfully glossing over days of Mobutu. They must vote with the future in mind, not the past.

That is the only way to make sure that Jeremy, when he completes his studies in Canada, will have an easy time justifying the journey back home.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi in Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.