Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Rents, Politics and Crime

Posted in African Politics, DR Congo by ruben eberlein on March 22, 2009

The history of the Congo, today called the DRC, bears witness to the affinity of political rule and organised crime. Read an English version of my article from Konkret 5/06. If you prefer German, find the original version here (as pdf).

‘I am a politician by profession,’ informed the male midfourty, dressed in a dark blue suit complemented with a tie, the judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at his first appearance. Since 20 March 2006, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo has to answer in Den Haag for charges of recruiting minors. The trial against the former leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), one of various armed militias in the East of Congo-Kinshasa, will probably be overshadowed by the upcoming hearing against Charles Taylor. The former rebel leader and president of Liberia will likely be charged at the ICC as well.

This is one of the many apparent paradoxes of Congolese and African politics: People with very similar biographies find themselves in perfectly different circumstances. Some occupy powerful and financially profitable positions within transitional governments, act as vice presidents or as managers of state-owned enterprises. Others, in contrast, face the judges in a dusty, rundown barrack in the East of the Congo or at the ultra-modern complex of the ICC as alleged war criminals. Suspicious facts – that they bear responsibility for the death of almost four million Congolese who perished since 1996 as a consequence of the war in that country – are existent to incriminate these as well as those. Nowhere in the world today does the affinity between organised crime and political domination become more explicit than in the Congo and other parts of Africa which decomposed into warlords’ spheres of influence.

However, the history of warlordism in Central Africa doesn’t start with the decline of the regime under Mobutu. The first warlord with geostrategic ambitions in the Congo resided at the Royal Castle of Laeken, wore a long beard and loved to parade in military gala. In the 1870’s, the Belgian king Leopold II, with the help of the journalist and adventurer Henry Stanley, claimed wide parts of today’s Congo as his private property. A mercenary band called the Force Publique was tasked to secure the commodities that were Leopold’s central interest: ivory, later natural rubber and palm oil were goods that fetched high prices in 19th century Europe. In 1884/85, European powers assigned a huge region between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes in the East of the continent to the Belgian monarch.

In 1908, Leopold’s private playground was constituted as a ‘proper colony’. Formally, the Belgian parliament assumed oversight and responsibility. This transition, however, resulted in the first place in the ideological aggrandizement of this tyranny through the presence of catholic missionaries and their educational structures. After the decline of natural rubber, economic opportunism turned to the production of palm oil and the exploitation of minerals like copper, cobalt, gold, and diamonds. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese were pressed into labour or voluntarily exchanged the drudgery of the fields for better-paid wagework. According to the calculations of Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa), resource predation led to the death of an estimated ten million Congolese between 1880 and 1920.

Missionaries, colonists and functionaries took pleasure in their own civilising phantasies, but their subjects did not. In January 1959, after the ban of a meeting of the ethno-nationalist ABAKO party, thousands of Congolese attacked the police forces, shops and churches in the district of Kinshasa called ‘La Belge’. The Force Publique established a short-lived peace of the graveyard by murder and terror. But the colonial educational project had reached its limits. 30 June 1960 was declared day of independence.

In the years that followed, Belgian mineral corporations and parts of the former colonial administration took advantage of the harsh competition among the small nationalist elite. They financed separatist governments in the mineral-rich regions of Katanga and Kasai and supplied them with arms and men. Patrice Lumumba, the first premier and one of the few Congolese nationalists who countered ethno-chauvinism with the vision of an independent and integrated state, was murdered in January 1961 by separatist troops allied with the Belgians. Apparently, hitmen paid by the CIA were tardy.

In September 1960, group captain Joseph Désiré Mobutu had put himself into the top position of the Congolese army. Only with the help of European and South African mercenaries was the national army able to suppress a number of rebellions in the East of the country. In Kisangani, followers of Lumumba declared a ‘People’s Republic of the Congo’. Western media portrayed the uprisings as a kingdom of communist barbarism. ‘The dominating element’, wrote the historian Benoit Verhaegen who engaged with these revolts intensively, ‘were young people between 16 and 25. … The majority of these youth came from the cities and small towns. They were pupils without a school, the unemployed, excluded from the educational system; their hope, born out of independence, was shattered for good; they alone didn’t have anything to loose, anything to leave behind, not a wife, not a house, not a piece of land.’

Only the crimes committed by the German Empire in today’s Namibia and Tansania rivalled the degree of brutality and unscrupulousness that hallmarked the colonialisation of the Congo. Structurally, however, they yielded the same result like the imperialist conquest of other parts of Africa: Before the interventions by companies and their mercenaries, local rulers had to press their subjects into work, to acquire the surplus of their labour and, to a certain extent, legitimise their authority. With the constitution of indirect rule, chefs and other powerful men oriented themselves more and more towards the colonial apparatus which supported them through the allocation of rents.

The aquisition of rents – from the export of raw resources, international development aid or military cooperation – began to constitute the basis of social domination in the Congo and other parts of the continent. The French political scientist Jean-François Bayart called that phenomenon ‘extraversion’. In his understanding, extraversion is a political strategy adopted by actors in Africa in order to mobilise resources which result from their (possibly dependent) relationship within the international system. The clientelist regime under Mobutu, consolidated after 1967 via the single MNR party, mastered this mobilisation of external rents with bravura. During the cold war, Zaire (as the Congo was called after 1971) was classified by the West as a stronghold against communism. It received immense support not only from the US, but also from France, Belgium and Western Germany. Accordingly, credits, military equipment and training as well as development aid all poured into a political system formed by clients and patrons. Even an analytical distinction between organised criminality and state domination didn’t make sense any more .

Wealth and power of the neo-patrimonial ruling class rested upon the monopolisation of international undertakings (predominantly in the mineral sector), of projects of so-called ‘development aid’ and the absorption of the rents that went along with them. Between 1970 and 1996, the public debts of the country increased to 12,8 billion US Dollar. Approximately the same amount (13,4 billion US Dollar, that is with imputed interest earnings 23 billion) left the country within this time span, calculated Boyce and Ndikumana in an article published in 2001 by Third World Quarterly. Those privatised revenues were largely invested into real estate, company shares and bank accounts, mainly in Western Europe and the US. Today, a unilateral stop of debt service could be coherently justified. The government of the Congo, which is however highly unlikely to step on this path, could refer to the precedence of odious debts after the Spanish-American war (1895-98). After the defeat of Spain, the US declared all liabilities of Cuba vis-à-vis its creditors void. It justified that decision with the obvious fact that these finances were delivered to a repressive and kleptocratic regime with the knowledge of the creditors.

During the 1980’s, the importance of the informal economy in Zaire greatly outweighted the ‘official’ economy. Most Congolese survived in small-scale commerce, transnational trade and subsistence agriculture. But the informal and the official economy didn’t simply co-exist. Neither was the informal sector undermining the predatory state. Contraband trade networks, the ruling oligarchy and multinational companies were tightly merged. Like today, reputable international corporations paid for preferential market access; their staff used their presence for lucrative secondary businesses like the undocumented export of precious metals and diamonds.

Mobutu’s shadow state, held together for decades by international recognition and the inflow of resources, endured the global waves of democratisation in the early 1990’s quite safely at first. Creditors began to dissociate. But democratisation and the fight against corruption, which were strongly demanded at mass rallies, served Mobutu’s attempt to tap new international rents. He and his inner circle proved once again adept to tribalise and divide a just recently established party opposition. Unions were suppressed ruthlessly or co-opted. Nevertheless, global ‘winds of change’ brought one of the Congo’s main patrons, the US, closer to the MPLA ruling neighbouring Angola. The common American/Congolese support of the good old days for the terrorist group Unita was no longer opportune. But more critical for Mobutu’s downfall proved the help he rendered to the génocidaires of the ‘hutu power’ in Rwanda. They were responsible for the slaugther of more than an estimated 800,000 people in 1994. With support from their friends in the French presidential office, the murderers managed to flee into the East of the Congo after the genocide. And so Mobutu’s final hour approached.

The Rwandan rebel army RPF finally succeeded in halting the massacres after a dreadful 100 days of mass killings. Between the US and the RPF an open convergence of interest developed: For Washington, Mobutu constituted the most serious security threat in the region. The new Rwandan leadership under Paul Kagame, for its part, was keen to track down those who planned to finish their plans to exterminate the Tutsi out of the refugee camps in the Eastern Congo. For that reason, the RPF organised and supported a rebel alliance called the ADFL. Receiving the backing of one of Africa’s most capable militaries, this motley crew marched in 1996/97 within a few months, and without any noticeable resistance, the 1.500 kilometres to Kinshasa and installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president.

Following the transfer of power, the fragmentation of the neo-patrimonial state continued at great speed. It found its expression in the emergence of several militia groups. These groups alligned themselves with actors from neighbouring countries in the region. Military strength and the regalia of the state ensured access to mineral resources for regional and international interests. Rwanda and Uganda challenged Kabila because he and the ADFL government exercised itself in anti-Tutsi agitation (like its predecessor) and refused actors within these countries their share in mineral exploitation. Angola and Zimbabwe intervened on the side of the ADFL against a newly formed rebel alliance. In 2001, Kabila senior was murdered; his son Joseph took over.

Numerically, the UN force called Monuc, stationed in the Congo for five years now, is the strongest UN deployment worldwide with its almost 17.000 troops. A huge, but only modestly motivated transnational development aid bureaucracy and the appendaged civil-military consultants occupy themselves with the business of ‘state building’. Their interventions continue to deliver the resources for a predatory, extraverted rule. Just as one of many examples, Africa Confidential reported in December 2005 about the encashment of pay by high-ranking generals which is financed from international sources. The challenges of reshaping the state are daunting indeed: ‘Army reform and restructuring would mean asking generals to give up informal ”earnings” of 5,000 US-Dollar a month for a formal salary of 134 Dollar’, informs the bi-weekly.

Within this environment, characterised by perpetuated societal insecurity and the absense of an effectively working bureaucracy, only some relatively small and risk-friendly mining investors are able to operate successfully. They do so through a flexible approach to security arrangements which leverages premium gains. This is one of the reasons why the European Union, the US and international organisations today prefer to see a less violent and more institutionalised version of rentier capitalism in the Congo as in other regions. But local rulers will prove able once again to block these regulatory endeavours in case should they see their interests threatened by them. For the warlords in and out of the Congolese government, there are many options available. One may be a new round of war.

Published originally in German under the title ‘Politik und Verbrechen’ by Konkret (May 2006).

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