In a country people don’t like to think about, there’s reason for worry and reason for hope.
Today, I attended an event hosted by the McCain Institute (yes, that McCain, but actually his wife) on humanitarian issues–specifically, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo,1 which for now is mostly at peace but after decades of civil war, a corrupt government, localized conflicts, and protests, that peace is very tentative. An Institute expert on Congo, who has visited the country with the McCains broke down the current issues in a country that is so difficult to deal with. But at the outset, there are some facts about the country that make its footprint on the world very large, even politically, economically, and even militarily it doesn’t matter to most people on Earth, for now. It is the second largest country in Africa, which, as it has been pointed out lately, is a lot larger than we generally think. It has 75 million people, more than France. It is rich in natural resources, such as diamonds, copper, and cobalt. And it is notoriously poor, with a GDP per capita of about $400, and ranking last or near-last in the Human Development Index.
- Not to be confused with the Republic of Congo, its smaller neighbor to the north. They’ve actually had this naming conflict for a while, and you’d think that 50 years after independence they’d have figured out names that wouldn’t leave us confused. They haven’t figured it out.
Congo has a rough history. In the late 19th century it was besieged by slave raids and the monstrous King Leopold II of Belgium, which ruled the area as a colony. Not long after establishing independence in 1960, its prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, leading to a string of coups and transitions that culminated in the chief of the army, Joseph Mobuto rising to power. He ruled as a dictator of the country then called Zaire, with support from the United States until the end of the Cold War. After he was forced out of office in 1997, civil war followed. The Second Congo War resulted in the deaths of over 5 million people. In 2013, the U.N. authorized its first offensive brigade to put down a rebellion; the international body has continued to be heavily involved and a source of stability in the country.
Currently, Joseph Kabila, the president since 2006, is to keep power until the 2016 elections. The election of 2006 was seen as a largely fair, high-turnout election. However, the 2011 was viewed as something as of step backwards, and it may get worse if Kabila attempts to seek an unconstitutional third term. With the political situation potentially regressing, a tenuous peace, an amount of sexual violence that boggles the mind, and an economy and standards of living that consistently ranks low, it’s easy to be a pessimist–and it may be self-defeating. There are signs of hope, though. There is currently peace, of course conflict continues locally. Locally though, organizations like the McCain Institute are making an effort to change conditions on the ground, notably in the Kivu region. We’ve seen the U.N. function somewhat effectively here. And economically, in general we have “Africa rising”, and specifically, the country’s GDP growth looks quite good (to speak nothing of the distribution of income, as this could easily be concentrated wealth):
9% GDP growth is nothing to scoff at; of course, if you’re starting low, high growth is not too hard to achieve, once it has the right catalyst. And, from the looks of the chart, it’s the highest growth in a long, long time for DR Congo, and if peace can be maintained, we should expect such growth to continue, which would mean richer Congolese and potentially a virtuous cycle, as a richer government would be able to keep stability (so long as it doesn’t turn into another Mobuto regime). Of course, part of the reason growth is so high is that DR Congo has found a new, large market for 50% of its exports.
So some things have definitely changed. And there are reasons to be hopeful–but moreover to be active in these affairs.