La RDC : le découpage territorial, oui… mais il y a plus que cela à faire

Guest post par le Professeur Germain NGOIE TSHIBAMBE, Professeur ordinaire au département des Relations internationales, Faculté des sciences sociales, politiques et administratives à l’Université de Lubumbashi et Professeur visiteur dans les universités de Bukavu, Kananga et Mwene Ditu.

Ce texte se présente comme une somme des réflexions que je fais à la suite d’un voyage que je viens d’effectuer à l’intérieur du Congo profond. Avec une superficie de 2.345 000 km2, le Congo s’est engagé dans une vaste réorganisation administrative et territoriale. Etat unitaire, il s’est mis à expérimenter sa politique de décentralisation. Au niveau territorial, de onze provinces, on est arrivé à 26 provinces. J’ai toujours vécu dans une ville du Congo branchée sur la mondialisation: il s’agit de Lubumbashi, une ville assise sur l’économie minière et vivant dans des interactions de dépendance avec les pays de l’Afrique australe. Cette connexion aux espaces mondialisés crée une image –dont je suis  moi-même victime – que l’on se fait du pays en général. J’ai donc pris l’avion pour atterrir à Kananga, dans un aéroport dont les installations sont très simples. Pas d’aéronef à l’aéroport si ce n’est celui qui venait d’atterrir. Un seul bâtiment vous accueille : il abrite deux salles d’arrivée et de départ ; une autre salle pour récupérer les bagages et une salle VIP qui n’est quasiment pas fréquentée puisqu’il n’arrive des VIP dans cette ville que très rarement… Continue reading

Feat and Failure in (Post-) Colonial DRC | Navigating the Labyrinth of the ‘Negotiated State’

Article originally published for the Chambre de Commerce Suisse – R.D.Congo’s September 2015 Newsletter, available at

Questioning the Western Mindset

“It has become banal to depict Zaïre’s current state of affairs in catastrophic terms” (1), wrote historian and political scientist Benoît Verhaegen in 1984. Little has changed in the past three decades as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continues to suffer from the immense human costs imposed by Mobutu’s 32-year dictatorial regime and the catastrophic consequences of the neighbouring Rwandan genocide. Throughout its post-colonial history, the DRC has thus continued to be viewed internationally through a unitary discourse of misery, violence, and consequent state collapse. Often in a bid to legitimize ambitious international interventions, NGOs, International Organizations, diplomats and researchers have gone to great lengths to explore the causes and results of years of state and economic decay through the influential lens of liberal and (post-)modernization theories of socio-economic development. More recently other observers have, at times with naivety, praised the country’s economic revival thanks to its seemingly booming mining, real estate and banking industries, which have driven unprecedented economic growth rates but yet to truly improve the daily lives of the Congolese people.

The majority of the Congolese – whether they be the street-level bureaucrat of Kinshasa’s Kimbanseke commune, a ‘Lushois’ small businessman or the bus driver in Goma – have endured such appalling levels of socio-economic hardship for so long that it has become all but impossible to know when it all began. But while the international community struggles with its interventions’ mixed-results in the Congo, the western discourse of political science fails to capture the empirics of contemporary state-society interactions and to problematize the institutional and functional remnants of its colonial heritage. Taking a closer (and perhaps less judgmental) look at the DRC and its amazingly resilient inhabitants opens the lid on entirely new analytical perspectives. In the midst of apparent chaos and anarchy, lies a multitude of complex social norms and informal practices performed daily by millions of citizens and state agents in order to access and deliver official public services, from connecting an electric line to organizing urban transportation. Placing the routinized informal/formal interactions in contemporary DRC within a historical perspective responds to one important question: how much conceptual and empirical validity can the ‘state failure’ discourse hold in countries like the DRC? Because it is long overdue that African specialists – and the rest of the world – begin debunking the homo miserabilis myth famously encapsulated in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, this short article first discusses the limits of ‘state failure’ as an intellectual tool used to understand the socio-political arrangements of countries like the DRC. It then proceeds to inquire into the ideological and political origins of Congolese state-society relations under Belgian rule. Those inquiries demonstrate that contemporary Congolese ‘state weakness’ owes as much to the legacy of that colonial past than any more recent failed domestic attempts at ‘modernization.’ In doing so it studies how Belgian rule continues to exert a subtle but manifest effect on how the state is performed and perceived in the DRC today.

Debunking ‘State Failure’

The early works on state failure originated in the 1980s as policy makers and scholars no longer saw threats to international peace and security as emanating from strong states but from states that exhibit instead structural difficulties to exert control over their territory. Traditionally the modern state (the strong state) provides security for a population living within a territory delimited by inviolable borders and protected from external threats by sovereignty rules and thus international law. State power does not reside merely in its capacity to control its borders against external threats but evolved instead towards ensuring control and domination over its population mostly through the development of a large security apparatus (2), and later, positive public services. This resonates directly with Max Weber’s highly influential legal-rational domination exerted via an aggregated, disinterested and institutionalized administrative   apparatus functioning to meet the public interest. The larger the number of political goods, such as health care, education, or social safety nets, the closer such state moves towards welfare state standards. Additionally, the modern state is expected to ensure democratic representation, respect for the Rule of Law and the enactment of pro-market liberalization laws (3). In short, a strong state is thus seen as a legitimate one, and legitimacy comes to be encapsulated in a state’s ability to perform its three core functions: security, welfare and representation (4). The functioning Weberian modern state is thus not only defined through juridical terms but is also largely inspired by western liberal thought and social contract theory.

State failure and state fragility by contrast, translate the idea of decaying public institutions that perform poorly along these three main functions. A failed or fragile state is therefore assumed to consistently take on the characteristics of a broken social contract in which publicly organized wealth and income redistribution is non-existent. The narrow legalistic definition of state weakness first proposed in the 1980s has been considerably expanded, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks for it spurred the international community to adopt a new ‘securitization’ agenda primarily focused on combating state decay. In economic terms, state failure was posited to occur largely due to the self-interested and illegal use and exploitation of national state resources, both by state agents and non-state armed groups. Infamous African dictators such as Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaïre have become the epitome of the African failed state characterized by a winner-take-all nature and hazardous “spoils politics” (5). Responding to a supposedly failed ‘modernization’ process of Africa’s societies and politics, both state elites and street-level civil servants are therefore portrayed as corrupt officials implementing a predatory “politique du ventre” (6) whereby they organize the systematic syphoning away of public funds and the illegal exploitation of state assets and natural resources for self-aggrandizement purposes (7). While spiraling into deep economic, societal and political crises, these countries’ population therefore turned to alternative means for survival and therefore relied mostly on informal self-help mechanisms escaping state control. In consequence, given the DRC’s catastrophic rankings in most international human and economic development indexes, the country is portrayed as the quintessence of state failure. Both scholars and politics adopted and moulded a prominent discourse that emphasizes the ‘dark’ side of the Congolese state trans/formation. Only to name a few, Thierry Vircoulon depicted the DRC as a “state without a territory” and “one of the world’s best illustrations of state failure” (8) while Herbst and Mills (9) claimed it “was time to admit the Democratic Republic of Congo” did “not exist” and called the country an “invisible state”.

The conventional story thus writes as follows: The Congo accessed independence in 1960 after 80 years of brutal Belgian colonial rule and immediately fell into cycles of crisis and violence which produced a fractioned and weak political elite, increased meddling of Cold War powers into domestic affairs and directly led to Mobutu’s seizing of power in a 1965 military coup. Abandoned by his western benefactors, lonely, sick and retired in his Gbadolite presidential palace by the end of his reign in 1997, Mobutu had eventually alienated his entire people and international supporters, thus precipitating the “catastrophic failure” (10) of the state as the Congo wars permanently destroyed the remnants of the Zairian state through incredibly high levels of internal and external violence. Cyclical violence resulted in large-scale destruction of the country’s formal economy and social fabric. Despite several rounds of local and regional peace negotiations (11) started in 1999, the country remains effectively at war, as, according to the government, 54 militias still carry out military operations within its territory. Combined with abysmal statistics on poverty, maternal deaths, child mortality, overwhelming state officials corruption (12), and the disintegration of its public institutions (13), the DRC has become fertile grounds for feeding dramatic accounts of the ‘Heart of Darkness’. As Mobutu’s regime fell apart and conflict dragged on for two decades, consensus grew among experts that the Congo was anything but a failed state. Myriad international actors have thus formulated policy options for the DRC aimed at restoring the “specific instruments states use to control society” (14) to re-establish the country’s sovereign legal rights. Similarly to the academic literature, the policy-oriented literature thus echoes and feeds upon concerns over failed states and their negative ramifications for economic development, the illegal exploitation of minerals and deadly regional conflict (15). Indeed, the state failure label is associated with a large set of indicators designed to inform international policy makers such as the UN, the World Bank, the OECD, the EU and the US in search of advancing a neo-liberal agenda without ever consulting the very society they claim to ‘fix’. In this vein, both academia and western policy circles engage in a mutually reinforcing discourse that predicts and depicts the “coming anarchy” (16) in which “the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (17). None of this however, contributes to shedding light on what really is happening to the Congo and its estimated 80 million inhabitants. Indeed, by adopting a linear institutional approach to the relationship between state-capacity and legitimacy, and thus construing the state as an independent and a-political bureaucratic machine, neo-liberal and neo-Weberian intellectual tendencies fail to understand complex local socio-political dynamics (18) let alone producing analytical accounts of the country’s long colonial history of state formation.

State-society Power Relations under Belgian Rule

The Congo Free State (EIC in its French acronym) was created in 1885, mostly through the determination and insatiable imperial appetites of a single man: Leopold II, Belgium’s considerably rich king. His private correspondence revealed an admiration for the Indian Dutch colonies that he wished to emulate in the hopes to maximize the potential income accruing to himself and his small kingdom. He indeed ceaselessly praised the Dutch colonial model (19) (the kultuurstelsel and Batig Slot) that, he thought, if implemented anywhere on ‘vacant’ land in Asia and Oceania (Africa only came to his mind much later) would bring Belgium prestige and wealth. Without the Belgian government’s (nor public opinion) support, he cunningly used a mixture of humanitarian and patriotic rhetoric as well as support from various business interests, political advisors and H.M. Stanley’s skills to convince the world’s most powerful nations to legally recognize the ‘sovereignty’ of the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC) he had created as his mouthpiece organization in 1879. The AIC was nothing more than a fictitious collective organization: it only really followed Leopold’s wishes under the pretext of grand scientific endeavours in central Africa. The EIC then took over the AIC’s basic governmental structures in 1885 and formed a rudimentary administration that mirrored the King’s ambitions: develop foreign territories where European ‘civilization’ had not penetrated yet and constraint their people into forced labour to induce a sense of discipline and submission. Although he initially encountered important financial drawbacks, the EIC’s economy eventually picked up thanks to the international rubber boom and ivory trade, which produced enormous amounts of profit by the time Belgium annexed the colony in 1908. Having to secure the territory’s border and tame ‘indigenous’ revolt, the colonial administration was a hybrid mix of military staff from the Force Publique and poorly trained European civil servants recruited throughout Europe which inexorably led to frequent overlap of military and civilian affairs. The King additionally regarded the colonial bureaucracy as a matter of business relations rather than a professional body of civil servants: although they received a salary, they did not get pensions and were granted instead additional bonuses proportional to their performance. The latter was closely associated with the amount of rubber collected by the ‘natives’ placed under their authority and that they did not hesitate to kill, beat and torture had they not been productive enough.

Economic exploitation through primitive accumulation being the key to successful colonization, Leopold granted large portions of land to powerful private chartered companies, wildly used forced labour and established a domanial regime whereby all land and the profit it produced accrued to the ‘state’ only. Because there was no jurisdictional distinction between what was called the state and Leopold, all profits were effectively the King’s. This privatized state system and primitive accumulation of capital led to generalized abusive and violent power relations developed between colonial agents and the local people whose leadership was crushed, and whose inhumane result spurred an international human rights campaign directed against Leopold’s abuses. Importantly, the administrative and political organization of the EIC  reflected the privatized character of the colony – a legacy that has endured and influenced the contemporary Congolese state’s organization.

Embarrassed by such public outcry and decades of violence against the Congolese, Belgium annexed the EIC and immediately engaged in important reforms and imposed the orthodox colonial policy lines of the times. A Colonial Charter was adopted as the basic “constitutional” document for the colony until its abrogation in 1960 and instituted a centralized government which possessed legislative power and was located in Brussels while the colonial government in the Congo was responsible for the implementation of the central government’s policies. The reforms mainly included the effective demilitarization of the administration in a bid to professionalize colonial civil servants at all levels who were soon to be exclusively recruited in Belgium and Luxemburg. A professional and prestigious school of administration was created in Belgium in the 1920s for this purpose. In addition, the colony, which had recruited agents among the ‘natives’ from its early days, institutionalized their role within a strict hierarchy. These however, remained constricted to the ranks of auxiliaries and the highest position they could claim never surpassed the lowest ranks reserved to Europeans. Customary chiefs were either maintained but alienated to Belgian domination, or replaced all together for a better, more subjugated, ‘fit’. It is only by 1959, six months before independence that the Belgium administration created a ‘single status’ for all civil servants, Europeans and Congolese alike. Yet, despite efforts aimed at creating harmony among the various levels of the administrative hierarchy, tensions and confrontations continued to characterize professional relationships between the metropolitan authority in Brussels and the colonial administration (20). The latter indeed resented the “unwarranted intervention of the metropolitan authorities in the affairs of the colony” (21). Despite having been granted limited legislative power, the General Governor and his subordinates in the Congo did benefit from quite important leverage in implementing the colonial policies adopted in Brussels. The colonial administration in fact enjoyed high levels of autonomy and did not get along well with the technocrats in Brussels they believe misunderstood  the country’s needs. However, the Belgian settlers worked in genuine symbiosis with the colonial administration with whom they shared strong social bounds and similar political interests in contrast to those of the indigenous population, considered mostly as cheap labour for the industry and infantilized people who had to be controlled, disciplined and subjected to western beliefs and lifestyles. At the lowest levels of the territorial administration, relations among the ‘indigenous’ chiefs (and the population at large) and the European territorial agents (and the settlers) were marked by European domination and inequality. This occurred through two main colonial policies: economic exploitation and the mission civilisatrice where the former implemented waged labour in labour camps organized by private companies and the latter consisted of an official policy that aimed to ‘improve the natives’ moral and material standards’ (22). Under such benevolent rhetoric laid the foundations of highly paternalistic, and thus unequal, state-society relations.

The ‘governmentality’ of the Belgian Congo sure developed greatly especially through health care and primary education, but it was mostly aimed at controlling the ‘indigenous’ bodies not via social contracting, but through psychological, economic and social subjugation. With time, the Belgian administrative agents – officially charged with ‘enhancing’ the colony’s assets to glorify its metropolitan area – adopted a specific mindset, distinct from that of their fellow citizens living in Belgium. The territorial agents who worked daily with the ‘natives’ soon adopted a sense of entitlement to their circumscription and the Congolese who lived within their limits. While there were no affinities with the ‘indigenous’ people, the latter were not expected to assimilate European lifestyles completely (contrary to French colonies) but to display instead total loyalty and a deep sentimental devotion to the Belgian settlers and their institutions. It was then crucial that all forms of ‘barbaric’ behaviour such as polygamy, polyandry, nudity, anthropophagy and human sacrifices be annihilated by European agents who co-opted ‘traditional’ authorities of the public administration as well as the Force Publique and the Catholic Church. The mission civilisatrice was therefore not a mere ideology, it was carefully planned, organized and implemented, the ultimate illustration of which was (in addition to the many decrees that aimed to abolish most of the Congolese’ cultural habits) the institutionalization of the évolués, a Congolese man who had elevated to civilization and was delivered a carte du mérite civique (23) and immatriculation (24). In a brilliant twist of structural violence, this forced upon the ‘natives’ a feeling of both admiration and submission towards their European benefactors thereby instilling a subtle sense of discipline and subordination among this newly created Congolese elite in a bid to avoid organized dissent and continue developing the colony’s socio-economic make up.

Carte Touristique de Léopoldville 1954. Archives Africaines, Bruxelles.

Carte Touristique de Léopoldville 1954. Archives Africaines, Bruxelles.

Finally, with regard to the development of public services and economic exploitation, the Belgian Congo did work small miracles in terms of cross-country transportation means, health care and to some extent, education. But these achievements deserve a word of caution. First, the disunity that characterized the colonial administration at all levels and among both European staff and Congolese auxiliaries did not always permit to implement all decisions taken at the highest levels. According to a staff from the African Archives in Brussels “what was actually implemented in the Congo does not measure up to what is written in official reports. Very, very little was done by the territorial agents in the end” (25). Second, urban planning and rural policies produced limited results in creating strong public services. While many villages remained outside of the scope of any bureaucratic control, local agriculture involved controversial ‘mandatory crops’ to induce discipline among villagers, avoid localized famine and produced mixed results. Urban planning included scientific spatio-racial segregation within the administrative, social and economic makeup of cities. Congolese people were separated from European settlers by a ‘sanitary zone’ and could only reach the ‘white neighbourhoods’ for work-related occasions. They lived in small functional housing, had their own markets, squares, cemeteries, churches, schools and hospitals. They were distributed bicycles to travel to work and had to carry a written authorization to go to the European quarters. Despite the partially successful achievements of primary schools to educate the ‘natives’, the latter rarely attended secondary schools let alone universities because the state did not aim to educate them passed primary school level. Only European pupils had access to higher-quality education both at the secondary and university levels and attended of course ‘White only’ schools separated from the local population. The colonial government only launched a serious public education policy in 1954, but proved controversial in light of Church defiance. Even the ‘evolved natives’ that had obtained their immatriculation who were theoretically entitled to the same civil and political rights as the Belgian settlers never enjoyed them fully in terms of social standards, respect and salaries (26). Finally, much of the social and material ‘public’ infrastructure, starting with the EIC, was in reality operationalized by private companies such as the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, the Forminière, or Cogelec. These were granted ‘concessions’ – large portions of public estate – in order to establish highly organized and separated labour camps for the ‘native’ workers. Everyday life in the camps was monitored in order to implement ‘labour stabilization’ policies and therefore provided free health care, education, food and housing for the workers and their families. They constituted what was often labelled a ‘State within the state’. The colonial state for its part, bought out a significant amount of ‘free’ shares in many of these firms but instead of responding to the logics of a mixed economy whereby the state acquires greater authority, the exact opposite occurred: the private sector retained all power regarding labour and tax regulations. Although the state sent delegates to sit within the companies’ administrative and executive structures, they most frequently gave priority to the companies’ interests and encountered little to no interference from the colonial state too preoccupied with the value of its shares to meddle into the private sectors’ affairs. This privatized political system first appeared due to the initial nature of the colonial state: the EIC’s motive to enrich itself led to the institutionalization of an exploitative public apparatus where the state and it European settlers saw the local population as cheap labour and uncivilized primitive societies that could not enjoy the collective benefits of state-organized wealth redistribution.

Conclusions: Negotiating Statecraft in the 21st Century

The Belgian colonial policies in the Congo effectively sought to professionalize and harmonize its administrative apparatus in the aftermath of the EIC’s violent and chaotic governing schemes. In doing so, it increased significantly the number of its agents within the civilian administration and the Force Publique, it expanded primary education to most Congolese people and organized a system of waged labour. As a result, the colonial system instilled a sense of stability and predictability both among the Congolese and the European settlers. Archival research and a careful analysis of historical works on the evolution of the Belgian Congo provide evidence supporting the claim that the colonial era created a state that seemingly resembled a bureaucratic Weberian state but more fundamentally perpetuated an abusive and unequal model of European domination based on spatio-racial segregation. It produced dysfunctional social ties at all levels of its governmentality, from its metropolitan institutions in Brussels to the Congolese chiefdoms, and despite many attempts at reforming the system, it did not result in a coherent set of policies and implementation schemes. Because many territorial agents disapproved of metropolitan policymaking and remained relatively isolated from the central government, they retained a degree of autonomy that allowed for inconsistencies and slow implementation. By meddling into the lives of the ‘natives’ they made sure order was respected through tight control over what they thought was an infantilized and irresponsible local populations. In addition, the critical role played by the private sector in organizing social, economic and political life of both the state and the population also greatly influenced the evolution of the post-colonial state many commentators and experts have portrayed as privatized and thus criminalized. The former labour camps and ‘indigenous cities’ built over seventy years ago are still visible and bear consequences for the distribution of public services such as water and electricity. The former European neighbourhoods continue to be systematically better connected with roads, sewage and electricity than the rest of the poorer neighbourhoods and rural areas. Today’s efforts at renewed urban planning, education, economic development and state re-building are controlled and organized by International Organisations or private companies in a way that mirrors the Belgian Congo’s habit to rely on non-state actors in many state-reserved areas of governmentality. Beyond the neo-patrimonialist discourse that emphasizes the failure of African states and people to adjust to modernity, it is critical to understand that the colonial trinity ‘Church – private sector – public institutions’ created an oppressive state administration unaccountable to the majority of the population it sought to serve. This still resonates strongly with the way the Congolese administration has evolved to this day.

Goma, 2014. Photo Credit: Jonathan Austin

Goma, 2014. Photo Credit: Jonathan Austin

Ironically, many contemporary proponents of post-modernization and neo-liberal theory may see fit to admit that many aspects of state failure may permeate the colonial state. Many experts approach state failure through the concept of informality, which stemmed from the failure to establish formal state control and propagated as a survival strategy. This is only one side of the coin. First, it is almost impossible to measure informal activities in both economic and social life under colonial rule because it was not thoroughly documented, but archives do tend to issues of informal trading and social habits among the Congolese that have taken place since the outset. Second, although ‘informality’ both in the economic and social lives of the Congolese people seems to have now become the norm in African failed states, it is clear that while it allows many to escape state control, it might also greatly contribute to its reproduction and transformation on a daily basis. For instance, informal trade channels almost invariably cross path with those other formal economic networks nationally and internationally in paying taxes, filling out import-export documents and interacting with law-enforcement agents at various levels (27). More interestingly, formal and informal ways of ‘getting by’ in countries like the Congo do often consist of mutually reinforcing patterns. As Théodore Trefon (28) and my own fieldwork has taught us Congolese citizens who lack access to basic public services such as electricity, security and sanitary measures do turn to both private entrepreneurship and state agents. For instance, the transportation system illustrates the hybridity of social organization: while the buses are owned by private entrepreneurs and follow many unofficial patterns to embark and drop off their customers, the municipality has organized around it by imposing a large set of rules to be followed by the drivers and bus owners without banning its private operationalization altogether. The government structure and politics of the colonial state in the DRC have undeniably changed dramatically within the past 55 years, but it is critical to note the persistent analogies between the two eras. With the growth of informality in the economic, political and social lives of the Congolese, the latter have lost the comforting predictability granted by an organized, albeit segregationist, colonial administrative apparatus. But they may have gained leverage in their capacity to creatively utilize the grey area that lies at the intersection of informal and formal praxis in order to access public goods and services at the microlevel. In doing so, not only have they entertained dense family and kinship networks of exchange and redistribution but they also continued to interact with an administration that they paradoxically perceive both as dysfunctional and a privileged interlocutor to navigate, circumvent or negotiate their way through the state’s formal apparatus.

In many ways, the Congolese citizens transitioned from being mere (and victimized) consumers of public goods to assuming the role of creator and producer of their social and political space. The external political actors such as the UN and at times, private entrepreneurs, who seek to tackle societal transformation within contexts they barely understand, tend to ignore crucial historical trends and micro-social patterns mostly because they remain unaware of their own intellectual limitations. It is critical to understand that features like everyday corruption, petty negotiation strategies and routinized informal behaviors might be construed not as ephemeral symptoms of state failure, but be comprehended instead as contributing to long and complex transformation processes of a political order that is difficult to grasp from our western viewpoints. It is possible that neo-patrimonialism might be the vehicle of state decay, but it is at least equally possible that everyday routinized state-citizen interactions – while undeniably marked by structural violence – might entail transformative potential in shaping ‘the state’ in crucial ways largely disregarded in our contemporary accounts of state failure.


1.Verhaegen, B. (1984). « Paradoxes zaïrois ». Etat indépendant du Congo, Congo belge, République démocratique du Congo, République du Zaïre, Safi Press, ibid., p. 73.

2.Schouten, P. (2013). “The materiality of state failure: Social contract theory, infrastructure and governmental power in Congo.” Millennium-Journal of International Studies 41(3): 553-574.

3.Rotberg, R. I. (2003). “Failed states, collapsed states, weak states: Causes and indicators.” State failure and state weakness in a time of terror: 1-25. Di John, J. (2010). “The concept, causes and consequences of failed states: a critical review of the literature and agenda for research with specific reference to Sub-Saharan Africa.” European Journal of Development Research 22(1): 10-30.

4.Milliken, J. and K. Krause (2002). “State failure, state collapse, and state reconstruction: concepts, lessons and strategies.” Development and change 33(5): 753-774.; Raeymaekers, T. (2005). “Collapse or order? Questioning state collapse in Africa.” Households in Conflict Network hich. Working Paper(10).

5.Allen, C. (1995). “Understanding African Politics.” Review of African Political Economy 22(65): 301-320.

6.Bayart, J.-F. (2006). L’Etat en Afrique: la politique du ventre, Fayard.

7.Bayart, J.-F., S. Ellis and B. Hibou (1999). The criminalization of the state in Africa, International African Institute.

8.Vircoulon, T. (2006). “République démocratique du Congo: la démocratie sans démocrates.” Politique étrangère(3): 569-581., p.572

9.Herbst, J. and G. Mills. (2009). “There is no Congo. Why the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists.” Foreign Policy Retrieved February 12, 2014, from, Herbst, J. and G. Mills. (2013). “The Invisible state. It’s time we admit the Democratic Republic of Congo does not exist.” Foreign Policy Retrieved February 12, 2014, from

10.Englebert, P. (2003). “Why Congo persists: sovereignty, globalization and the violent reproduction of a weak state.” Globalization, Violent Conflict, and Self-Determination: 119-146., p. 2

11. The latest of which is the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region.

12. See the UNDP Human Development Index 2014 rankings available at

13. See the Failed States Index 2014, available at

14. Barnett, M., H. Kim, M. O’Donnell and L. Sitea (2007). “Peacebuilding: What is in a Name?” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 13(1): 35-58.,p. 50

15.World Bank (2011). World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development, World Bank.

16.Kaplan, R. D. (1994). “The coming anarchy.” Globalization and the Challenges of a New Century: A Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000): 34-60.

17.Hobbes, T. and E. Curley (1994). Leviathan: with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, Hackett Publishing., p.76

18. Di John, J. (2010). “The concept, causes and consequences of failed states: a critical review of the literature and agenda for research with specific reference to Sub-Saharan Africa.” European Journal of Development Research 22(1): 10-30. Risse, T. (2013). Governance without a state?: policies and politics in areas of limited statehood, Columbia University Press.

19. Stengers, J. (1989). Congo, mythes et réalités. Cent ans d’histoire. Paris, Duculot., p. 19

20.Lemarchand, R. (1964). Political awakening in the Belgian Congo, Univ of California Press. and Stengers, J. Congo, mythes et réalités.

21. Lemarchand, R. Political awakening in the Belgian Congo, p. 57

22.Stengers, J. Congo, mythes et réalités.

23. This can be (improperly) translated in English by a type of Civic Appreciation Card

24. Also improperly translated as a registration process to be officially recognized as an ‘evolved or civilized Black’

25. Informal discussion with expert staff at the African Archives, Brussels, April 29th 2015

26. Stengers, J. Congo, mythes et réalités, p. 189

27. MacGaffey, J. (1991). The real economy of Zaire: The contribution of smuggling and other unofficial activities to national wealth, University of Pennsylvania Press.

28.Trefon, T. (2004). Reinventing order in the Congo: How people respond to state failure in Kinshasa, Zed Books; Trefon, T. (2007). Parcours administratifs dans un État en faillite: Récits populaires de Lubumbashi (RDC)-Cahiers africains N° 74, Editions L’Harmattan; Trefon, T. (2009). “Public service provision in a failed state: looking beyond predation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Review of African Political Economy 36(119): 9-21.

Côtoyer le “Roi du Zaïre”, une petite anecdote

Nous finissions de déjeuner mon père et moi, assis en terrasse à la grande table ronde de malachite que nous avons depuis ce qui semble être des millénaires. En sirotant un café insipide mais bienvenu dans la chaleur de l’après-midi pour contrer l’envie irrésistible de dormir qu’elle me procure souvent, je m’interroge sur cet irrépressible sentiment qu’ont parfois les Congolais de regretter les temps passés. Du Ntango ya Flamands (au temps des Belges, sous-entendu, on ne rigolait pas) à la toque de Léopard du Maréchal-Président Mobutu, il plane une amertume sensible envers la situation actuelle, ressentie on dirait, de manière plus cruelle, plus dure, plus incisive.

Si peu de Congolais se souviennent réellement des aventures coloniales belges, beaucoup se remémorent avec une nostalgie déconcertante les années du mobutisme. J’explique à mon père que je cherche différentes explications à cette nostalgie. Je me dis que ce n’est pas tant que les Congolais étaient plus riches au temps de la colonisation belge ou de Mobutu, mais peut-être que les regrets de certains émergent de ce sentiment rassurant d’être encadré, reconnu en tant que sujet actif d’une communauté sociale et économique. Avec ses ambitions de zaïrianisation, Mobutu aura détruit les infrastructures économiques et sociales de son pays au profit d’une propagande d’Etat pour son parti unique élaborée et efficace. Il a créé une conscience nationale, la fierté d’être Zaïrois. Moi qui ne me souviens que de quelques souvenirs hachés et incertains d’une enfance que j’ai idéalisée, je demande à mon père, « tu l’as connu toi, Mobutu ? »

Oui, bien sûr je l’ai connu, je l’ai vu à plusieurs reprises. « Mais tu travaillais pour lui ? » Oui, j’ai eu quelques chantiers pour lui. Je me souviens encore, j’étais invité dans son palais de Gbadolite, son fief, l’endroit qu’il réservait pour ses affaires personnelles. « Il n’aimait pas Kinshasa ? » Non, pas tellement, je crois qu’il n’a jamais eu de palais ici. Kinshasa n’est pas réellement l’endroit qui favorise l’établissement des chefs d’Etat, il y a beaucoup de dissidence. Non, Gbadolite, c’était chez lui, tout lui appartenait là bas, il y avait les maisons des gens importants du gouvernement, les sièges de la BCZ (Banque du Zaïre), ceux de la SNEL et de la Régideso, dont un que j’avais fait construire. Il avait aussi installé un aéroport planté au milieu de la forêt – c’était assez marrant d’ailleurs – et nous avions été là pour accueillir un avion Concorde privatisé qui devait atterrir. Madame (le femme de Mobutu) était partie faire ses courses à Paris, et était de retour, donc Mobutu était là, accompagné de tout un tas de dignitaires, de types plus ou moins importants – il était toujours entouré de beaucoup de monde, il aimait ça – et moi aussi j’étais là en voyage d’affaire pour deux jours; on devait discuter d’un de ses projets. Puis Madame est sortie, elle aussi entourée de tout un tas de femmes qui l’avaient accompagnée, puis le personnel Air France, et ensuite, bien sûr tous les paquets de Madame suivaient…

« Tu as fait quoi comme projets là bas ? » Surtout des petits palais, ses résidences secondaires. Un tout près de Gbadolite, celui de Lisala, l’autre à Bandundu et le troisième … Je ne m’en souviens plus tiens! Tout ça dans le Haut-Zaïre. Je ne sais pas ce qu’il en reste aujourd’hui. Donc bien sûr il a fallut qu’on se voie plusieurs fois. Je dois dire que Mobutu était un type gentil, intelligent, il savait lire des plans, ce qui est rare ! Par exemple Bongo lui, ne savait rien … « Omar Bongo ? » Oui, Omar, bon … lui il voulait un palais à étage avec grandes terrasses, et quand je lui présentais les plans, il ne comprenait rien. Lorsqu’il me demandait la superficie de sa chambre à coucher et que je la lui donnais, il ne pouvait pas se représenter les chiffres, donc il a fallu qu’il m’ emmène dans sa chambre pour comparer. Je me souviens d’ailleurs que l’élément principal qui trônait au milieu de la pièce était une immense télévision (il rit), avec des tas de cassettes. Mais Mobutu lui, savait lire des plans, on s’asseyait à sa table avec deux ou trois autres types, et il me disait ce qui allait et ce qui n’allait pas. Je n’ai jamais eu de retard de payement, ni le moindre problème.

Palais de Kawele, à 15 km de Gbadolite. Photo Credit: Grwenn Dubourthoumieu.

Une des nombreuses résidences de Mobutu. Palais de Kawele, à 15 km de Gbadolite. Photo Credit: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu.

« Mais et cette histoire de Concorde, ça s’est terminé comment ? » Eh bien nous avons dîné tous ensemble, de grandes tablées, c’était très sympa, très convivial. Puis il me dit et toi, mon ami l’architecte italien, est ce que tu dois rentrer à Paris demain ? Il voulait me faire voyager dans le Concorde qui retournait à Paris. Alors, moi, qui n’avait qu’un tout petit sac, avec une chemise et un caleçon dedans, j’ai dit non. Je regrette un peu ceci dit, j’aurais pu prendre le Concorde une fois dans ma vie, et tout seul dans l’avion!

… (Il se perd dans ses souvenirs) Mobutu m’appelait toujours son ami l’architecte italien : Ah ! Mon ami l’architecte italien, qu’est ce que vous buvez ?  Euuhh champagne … Allez, apportez-moi du champagne pour mon ami l’architecte italien. Lui je me souviens, il préférait boire du Porto à l’apéritif.

Je souris à l’idée que mon père marque en 2015 sa 44ème année dans ce pays, quand moi, je me fatigue déjà au bout de quelques semaines d’interviews….

AIII #24: The ‘Gomenyi’ borderland: “It’s not always all about war”

The ‘Gomenyi’ borderland: “It’s not always all about war”

(picture provided by the author)

Stéphanie Perazzone

As noted in a wealth of political science literature and journalistic accounts dealing with eastern Congo, the province of North-Kivu as a whole and its chef-lieu Goma, are sadly known as the scene of continued socio-political violence, which is often framed in ethnic and economic terms. Described as a “beggar with diamonds in his pockets”[1], the DRC is routinely depicted as a paradigmatic case of state failure, despite being one of the world’s largest reservoirs of natural resources. ‘State failure’ is a western political notion defined as a country’s partial or total lack of organized control over its population and territory, thereby bearing the grim consequences of extreme poverty, war, misery and organized crime. With dozens of active armed groups in the region, and a highly contested political arena, North-Kivu thus perfectly…

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Virunga and Academic Masochism

A revealing commentary on the documentary film Virunga was published about a week ago in the magazine Foreign Affairs. The key lesson one gains when reading the article is the importance of avoiding a dynamic of representation wherein white people advocate on behalf of non-white people for a good, noble, or important cause, but – in so doing – radically simplify the complexities of social situations and, more importantly, deny or silence local voices. The authors are to be particularly commended for making this lesson in autological form. Realizing, one would assume, that the few nuanced postcolonial (theory) discussions of the “white savior complex” in the literature have made precisely zero impact in combatting this phenomenon, the authors have taken the bold step of rhetorically articulating their point within their own text (Derrida would be proud). Thus, in the first paragraph of their editorial, not only are we warned against the dangers of “moral righteousness” obscuring “the violent colonial origins of Virunga” and “marginalizing the voices of the people who live in and around the park” but the piece deftly drives this point home by deliberately failing to mention the especially pertinent colonial origins of Brussels and Ghent universities (from which two of the authors hail) as well as, more broadly, the (neo-)colonial roles of universities in France, the U.S, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other countries from which the remainder of the authors emerge. Originally penned in Flemish, this revised version improves on the former by including several Congolese scholars in its author-list (thus better reflecting ‘marginalization’ rather than total ‘exclusion’ of local voices, pace the postcolonialist literature’s recognition that racial-imperial power inequalities are well served by the inclusion of token representatives of the oppressed). A carefully crafted inversion of the films simplified focus on Virunga as a force for good is also produced through the claim that “the people living near Virunga are ambivalent [about] the park,” the “locals” regard the park rangers “with much suspicion and even animosity,” and anonymous, faceless Congolese voices are said to “repeatedly” rage against its colonial origins. Naturally, we are told about the work of Congolese civil society organizations, but no specifics are given, just as the film gives us glimpses of Congolese agency, but then overshadows them by the white voices of its authors.

Not content with autologically critiquing the film itself, the piece can also be read as a trenchant assault on the academics that are its authors! Only (white, European) academics, of course, can offer the suitably complex vision of “the politically economy of violent conflict in the Congo” that would better Virunga. No matter that the books written by said academics are adorned only with single-authored names with their local research ‘assistants’ relegated to acknowledgements for, it goes without saying, European-university sketched postcolonial theories of what goes on in the Congo are far superior to anything those “locals” could conjure. The attention to detail in their autological conceit is only cemented through their choice of venue. For, just as Virunga is cast in Hollywood-esque form for the sake of activism and distributed through mainstream channels, so their dissection of the film is distributed through Foreign Affairs magazine, mouthpiece for Washington D.C. and cheerleader for many an imperial adventure. Of course, this choice of venue is also a deliciously ironically self-aware one given its paid-subscription model, English language use, and general parochialism means that it is very unlikely to be read by any Congolese audience and, “consequently, the very people whose lives are affected by what happens in Virunga are left out” yet again. In short, this painfully self-aware commentary is one of the most succinct renditions yet of the point that:

To insist that behind all the various issues there exists the overarching presence of the same system, the same empire, the same totality, has always struck me as an extreme case of masochism, a perverted way to look for a sure defeat while enjoying the bittersweet feeling of superior political correctness. (Latour, 2005: 252)