'The Democratic Republic of Congo should be the envy of Africa ... Instead, its 44 million people are among the poorest in the world, and among the world's most likely to hack each other to pieces." (Pelton). The Democratic Republic of Congo has been besieged by strife, turmoil, poverty, and illness for decades. Formerly the Belgian Congo, the nation, like most others in Africa, has been ravaged by centuries of colonial and imperialistic rule. In the wake of the rape of natural resources and the racist degradation of its people of colonial years arose a series of brutal, greed-driven dictatorial regimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For over thirty years a dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko (nee Joseph Desire Mobutu) led the country with what many call a "kleptocracy," or rule via stealing. Pelton's quote draws attention to the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa's brightest jewels in terms of natural beauty and natural resources. Rich in valuable ores like copper and gold, minerals like uranium and cobalt, as well as gems such as diamonds, the nation formally known as Zaire and its sixty million-plus people have the potential to be wealthy. The democratic Republic of Congo also boasts a network of powerful rivers that yield an abundance of hydroelectric power sources as well as a network of as of yet untapped oil reserves. Furthermore, the former Zaire has the largest remaining rainforest land in the world, after Brazil and Indonesia. The forest lands yields timber for a multitude of purposes. However, none of these abundant resources are enjoyed by the people of the ironically-named Democratic Republic of Congo. Although the equatorial and tropical nation has incredibly fertile and arable land, most of its citizens go to bed hungry, with barely a roof over their heads let alone land, schools, and livelihoods.
Poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo has various root causes, some of which can be traced back to colonialism, others to more recent history of domestic misrule. The colonial seeds of Zaire's poverty were most famously expounded on by Polish author Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness, was set in the late nineteenth century when Belgium still maintained control of the region. The book describes the mistreatment of indigenous peoples and the deluded mindset of European colonialism. Conrad uses a nameless Company to symbolize the European exploitation of Africa's natural resources, which is why the former Belgian Congo made such an apt setting for the book. Since Heart of Darkness, many other fiction authors have depicted the economic devastation wrought by colonial rule in Africa. A misunderstanding of African history and a racist mindset tend to shape the European and North American perspective of poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For example, nations like Zaire were artificially carved out by European settlers. Prior to colonization, "A diversity of social aggregates developed, ranging from small, autonomous groups of hunters and gatherers to centralized chiefdoms, from settled indigenous village communities to predominantly Muslim and Arab trading communities," ("Congo (Zaire) Information").
Within a nation like the democratic Republic of Congo, which is the largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa at over two million square kilometers, over two hundred distinct ethnic groups coexist. In addition to the ethnic diversity that characterizes the democratic Republic of Congo, the country is rich in linguistic diversity: although French remains the official language, a variety of African languages are also spoken by the nation's people. Furthermore, Zaire is also religiously diverse and complex. Approximately half of the nation is Roman Catholic; twenty percent Protestant; ten percent Muslim; ten percent Kimbanguist, and another ten percent are comprised of syncretic religious traditions.
In the midst of such incredible diversity of culture and landscape, the biased assumption implies that ethnicity is at the root cause of poverty and strife in the region. However, Steven Omamo points out the fallacy of this belief: "It is easy to point to "hot spots" like Rwanda and Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and now Zaire and conclude that civil strife must be based on ethnicity. But this easy explanation is wrong." Omamo notes that it is poverty, not ethnicity, that causes strife, violence, corruption, and civil war. Through only the past century and a half of its history, what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo has undergone a myriad of name changes: from the Congo Free State presided over by Belgian's King Leopold II, to simply Congo, to Zaire, to the Republic of Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo is in fact the second time the nation has assumed the paradoxical name: for numerous generations there has been nothing democratic about the Congo.
The people of Zaire were, however, financially better off immediately after independence from Belgium than they are now, or were at the time of Mobutu's demise. "Real wages, even before the upheavals of the 1990s, were one-tenth of what they were at independence from Belgium in 1960," (Forests Monitor). Inflation over the past several decades has been astounding. In 1994 alone, inflation rose a seemingly impossible 9800%. The immediate cause for such astonishing figures is Mobutu himself. Mobutu, who was financially and politically supported by many Western nations including the United States, became "one of the richest people in the world" by reaping the profits of power, while the citizens of the Congo starved (Pelton). Sold Down the River, a report published by the Forests Monitor in 2001, offers the following economic assessment of the nation:
Chronic malnutrition is rife, and 80% of people live in absolute poverty.6 The economy shrank under President Mobutu; GNP in 1996 was less than half that of 1980, while per capita GNP fell even more dramatically.7 Per capita GNP in 1997 was U.S.$110, the lowest of the six countries featured in this report and the second lowest in Africa (Mozambique being the lowest at U.S.$90.8). The total debt of DRC in 1996 was U.S.$12.8 billion, including nearly U.S.$7 billion in arrears, the majority of which was owed to bilateral creditors. Despite its unrepayable debt and qualification for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), the country has little chance of having its debt cancelled because of the ongoing political and economic upheavals.
Steven Omamo states: "over his 30 years in office, Mobutu and his cronies have amassed huge personal fortunes rather than invest this wealth for the benefit of his country. Zaire remains one of the world's poorest countries." Mobutu's personal fortune was fueled by his "receiving foreign assistance from the U.S., Europe and international organizations such as the World Bank," (Forests Monitor). In other words, Mobutu was funneling monies meant to embolden his people and develop his nation into his own personal bank accounts. Fed up with Mobutu's rule, a group of rebels led by the Marxist guerilla fighter Laurent-Desire Kabila overthrew Mobutu's government with a military coup. Omamo, who wrote an essay entitled "The Peaceful Continent -- Poverty, Not Ethnicity, Drives Conflict in Zaire," offered idealistic hope for the coup, asserting that Kabila signified the triumph of the economically and politically impoverished over the greedy diamond-mongers that had been ruling the Congo for decades. He stated "Poverty is the fundamental impetus for change in Zaire. Poverty is at the root of Kabila's war."
However, the truth is grim. As Robert Pelton points out, it is no small coincidence that Mobutu and Kabila shared the same middle name, and that middle name was "Desire." Their desire, their outright greed and malice, has created a situation in Zaire so problematic that it appears hopeless. "The country has had decades of economic mismanagement, corruption, lack of investment in infrastructure and widespread insecurity caused by political conflicts," (Forests Monitor). No number of photographs of crying babies and emaciated mothers can convey the intensity of the problems faced by the people of Zaire. To compound the problems of the country's citizens, refugees from war-torn neighboring nations like Rwanda and Burundi have been streaming in, intensifying competition for food and land resources. In a country so large and so potentially rich, there is no excuse for such poverty except misrule and corruption, both on the part of domestic and international players.
Only a year after he seized power, Laurent- Desire Kabila faced significant military challenges from neighboring countries, notably Rwanda and Uganda, both of which had formerly supported his leadership. The strife led eventually to civil war, yet another factor contributing to widespread poverty and devastation in the democratic Republic of Congo. Although other neighboring and nearby nations like Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and Namibia expressed support for Kabila's side over the rebels, Kabila was assassinated in January 2001. Instability and poverty seem to go side-by-side. Now, Kabila's son Joseph Kabila reigns, but his power is somewhat checked by what the CIA World Factbook calls a "transnational government" established in 2003. The current government includes representatives of the rebel forces, of the former government, and other opposition parties.