Nairobi — Even as it celebrated its golden jubilee of independence from Belgium on June 30 this year, the overriding sentiment the Democratic Republic of Congo evokes is one of sympathy.
Despite its fabled mineral wealth, it has known little beyond plunder and suffering. Potentially the richest country in Africa, it is however one of the most dysfunctional.
It can also be a very surreal place. Not too long ago, you could pass through Kinshasa's N'djili airport, and maybe want to use the washrooms as you waited for your connecting flight.
The first thing the cleaners would demand from you - a total stranger - was a bribe. To use the loo!
Catching a domestic flight was another circus (it is easier to fly within the vast country as there is virtually no ground infrastructure).
There seemed no order in ticketing. The customer who arrived at the plane's apron first and pushed hardest -- yes, with a bribe -- was guaranteed a seat. Just like in a typical unruly matatu or dala dala.
Woe unto latecomers, even if they had booked and paid for tickets well in advance. At the time, the Congolese franc was virtually worthless.
Market women would fight to catch your attention if they sensed you had dollars to pay for your purchases.
Incumbent President Joseph Kabila inherited a near-absolute mess of a country. Torn by civil wars and secessionist uprisings, it had just about the worst governance record anywhere.Starting off at independence with a leader, Patrice Lumumba, who is honoured across the continent as having been a great patriot, Congo soon got saddled with Africa's most notorious kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Then came a stint under a beer-swilling pseudo-revolutionary who in a past life had made the legendary Che Guevara throw up his arms in disgust.
If such were the vanguards of revolution in Africa, the Argentine is reported to have said, then there was no hope.
The man was none other than Laurent Kabila, Joseph's dad.
Congo's fabulous natural riches are, in fact, its curse.
Not only did they attract pure scoundrels masquerading as enlightened colonisers, but they were also the reason the country was brutally preyed upon for decades after independence by Big Powers who turned it into their playground during the Cold War.The country is huge. It is bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. The rainforest that covers its bulk is second only in size in the world to the Amazon basin.
If this rainforest were to die, the ripple effect in terms of global warming would most probably decimate Mother Earth.
Early in the 15th century, the Portuguese were the first outsiders to sense there was something to get in Congo -- slaves and ivory.
But it was in the 19th century that a totally rapacious rascal, King Leopold II of Belgium, took over the place, courtesy of groundwork done for him by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
The King turned it into a personal estate, no less. He wanted quick and massive profits from Congo's ivory and rubber, and to make the natives tap the rubber and meet their quotas, he introduced the worst form of forced labour Africans had ever seen before or since.
Emblematic of Leopold's rule was the chicotte, a nasty hippo-hide whip from which 90 lashes on an African labourer's bottom was considered standard practice.
Between 1880 and 1920, Congo lost approximately half of its population, all being victims of Leopold's pogroms.
On independence day on June 30, 1960, Lumumba is reported to have said in the presence of Leopold's descendant King Baudouin: "We are no longer your monkeys."
It was the beginning of the saga that saw him ousted from power and murdered. Leopold had the audacity to name the monstrosity he created as the Congo Free State.
After milking it dry, he handed it over to the Belgian government, who were only marginally better in the way they run the place.
You could almost count the number of indigenous university graduates Belgium bequeathed to independent Congo with the fingers of the hands.
There were no roads either. To connect to Congo's three major cities - Leopoldville (Kinshasa), Stanleyville (Kisangani) and Elizabethville (Lumbumbashi) - the Congolese had to rely on the great Congo river and its tributaries.
Lumumba may have died a humiliating death, but Mobutu's was no less ignominious. The man who was likened to a "cock that leaves no hen untouched" died from a condition that basically induces impotence - prostate cancer.
He died in Morocco where he was airlifted from his besieged country in - of all things - a cargo plane.
Mobutu's ultimate mistake had been to give sanctuary to the Hutu genocidaires responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda, backed by Uganda and Angola, invaded his country and overthrew him. His powerful Cold War allies did not lift a finger. The world, by then, had changed.
Sometimes the Congo evokes despair. Mobutu's demise hardly brought any peace. The 1995-2005 conflict in the Kivus in the east is believed to have cost five million lives, more than any other African conflict has caused.
Later, the UN airlifted into the country what is currently one of the largest international peacekeeping operations in the world. But Joseph Kabila, desperate to show the world he has a handle on things, wants them to leave before the next polls are due.