'Can new leadership transform the DRC's fortunes?' was the title of a seminar this week presented by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). It was a good question.
Although, as one of the speakers, Daniel Mukoko Samba, deputy prime minister and minister of the budget in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between 2012 and 2014, observed rather wryly - it is a perennial question.
Speaking with the benefit of a former insider - and still one, in a way, as he is currently a member of President Félix Tshisekedi's African Union chair team - Mukoko recalled that the same question is asked every time there is new leadership in the DRC.
On each occasion, there is a spike of hope for this sprawling giant that seems to have so much potential. And each time, the hope is dashed on the seemingly intractable realities of the country - persistent grinding poverty, perpetual instability and particularly its bad governance and corruption.
According to a report presented at the seminar by ISS Researcher Kouassi Yeboua, written by Yeboua and ISS colleagues, Jakkie Cilliers and Stellah Kwasi, 73% of the DRC population, about 60 million people, remain poor. GDP per capita is only 40% of what it was at independence in 1960.
Is the political system to blame for creating a rent-seeking political, economic and military elite?
Yet this is a country blessed with vast mineral resources and more arable land than any other in Africa. Even so, the DRC still has to import most of its food, about US$1.5 billion worth per year. And Yeboua said all those minerals had hardly benefited the ordinary Congolese at all - enriching mainly the rent-seeking elite and crooked foreign business people.
According to Yeboua, the DRC needed to transform its economy by adding value to its natural resources through coherent industrial policy. In the meantime though, boosting agricultural production was a 'low-hanging fruit' that could expand economic output and feed the population. The country should also devolve more power and resources to lower echelons of government.
The DRC's core problem, though, has been very poor political leadership. Yeboua said that the DRC scored just 0.9 points out of 5 on the World Bank government effectiveness index compared to the 1.4 average for low-income African countries and 1.7 for sub-Saharan Africa. He said the major condition of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) recently approved US$1.5 billion loan to the DRC was improved governance.
But Mukoko then catalogued the many hopeful economic reform plans drafted since the World Bank and IMF returned to the DRC in 2001 after a 10-year absence. Each plan had sparked a flurry of new legislation and a surge in hope that then slowly faded away.
Mukoko agreed with Yeboua that the problem lay with the rent-seeking political, economic and military elite and their corruption. But he had an interesting take on that, essentially blaming it on the political system rather than on the inherent corruption of the political elite.
DRC's large governing coalitions and bloated cabinets require patronage to be dispensed very widely
He suggested that the vast number of political parties in the DRC - between 600 and 650 - were at the root of the problem. This inevitably led to the creation of large, sprawling governing coalitions and bloated cabinets - the current one with about 56 ministers - where patronage had to be dispensed very widely.
He noted that in this system, certain parties were given monopolies on specific cabinet portfolios. This made it very difficult for a president to root out corruption and instil good governance without being accused of political bias and targeting his political enemies.
And the need for large coalitions also meant that it took a long time after elections to form governments. He noted that following the December 2018 elections, it had taken Tshisekedi over two years to establish his 'sacred union' coalition to replace his predecessor Joseph Kabila's Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) alliance.
Mukoko said he was a member of an independent advocacy group seeking consensual electoral reforms to ensure that the crucial next elections in 2023 produced a stronger and more coherent government. What he didn't say was that perhaps the solution he and others were looking for had been staring them in the face all along: it's called democracy.
The problem with the 2018 election was that, as the seminar chairperson SAIIA Senior Researcher Stephanie Wolters pointed out, Tshisekedi didn't really win. He was chosen by Kabila's faction as a compromise between its own candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who lost too badly to be credible, and Lamuka's Martin Fayulu, who really won.
A good place to start would surely be to put in office those politicians the Congolese people elect
It was that deal that created Tshisekedi's dependence on Kabila for political support. This dependence in turn essentially paralysed government while Tshisekedi battled to gain political independence of Kabila by forming an unwieldy coalition of his own to try to oust that of his predecessor.
As Wolters said, 'The fundamental problem is that the political elite is governing in its own interests, and that makes even the most avid reform efforts very hard to move forward sustainably.
'Tshisekedi still has some time to demonstrate his commitment to real governance reform. However his recent anti-corruption moves, for example, already indicate a certain political selectivity. If governance is really to improve, no one must be above the law.'
Perhaps DRC politics is inherently fractured and needs a visionary leader - not necessarily very democratic - to seize command and force through the necessary economic reforms, as some believe. But until that messiah arrives, a good place to start building coherence as the basis for development would surely be to put in office those politicians the Congolese people choose to be there.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant