Mention the Democratic Republic of Congo, and you’re likely to hear it called it a “failed state.” Almost every service that a government is supposed to provide is barely functioning: average Congolese citizens earn less than they did in the 1970s in real prices, and Congolese suffer from abysmal security, health care and education. About 5.4 million people have died in conflict during the rule of President Joseph Kabila and that of his father, Laurent Kabila, with the active participation of Rwanda and Uganda.
However, seen from another vantage, and as detailed in the Enough Project’s new comprehensive study that analyzes Congo’s political economy over the past 130 years, the country is not a failure at all. Congo has in fact been a very efficient state for elites and their business associates who maintain power while personally profiting from exploiting its natural resources and a range of lucrative corrupt activities.
Our study reveals that in many ways there has been a pattern in how Congo’s leaders have ruled the country from King Leopold II of Belgium to Mobutu Sese Seko to Laurent and Joseph Kabila. We term this “violent kleptocracy,” a system of state capture in which ruling networks and commercial partners hijack governing institutions and maintain impunity in order to extract resources, and the ruling networks utilize varying levels of violence to keep power and repress dissenting voices. Congo is not all violent or all corrupt, but Congo’s regimes and outside actors have used many elements of violent kleptocracy to maintain profits and power.
This analysis explains several developments in Congo, including President Kabila’s attempt to subvert a democratic transition; the conflict in eastern Congo and the associated conflict minerals trade; and the bribery and poverty associated with extracting copper and cobalt from Katanga.
Congo’s leaders have redirected billions of dollars from the country and have used brutal violence at times to gain or maintain the ultimate prize: control of the state and its vast natural resources, worth an estimated $24 trillion. During President Kabila’s tenure, up to $4 billion per year has gone missing or been stolen due to the manipulation of mining contracts, budgets and state assets, according to research by Prof. Pierre Englebert. Certain business allies have also profited significantly. In a recent U.S. Department of Justice plea agreement, the U.S. hedge fund Och-Ziff asserted that its partners including, according to sources familiar with the case, Israeli businessman Dan Gertler paid more than $100 million in bribes to Congolese officials in order to receive billions of dollars worth of mineral concessions at rock-bottom prices.
The leaders have used a kind of rulebook to make this system work. One rule is to let the armed forces pay themselves. Congo’s regimes gain by allowing army commanders to become wealthy exploiting resources and citizens, which has led to brutality and conflict. Mobutu told his troops, “You have guns, you don’t need a salary.” And U.N. experts estimated that $400 million worth of gold from the conflict-affected east was smuggled out of Congo in 2013, benefiting commanders, armed groups, officials and collaborators, and leaving communities in eastern Congo devastated.
A second rule is to personally profit from natural resource deals, underspend on services and hijack reforms that might endanger ill-gotten gains. The regime receives bribes from outsiders to sell resources at massively discounted rates, generating up to 29,000% in profits and depriving the Congolese state of billions in revenue. The main vehicles for corruption, state-owned companies and foreign shell companies are deliberately opaque. The government underspends on public services, as its focus is on patronage, not the population.
A third rule is to stay in power at all costs. Leaving office can mean that regime-connected elites lose their ill-gotten gains—as well as immunity from prosecution. To avoid this, leaders repress pro-democracy movements and any threat to the status quo, often violently, or delay elections.
To help the courageous Congolese reformers who are trying to transform this system, there must be significant consequences for the thieves-of-state that maintain it. The international community can provide them by using the tools of financial pressure normally reserved for countering nuclear proliferation and terrorism, tools aimed at isolating the kleptocrats from the international financial system. As Congo’s business deals are made in U.S. dollars, thus touching the international banking system, the international community has powerful leverage it is not using nearly enough. But it should use that leverage, and urgently.
The U.S. and European countries should combine the use of anti-money laundering measures with widened, better-enforced targeted sanctions. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and similar European bodies should issue public advisories concerning the patterns used to launder the proceeds of corruption from Congo. The U.S. Department of Justice should complement this step with prosecutions of individuals for corruption-related crimes under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Furthermore, the U.S., European states, and the International Monetary Fund should press the Congolese government to have its state-owned companies such asGécamines publish their financial reports and have independent audits conducted.
Finally, donor governments including the U.S. should undertake a top-to-bottom review of all capacity building aid programs so that they no longer reinforce corrupt institutions, focusing on only aiding institutions that are undergoing reform. Donors must incorporate strong accountability and oversight measures in state capacity building and security sector programs in Congo and be willing to defund projects if the government fails to include corruption prevention safeguards.
The criminal state may have deep roots in Congo, but so do its democratic movements. Transforming the system will require dedicated work on all sides and a new way of seeing the problem. But if action is targeted against the system of violent kleptocracy and its beneficiaries, and the most effective policy tools are engaged, change is possible.