Blessed with natural resources and occupying a vast swath of central Africa as large as the US east of the Mississippi River, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to some of the word’s largest deposits of diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan. Despite a fecund climate encompassing everything from dense, nearly impenetrable rainforests to fertile plains, the country has remained one of Africa’s most tragic. Held in the grip of a predatory state culture of corruption and the often nefarious designs of its neighbours and unscrupulous business dealers with little long-term interest in developing its infrastructure, DR Congo has struggled to attract investors.
The country’s president, Joseph Kabila, first assumed office in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent, who led a rebel movement that toppled the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
Elected for the first time during a violent ballot in 2006, President Kabila is an often mute presence on the Congolese political scene, going for weeks at a time without appearing in public. Nevertheless, the government has begun to take small steps to regularise the often anarchic foreign investment climate in the country, and in February completed a review of all international mining contracts, many of which were signed by President Kabila’s father under circumstances of questionable transparency during DR Congo’s 1998-2002 civil war.
Last September, the Congolese government also announced upcoming collaborations with China focusing on projects to improve the country’s infrastructure, which would largely be paid for through the extraction and sale of the country’s mineral reserves. In one scheme more than 10 million tonnes of copper are to be extracted over a 15-year period to pay for $12bn-worth of improvements in mining and other sectors.
Until recently, Gecamines, a state-owned firm, had almost completely abandoned mining as the country has been wracked by war and rebellion, but the assumed undervaluation of many mining contracts presents an opportunity for it to potentially resurrect itself, as new contracts with foreign firms are negotiated.
The government has also announced its desire to raise $58m from investors to facilitate the construction of a new port to replace the nearly moribund port in the city of Matadi, 200 miles west of the capital, Kinshasa. Despite the great hope, however, the potential for chaos in DR Congo remains ever present.
In the eastern provinces of north and south Kivu, government troops, backed by the local paramilitary groups, often do battle with forces loyal to dissident general Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi who claims to defend the rights of Tutsis, and with the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda – a group with its roots in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, comprised mainly of ethnic Hutus.
In the west, fighting between Congolese security forces and members of a politico-religious ethnic movement, the Bundu dia Kongo, killed more than 20 people in March as running battles were fought throughout the country’s western Bas-Congo province.
At this pivotal moment in its history, with an elected government for the first time since the early 1960s, the question is posed as to whether DR Congo can finally use its vast resources to create a more equitable, stable country, or whether the weight of history will prove as great an obstacle for this new generation of leaders as it did for their predecessors.