Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Government Failures Multiply--but Congolese Rarely Protest

A Reuters AlertNet analysis argues that the Congolese government is facing a "perfect storm" of pressures, including the government's embarrassing military failures in the east, tumbling mineral prices, popular discontent over continuing mismanagement and corruption, doubts about the government's much-delayed review of mining contracts, and growing concern that Chinese mining agreements are not delivering as promised. [Update 11/28: This article in l'Observatoire de l'Afrique centrale is a crushing denunciation of the government's multiple failures.]

Copper prices have fallen 60 percent since Kabila was elected to office in July 2006, and over 40 mining companies in Katanga have ceased operations. A promised $350 million loan from the Chinese has been caught up in red tape. The president's much-vaunted "cinq chantiers" or five projects approach to rebuilding the country has achieved few visible successes.

In Western nations, this monumental level of failure would likely lead to the collapse of the government. Indeed, outside observers have been waiting decades--from the late Seventies--for the Congolese people to rise up. That they haven't has been attributed to their poverty (impverished people haven't the wherewithal to mount a challenge against their government), to the strength of the police state, and to their own uncanny ability to bear suffering with grace.

My sense is that none of those explanations for Congolese political quiescence has quite nailed it. My impression--and it is just that--is that the Congolese simply don't expect much from their government. When outsiders ask--as we so often do--why there is not more popular discontent--why the people of Kinshasa, for example, haven't demonstrated or rioted against the government--we are imputing ideas and feelings to the Congolese that I am not entirely sure they share.

Indulge my half-baked ideas as I play political sociologist of the longue duree. The notion that the government exists to serve the people--rather than the other way around--was one of the deepest and most wide-ranging transformations in Western thinking. It came about because centuries of wars, rebellions, and revolutions led Western political thinkers to develop new ideas about the proper relationship of rulers to ruled. These ideas extended across a range of fronts, were given voice by artists, writers, and even composers, and eventually were taken up as causes by new political actors, revolutionaries in their day. Gradually, over time, these ideas took root, spread, and became embedded in the very structure of our government. Now we have so deeply internalized them that they are subtly reflected in everything we do--from how we raise our children, to what TV shows we watch, to what we expect from the police if we are pulled over for speeding. But these ideas are neither universal nor natural. If anything, the belief that the individual is and ought to be subordinate to the government--that the less powerful must yield to the more powerful--is the more "natural," intuitive notion.

That's why the Congolese have at times demonstrated so forcefully against MONUC. They know why MONUC is there; they understand what its mission is. When it fails to protect them, they get angry. But from their own government, they expect nothing. And when that's what it delivers, they are neither surprised nor outraged.

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