Recently I went on my maiden visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. It was after many years of wanting to go but not quite getting round to it. It was not my first visit to the country, however.
For almost two decades now, I have been a regular visitor to Goma, the capital city of the DRC’s once notoriously violence-prone North Kivu Province, sometimes for work, at other times for social reasons. It was there that I first set foot in the country.
It was also there I encountered one of the numerous rebel groups the DRC has come to be associated with since the collapse of the Mobutu government, the Rassemblement Congolais Pour la Democratie (RCD-Goma), and its then young luminaries, some of whom I chanced upon in Kinshasa.
Some are now middle-aged, others fairly old men. Some now have the signature distended bellies that my host, a young academic, attributed to the wealth, power and influence they went on to acquire once they abandoned rebellion and became part of the power elite running the place.
A few years ago I went to Kisangani, another Congolese town made famous by the battles that took place there as Congolese “revolutionaries” and an eclectic mix of external backers and adventurers sought to “liberate” the then Zaire from Mobutuism and bring it into the ambit of countries where at the time power had recently shifted from old autocrats to young and fresh revolutionaries whom at the time we knew as “the new breed of African leaders.”
I had gone in search of an uncle who had served in Idi Amin’s army and subsequently sought refuge there. War had left many scars on Kisangani.
Mobutu had, however, left deeper scars and precious little to show for his many years in power. An old chap I bumped into on the street and went on to have a long chat with about the city and Mobutu’s Zaire, expressed feelings I encountered in Kinshasa.
Mobutu, many Congolese say, had “the best chance” of transforming their country into a well-developed and prosperous modern state. However, the greatest legacy he left, they say, was “singing and dancing” (la musique et la dance) and chaos.
There is a degree, however, to which the association of the DRC with chaos can be overplayed. First, as is the case with the supposedly strong state in many peaceful and stable African countries, the image of the Congolese state as weak and dysfunctional is only partly accurate.
A perceptive observer in peaceful and stable countries will spot many areas of state weakness. And in the DRC, despite its reputation for chaos, you see striking instances of capacity. Prior to heading to Kinshasa, I was in Goma for a weekend.
Twenty years ago, the city epitomised failure. Today Goma is almost as clean as neighbouring Gisenyi in Rwanda, where the post-genocide state has a well-established reputation for strength and effectiveness. Almost all the roads in the town have been tarmacked. And for the most part the mounds of garbage one could see almost everywhere in the past have gone. So has wanton lawlessness.
Fast forward to Kinshasa.
The DRC’s capital is a bustling metropolis, with some of the best dressed people one can encounter anywhere. Word has it that Kinshasa is one of the largest markets for designer clothes anywhere in the world. And if locals do anything really well, it is partying and generally enjoying life.
The city’s well-tended golf course with its high-end bar and restaurant is hardly one you would expect to find in a war-torn place. The city’s most chic neighbourhood, Gombe, known to locals as “the Republic of Gombe” given its exclusivity, is as clean and orderly as any you can find in the capital cities of Africa’s “stable democracies.”
But also in terms of disorderliness, Kinshasa mirrors many African cities that are managed according to “le model Africain.” Depending on the time of day, driving in Kinshasa can be a joy or nightmare. The city has some of the widest and smoothest roads in Africa. But then, at peak hour, it also has among the worst traffic jams I have been unfortunate enough to be caught up in, anywhere.
Now of course, traffic jams are the stuff of life at peak hour in any large city, even the best managed. Here, though, the massive jams cannot be dissociated from lack of capacity to enforce the law and to keep systems working. One can see traffic cops getting overwhelmed by the sheer unruliness of drivers, complemented by traffic lights that do not always work.
One feels for the cops who, drenched in buckets of sweat thanks to Kinshasa’s sweltering heat and humidity, stand by and watch helplessly, intervening only now and then, when things get really out of hand.
The longer I stayed in the city and observed and experienced its contrasts, the more it became clear to me that, although we tend think of war-affected places with a degree of pity and despair thanks to media reports, in many respects they are similar to where we live.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]