Congo's 'Change of Mentality'

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 14, 2008

LUBUMBASHI, Congo -- One recent afternoon in this booming mining town, in a provincial office crammed with files, something unusual was happening for a country once ruled by the famously kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

A mid-level government administrator named Vincent-Francois Yangala was going over a local budget, line by line. He was checking receipts. He was noting discrepancies.

"The report must be in order," said Yangala, 62, a meticulous man in a khaki suit who explained how different things were when he worked for Mobutu's government. "In the old system, I would just take the public money and go drinking with women. When I moved to a different job, I would take the typing machine, the lamps, even the curtains -- I would put them in my house. Now there is no way. Now there is shame."

Yangala's new sense of propriety reflects a monumental challenge facing this central African country the size of Western Europe, which has only 3,000 miles of paved roads, no mail system, no public school system and where some villagers report that they have not even seen a government official in 15 years.

Following the adoption of a new constitution in 2005 and the first multiparty elections in decades, Congo is aiming to decentralize government from the capital of Kinshasa to newly elected legislatures in 11 provinces. More fundamentally, Congolese people are hoping to replace an entrenched culture of corruption with something novel: good government.

The stakes are high. Graft and mismanagement have left the Congolese among the poorest people in the world. But with a years-long civil war for the most part over and a democratically elected government in place, investors are beginning to return to the resource-rich country.

At least two $1 billion copper and cobalt mines are under construction here in the southern province of Katanga, and China is investing $9 billion for roads and other infrastructure projects in return for lucrative mining concessions.

Many observers say that if the government manages well, Congo could become an economic engine for Africa.

"This government has every chance to turn Congo into a major economy," said John Skinner, a Zimbabwean who runs a mining company in Katanga province.

Congolese voters overwhelmingly backed the new setup. They say that moving the government -- and its revenue -- closer to the grass roots is the only way common people might begin to enjoy their country's wealth, which was first plundered by Belgian colonizers and then by Mobutu, whose deputies sold off fighter jets and even foreign embassies, pocketing the cash.

"It was time we stopped these things," Yangala said, explaining why he changed his ways. "Now we have a new system, and the new system needs a change of mentality. This is the big battle we have."

So far, change is coming slowly, and at times awkwardly.

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