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Congo's 'Change of Mentality'

Lawmakers in Kinshasa are already balking at a key constitutional provision requiring that 40 percent of all revenue remain in the provinces to fund desperately needed development projects. But even if the money begins to flow, it is unclear whether the nascent provincial assemblies are ready to handle it.

Most are still struggling with Robert's Rules of Order and other basics of setting up shop. With few computers or typewriters, legions of secretaries are hand-copying reports and correspondence. Most assemblies have no place to meet; one is convening in a school, another in the narrow hallways of a bank, where sheets separate offices.

In Lubumbashi, the bustling capital of Katanga province, newly elected lawmakers convene in red leather seats inside an old colonial theater, a wavy, surreal structure designed in the 1950s to resemble the cap of the Belgian king.

The other day, 60 of the 102 salaried lawmakers showed up for a session that began about an hour late.

They were supposed to hear a report about the country's corrupt customs office, but that was postponed because the report was not yet typed. They were supposed to go over the details of a new property tax system, but that was also postponed, because the property tax expert was not around to explain.

The president of the assembly, Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza, seemed frustrated, but for a reason that has never really existed in Congo: fear of not being reelected.

"The people of Katanga, they are pressuring me!" he said, rapping his gavel on the podium. "They want to see change, but they see I am only growing fat!"

Something else was notable about the session, which was broadcast on state TV: On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a couple of dozen people showed up to observe their government in action, and not all of them were the lawmakers' drivers.

They included a Congolese human rights activist, a few miners and Boniface Mbuya, a 28-year-old law student who regularly attends because, he said, "maybe someday I'll be a great man." He was getting used to the new system, he said, and was still trying to shake off a profound sense of repression and an almost cult-like reverence for the powerful.

Though the provincial governor recently installed a suggestion box outside the assembly, for instance, Mbuya said he hasn't used it yet.

"I always have this ambition to write something and drop it inside," he said. "But maybe the government would say, 'Oh, these students, look at what they've written.' I fear it." Still, he supported the new constitution, voted in the 2006 elections and said that he expected his representatives to deliver.

"Until now, we are waiting for their response," Mbuya said. "They are gaining, but when are we going to gain something?"


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