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.
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?"
The question seems particularly urgent in Lubumbashi, where Congo's wealth is paraded daily before the people it has always eluded.
Heavy trucks heaped with ore rumble down shady boulevards lined with money-changers and fruit vendors who advertise on scraps of cardboard. Multinational mining company executives sip wine at $30-an-entree restaurants with names such as Planet Hollyboom, served by waiters who live without running water.
Foreign businesspeople zip around town hustling up mineral deals that rely largely on a vast network of informal Congolese miners who make $3 digging on a good day.
Attempting to satisfy the rising expectations since the 2006 elections, the governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi -- who presides over an area the size of France -- has made several symbolic gestures.
Though he has no official power to do so, he decreed a new minimum wage of $150 a month. He bought several ambulances and hearses with his own money. He levied new property taxes, planted roses at the airport and painted downtown shops in shades of salmon.
But provincial lawmakers here worry that such efforts will remain symbolic unless a culture of reform takes root, which they say would begin with the implementation of the new constitution.
Meanwhile, the provincial assemblies are still waiting to receive their 40 percent share of national revenue.
"People in my area, they have submitted projects to be implemented in 2007, and now it's 2008 and it's not been realized," said Dany Banza Maloba, a politician. "The central government has 100 percent of the money, but they have not completed any projects in my area, zero. I repeat, zero."
Maloba was among a group of young politicians who gathered around a table in the old Belgian theater recently to discuss how things have changed since the Mobutu years.
He and his colleagues said there is a constant, at times frightening pressure not to disrupt the old, corrupt system.
"When you find something irregular and you try to raise your voice, people call you," said Prince Pitonsi Ehud, a lawyer. "I've had ministers call me, relatives of the president -- they try to pressure you until you stop, until you just shut up."
Even so, he said, he expected that Congo would change, eventually.
"Nobody would think that one day Mobutu would fall," he said. "But he did."