Thursday, April 17, 2008

Clean Government in The Congo

I have an unexplained interest in The (D.R.) Congo, of which I've blogged on before. Blessed (or cursed) with fabulous mineral wealth, there are few places in the world that deserve piece more than the Western Europe sized nation. Under Belgian rule, it endured one of the most brutal colonizations in Africa (not an easy title to win), followed by systematic plundering by the Mobutu Sese Seko, and then a horrific civil war that claimed the lives of millions.

But, under the leadership of Joseph Kabila, the country has just completed its first fair and open election. And the Washington Post reports that reforms are -- slowly and fitfully -- beginning to set in. A new rule posits that 40% of all governmental revenue shall flow outward to state legislatures (though the money has yet to arrive). Bureaucracies are slowly coming together and starting to work. And local lawmakers are beginning to put together reform packages -- and are worried about being voted out of office if they don't deliver.
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.
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.

It's that last part that makes me smile. Is it symbolic? Yes. But it's symbolic of change. It's symbolic of a government that feels it needs to show something to its people. And its symbolic of a society that -- after so many years of darkness -- may finally see hope for a better future.

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