The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) celebrates 50 years of independence from colonial rule today. At fifty, the country is torn between competing and contradictory internal forces as it tries to negotiate a path towards self-understanding, internal cohesion and responsible behaviour. At this landmark event in its post-colonial history, the DRC has to confront old wounds that create new policy challenges in a complex political-economic environment.
At a national level, the policy of decentralisation and a constitutionally accepted principle of increasing the amount of provinces are drawing significant attention. The DRC is currently divided into eleven provinces. The constitution indicates that this number should be increased to 26, and relevant powers, financial management, tax collection, and other government functions are to be decentralised.
The constitution stipulates a period of three years for the implementation of the new provincial governance structures before the next elections which are due in 2011. Yet, no progress has been made on this front. Ituri province, in the North Eastern DRC, lost patience with Kinshasa's apparent unwillingness to move the process forward. On 15 May 2010, a memo was dispatched from Ituri to the president and prime minister indicating that it will ‘unilaterally' move forward with the implementation of its own ‘new' provincial demarcation.
The question is whether the DRC's national political governance structures, policies, and financial systems are sufficiently developed to accommodate 15 new provinces. Not only will it add a significant cost burden to the national budget, but the potential pitfalls hidden in the demarcation of provincial boundaries are creating some concern within the DRC's policy establishment. Additionally, existing disputes regarding income distribution between national and provincial administrations may complicate the establishment of 15 new provincial structures. This issue will be a central feature of political and policy debates in the country in the run-up to the elections next year.
A central question implied in the above internal decentralisation process pertains to the borders of provinces. While this internal question rages on, it is becoming clear that significant oil and natural gas deposits located in territories where the DRC share borders with Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania (especially in the Lake Albert, Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika areas) are fast becoming potential flashpoints in regional relations.
To the west, where the DRC occupies a thin slice of territory nestled up against Angola, tensions are mounting, due to claims that companies active in Angola's oil sector may have been illegally drilling and exploiting oil reserves on DRC territory. In this regard, some policymakers are asking whether the paltry figure of 25,000 barrels of oil that the DRC reportedly extracts per day is accurate. This is due to the fact that the government has neither the capacity, nor the technology to monitor the flow of crude oil from its territory.
An explosive mix of border disputes and a lack of capacity to govern the extraction of a critical resource such as oil may potentially also hold disastrous consequences in the eastern DRC - especially in the Lake Albert, Ituri province territory. Not only do rumours of groups promulgating the idea of an independent state of Vulcania (broadly located within North Kivu territory) persist, but the ongoing insurgency led by actors such as the FDLR in the Kivu provinces continues to complicate both resource governance and humanitarian conditions in the east.
Tensions are also rising between the DRC and Uganda regarding the exact location of the border between the countries running through Lake Albert. This is prompted by Uganda's plans to extract oil from the lake. Apart from the border dispute, the ongoing insurgency of the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri/Popular Front for Justice in Congo (FRPI/FPJC) is also complicating the exploitation of the oil reserves located in Lake Albert.
While the situation in the DRC's insurgency-prone east continues to be fragile, reports from Equateur province also indicate that there are local forces ready to pick a fight with government forces.
The drive to extract value from the DRC's significant natural resource endowments by government and international actors is to a large extent complicated by the fact that the DRC's economy remains caught between the extremes of war and a fragile peace. The UN peacekeeping operation, Mission de l'Organisation de Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo (MONUC) will, at the end of June 2010, officially make way for the new United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Two thousand members of the current MONUC deployment will be withdrawn from the DRC.
Nonetheless, MONUSCO will still have a significant deployment of 19,815 military personnel. This excludes police, civilian and other staff necessary to support UN activities in the DRC. The crucial policy shift heralded by inception of the MONUSCO mission includes more emphasis on the stabilisation of the DRC's institutional and territorial space. This is important in a context where ungovernable spaces calls for urgent interventions to prevent unchecked human rights abuses, displacement of people, and the ravages of armed rebel groups that persist to control access to mineral resources.
Whether MONUSCO will have new answers to the challenge of governing the ungovernable spaces of the DRC remains to be seen. The critical challenge awaiting both the UN and DRC government's interventions in conflict areas remains the establishment of state authority and stability.
At fifty the DRC remains a work in progress. It is important to recognise the fact that a recent history of conflict and division of the country during the aftermath of the war to topple the Mobutu Sese Seko regime, created near incomprehensible lacunas in the internal system. The development of the DRC's institutional capacity to govern complex and vast territories remains a key challenge.
Written by: Petrus de Kock, Senior Researcher, Governance of Africa's Resources Programme