68 Million Congolese Can’t Be Wrong

It is nationalism that keeps one of the world's most complicated countries all in one piece.

Michael Kavanagh for FP
Michael Kavanagh for FP

Trudging through the muddy, crammed alleyways of Katindo military base in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would enlist in the national Army. Inside a tattered tent that functions as a hospital, two dozen soldiers lie huddled in fetal positions or sprawled on their stomachs, wounds seeping onto thin mattresses stretched over weeds and the churned black mud of a lava field. Some stagger about on crutches. The camp’s squalor outstrips even the feeble standards of the country’s slapdash metropolises or the U.N.-administered tent cities for more than a million displaced civilians.

From hundreds of miles across Congo’s vast expanse, soldiers have come here, to North Kivu province, to fight in a conflict that has ebbed and flowed for more than a decade. Paid erratically and forced to hobble or hitchhike their way to the war’s front, they could easily abandon their posts. But Rosette Bilonda, the wife of one soldier, doesn’t see it that way. It’s our country. That’s why we came here. That’s why we’re fighting — for our country.

Love of country? What country? To some theorists, the Democratic Republic of the Congo doesn’t actually exist, an inconvenient fact that renders the willingness to die for Congo a touch surreal. The only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists, Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills argued on last month.

But tell that to the 68 million Congolese who live in the heart of Africa, and they’ll be perplexed. No matter how dysfunctional or failed, Congo exists because the Congolese exist. A shared history of collective suffering, a fear of foreign influence, and a staunchly embedded nationalism have forged a Congolese identity that is real, if messy. On the ground, the country and its people exist, and there’s no doing away with either.

Viewed from faraway capitals, Congo might as well be a giant inkblot on the world map, spilling across Africa’s immense center, arbitrarily collecting in its midst a vast array of mineral deposits, more than 200 ethnic groups, a cacophony of languages, and a vast rain forest second in size only to the Amazon. It was just such a random assortment that King Leopold II of Belgium claimed as his own one-and-a-quarter centuries ago — using little more than a quill pen on a map. As Herbst and Mills rightly argue, today the country’s population is spread thinly across the territory, living on just 10 percent of Congo’s soil. The rest is largely jungle, making efficient, functional law enforcement, and even basic infrastructure, a pipe dream.

As in Leopold’s time, Congo remains an attractive playground for foreign and homegrown looters — whether from the dregs of armed rebel factions kicked out of Rwanda or Uganda, other neighboring countries, or mineral-hungry multinationals. The pillagers hide in the country’s failure. Congo’s people, meanwhile, are plagued by a seemingly interminable war in the east and sporadic small bursts of secessionist violence in other provinces that are brutally put down by a badly disciplined army.

And yet, in five weeks of travel across the country, I never encountered a single person — whether lawyer, businessman, tin ore miner, displaced villager, vagabond, evangelical pastor, or local militiaman — who questioned his or her sense of being Congolese.

True, Congolese is a slippery term and sometimes fraught with contradictions. But then, so are all nationalities, particularly the polyethnic, multilingual kind created on a whim by a foreign king for his private enrichment. The country doesn’t exist because of its government’s monopoly of violence, but the Congolese nation lives in the abstract — it is an imagined political community, to borrow anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s formulation.

Congo, in short, exists because 68 million Congolese believe they belong to it.

And unlike the country’s borders, the idea of being Congolese was never imposed. To be Congolese is to share a complex memory of tragic historical events: the collective suffering of Leopold’s colonial rule, the deaths of 5 to 8 million who perished in that time, the brutal 32-year kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, and a fratricidal war triggered by his ouster that at one point drew in the armies of nine bordering countries.

Despite his otherwise terrible record, Mobutu, a leopard-hat-donning, magic-cane-wielding caricature of the African Strong Man, is often credited with deepening Congolese nationhood. As part of his Authenticit campaign, he threw out foreigners, thrust a new, African name on the country (Zaire), and forced every citizen to perform works occasionally on behalf of the country. It wasn’t democratic, but it was Congolese.

There is a pride also in the country’s natural riches — from gold to gorillas to soil so fertile that one need only toss a seed on the ground for it to sprout. And any connoisseur of African music can quickly name the country from which the strongest tradition derives: Congo, where voluptuous soukous rhythms spawned imitators around the world. I heard that beat pulsing by short-wave radio like a national heartbeat across displacement camps, the slums of downtown Kinshasa, the capital’s finest hotels, and the far-flung depths of the jungle.

Congolese identity is not weaker for its transience between a plethora of tribes, languages, and regions; it is this adaptability that has allowed the idea of Congo to transcend the vacillations and inadequacies of a procession of poor governments. We are a young democracy, a country searching for its roots, said Jason Luneno, president of the civil society association of North Kivu province. Although the current regime of Joseph Kabila inspires little confidence, the nation he rules has not lost its faithful.

Even the chaos that seems to disprove Congo’s existence is in many ways evidence of its reality. The country has scarcely existed free of foreign influence, and many of those embroiled in conflict are fighting to rid it of what they view as outside interference. Most recently, rebel Gen. Laurent Nkunda waged his war in the name of protecting Congolese Tutsis against a Rwandan import — a Hutu militia whose leaders masterminded the genocide of 1994. Nkunda manipulated ethnic sentiment for largely political ends, but many members of his force weren’t even Tutsi — they were merely Congolese attracted to Nkunda’s credibly armed promise to fend off the Rwandan fighters. The half-dozen smaller militias scattered across North Kivu, called Mai Mai for the water amulets they once wore to ward off bullets, also justify their existence as a defense from foreign (particularly Rwandan) incursion.

Congo hasn’t given up on itself, and neither should the rest of the world. Take Victor Ngonzoyo, a part-Congolese Tutsi, part-Russian business tycoon, once profiled by a U.S. journalist as Congo’s next Rockefeller. He spent 30 years building an empire of coffee and bean plantations, mining businesses, and luxury hotels dotted across the country’s main hubs. Those fortunes have slowly crumbled over the past 15 years due to government seizures and land disputes. Rebels and renegade military officers have overrun his plantations.

And yet, when I asked him why he doesn’t uproot his remaining business operations and set up shop in the far more economically efficient Rwanda, he looked at me with a gentle, sad smile. Then he offered simply, I’m Congolese. How could I leave?

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