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Reinventing Order in the Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa

Reinventing Order in the Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa

by Theodore Trefon (Editor)

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The populations of many Third World mega-cities have far outstripped any apparent economic basis for their size and survival. In this volume Congolese and Western social scientists cover most aspects of urban life in Kinshasa--how ordinary people hustle for a modest living; the famous "bargaining" system ordinary Kinois have developed; and how they access food,


The populations of many Third World mega-cities have far outstripped any apparent economic basis for their size and survival. In this volume Congolese and Western social scientists cover most aspects of urban life in Kinshasa--how ordinary people hustle for a modest living; the famous "bargaining" system ordinary Kinois have developed; and how they access food, water supplies, health and education. The NGOization of service provision is analyzed, as is the quite rare incidence of urban riots. Equally interesting are the studies of popular discourses (including street rumor, witchcraft, and attitudes to big men, like musicians and preachers). The studies are full of the most startling facts and the wonderfully evocative phrases coined by ordinary Kinois as they confront the huge obstacle course that is urban life. Concrete, readable, intensely interesting, and always illuminating, this book is a model of how to do urban sociology in the developing world today.

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Reinventing Order in the Congo

How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa

By Theodore Trefon

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2004 Theodore Trefon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-112-5


Introduction: Reinventing Order

Theodore Trefon

Kinois and the state

Kinshasa is often portrayed as a forsaken black hole characterized by calamity, chaos, confusion, and a bizarre form of social cannibalism where society is its own prey. The ostensible sense of anarchy is based on daily hardship and sacrifice. The capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has practically no formal economy and an ecologically devastated hinterland. The remnants of its administration provide little in terms of social services or infrastructure. Atrociously victimized, the population refers to basic public services as 'memories'. People are poor, sick, hungry, unschooled, underinformed and disillusioned by decades of political oppression, economic crisis and war. The toll of marginalization, exclusion and social stratification has been heavy. Outbreaks of violence have reached frightening proportions.

This 'heart of darkness' mode of representation, nonetheless, needs some serious critical scrutiny, which is one of the primary objectives of this book. Despite outrageous problems, Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) is also a fascinating and fantastic social space. It is a city of nightlife, music, fashion and free women (ndumba). It is a vast stage (une ville-spectacle) characterized by hedonism, narcissism, celebration and myth building (Yoka 1999: 15–23). It is a city of paradox, contrast and contradiction where new and remarkable patterns of stability, organization and quest for well-being have emerged.

These patterns have arisen in spite of, and due to, deep-rooted and multiform crisis. Function and dysfunction intersect and overlap. There is order in the disorder. This applies to all social and political levels, ranging from neighbourhood, professional or ethnic associations and networks to the level where political decisions are made. It pertains to simple prosaic activities such as securing a seat in a collective taxi, and to complex multi-actor priorities, like water purification and distribution, or vaccination campaigns.

Kinois, which is what the people of Kinshasa call themselves, are reinventing order. The concept refers to the dynamic new forms of social organization that are constantly taking shape to compensate for the overwhelming failures of the post-colonial nation-state. It is a rapidly shifting process that enables people simply to carry on with life and get things done. It entails juxtaposing opportunities and interests, capitalizing on old alliances and creating new networks. It means multiplying possibilities in the hope of achieving a result. Reinventing order is also a hybrid phenomenon because it is based on the combination of global and local approaches and on the intermingling of traditional cultural systems and practices with new forms and perceptions of modernity. The order that is being reinvented by Kinois is a people's initiative having nothing to do with Weberian political order with its functioning bureaucracy, democratically elected representatives, tax collectors, law enforcement agents and impartial judicial system.

The process of reinventing of order by Kinois became particularly apparent in the early 1990s. It goes well beyond the débrouille (survival) economy that took form in the mid-1980s in response to the multiform crisis then emerging. The political and economic context of Congo in general and Kinshasa in particular has changed dramatically over the past decade, resulting in a dynamic reconfiguration of social norms. Although the reinvention of order is the common denominator that runs through the different chapters of this book, the process has been far from being harmonious or uniform. It has been characterized by tension, conflict, violence and betrayal, as much as by innovative forms of solidarity, networks, commercial accommodation and interdependencies. These contradictory forces have resulted in the change that we are now witnessing in Kinshasa, changes that are tracked in the following chapters.

The reinvention of order has specific resonance in Kinshasa, but it also provides a window through which dynamics in other urban centres in the Congo (such as Lubumbashi or Kisangani) and other African cities can be understood. Although the book analyses the rapidly changing patterns of social and political reorganization in Kinshasa, it is assumed that as other African cities become increasingly ungoverned and ungovernable, the Kinshasa situation can help us understand urban dynamics elsewhere in Africa. Urban populations all over the continent design mechanisms to adapt to political and economic constraints. The situation in Kinshasa, however, is exceptional because of the degree and longevity of crisis.

In sardonic self-mockery, Kinois bemoan, 'When you are rock bottom, you can still dig deeper.' The Kinshasa situation is also exceptional because of the legendary cleverness and inventiveness of peoples' practices and mental constructions. Although these systems contribute to very basic survival at the individual and family levels, they cannot contribute to broader sustainable economic and political development of the type elaborated and advocated by Western development theorists. Many attitudes and behaviours omnipresent in Kinshasa go beyond Western logic, which helps explain the perpetuation of misguided 'heart of darkness' clichés.

Crisis in post-Mobutu Congo and its implications for the residents of Kinshasa are intimately linked to the failure of the post-colonial nation-state system that was hastily fabricated by Belgian interest groups. This failure, in turn, is best understood by looking at the broader failure of the nation-state model throughout Africa. The model is challenged from above (generally poor leadership), below (disconnected from peoples' expectations) and outside (Cold War policies and new wars) (Migdal 1988; Zartman 1995; Young 1999). Nonetheless, the interplay between order and disorder and the institutionalized overlapping between function and dysfunction (Chabal and Daloz 1999) prove the urgency to redefine the dominant political-science view whereby African states are collapsed, corrupt, criminal, weak, failed, patrimonial or predatory (Dunn 2001).

As in other typically failed states such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia, the complexities of statehood in the Congo are legendary. This immense country, however, has not imploded along the lines of these other countries. The state remains omnipresent on the social, economic and political landscape. Bayart's argument that non-state actors penetrate the state is clearly pertinent to Congo because there are no neat demarcations between state and society (1992). State (and state-like) actors continue to dominate social relations and influence how strategies on the ground are elaborated and implemented. As highlighted by René Lemarchand, state 'failure is a relative concept' (2001: 16). State agents and agencies play important roles in the NGOization of the country (Giovannoni, Trefon, Kasongo and Mwema, Chapter 7), in relations with bilateral and international donors and in the informalization of the economic sector. This view of the Congo–Zaire state reveals how rapidly the state–society cleavage during the apex of Mobutu's reign has evolved (Callaghy 1984).

Sacrifice is omnipresent in contemporary Kinshasa. The term here pertains to the hard reality of doing without. People do without food, they do without fuelwood, they do without primary health services and they do without safe drinking water. They also do without political participation, security, leisure or the ability to organize their time as they would like. Parents are not only forced to decide which children will be able to go to school in a given year, they also have to decide who shall eat one day and who shall eat the next. In Lingala, the noun used to express sacrifice, tokokufa, literally means 'we are dying'.

Caring for the sick and burying the dead are a major challenge in Kinshasa (Grootaers 1998a). Average life expectancy for Congolese in general is under 50. When we look at economic and social indicators, Kinshasa should be a vast dying ground. 'Its inhabitants', writes De Boeck, 'are more dead than alive' (2001a: 63). People who have not died of AIDS should be dead from starvation. Those who have not died of hunger should be dead from either waterrelated diseases or exhaustion because, instead of taking a bus or taxi, people walk to wherever they have to go. The vast majority of households in Kinshasa have less than $50 per month, which is barely enough to cover the food bill. Many families have less. In the early 1990s, opposition groups chose the strategy of journée ville morte (dead city days) to fight Mobutu (de Villers and Omasombo, Chapter 9). The objective of ville morte is to bring a city to a halt by asking people simply to stay home. The symbolism of ville morte is appropriate because the concept of death describes the spirit of the city's inhabitants. There are also the countless political dead. Mobutu dispatched hiboux (executioners, literally 'owls') to commit nocturnal executions of political opponents.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West unconditionally backed Mobutu. His regime was characterized by violence, nepotism, personality cult, human rights abuses and the absence of freedom of expression. By the early 1990s, however, Mobutu had outlived his political usefulness to the West. The erstwhile trusted ally had become a political liability and embarrassment (Wrong 2000). In April 1990 he announced a period of democratic transition and the end of his Second Republic (1965–90) but continued to control the political landscape until the mid-1990s. Eventually, however, his regime's patrimonial and predatory networks reached their limits. Its self-destructive system consumed itself, leaving only remnants of a state. This situation was exacerbated by the failing health of the dictator due to the prostate cancer that ended his life shortly after Laurent Désiré Kabila's capture of power in May 1997.

The transition from authoritarian rule and the multiple implications of conflict has been a period of intense social stress. Although one would think that social institutions fall apart in this context, in Kinshasa they appear to be diversifying and even strengthening. This has taken place through the development of civil society institutions, shifts in class and gender formations, and the evolving roles of ethnicity and solidarity. Paradoxically, thirty-two years of dictatorship and crisis, and subsequently an unfinished transition period dominated by war, pillage and rebellion, has helped the Kinois invent new political, economic, cultural and social realities. While much of this volume focuses on people-based responses to political constraints, examples of Congo's relations with the international community are also addressed. The data and analysis presented in all chapters pertain to the post-1990 transition period, although the chapters by de Villers and Omasombo (Chapter 9) and Persyn and Ladrière (Chapter 5) both address historical issues.

Research space

Kinshasa has been studied from numerous angles. Its spatial organization, expansion and infrastructure were painstakingly documented by two French geographers/urbanists in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Pain 1984; de Maximy 1984). Bruneau (1995) has analysed the city's demographic trends; work followed up by Congolese researchers at the University of Kinshasa's demography department (DDK 1998). Janet MacGaffey influenced a generation of scholars through her reinterpretation of the popular economy, emphasizing the 'fending for yourself' phenomenon (1986, 1991a, 1997; MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga 2000). De Herdt and Marysse (1996, 1999) and De Herdt (Chapter 8 in this volume), continuing the household surveys initiated by Houyoux in the 1970s (1973), have also carried out very useful surveys in Kinshasa on individual and family-level survival strategies. Shapiro and Tollens (1992), Goossens et al. (1994), Mukadi and Tollens (2001) and Tollens (Chapter 4 in this volume) have monitored the pressing issue of food security.

Since 1961, the monthly journal published in Kinshasa Congo–Afrique, thanks largely to the commitment of Jesuit father Léon de Saint Moulin, has documented a wide range of social, economic, political, cultural and administrative issues for all of Congo: Kinshasa is regularly the focus of contributions. Belgium's Institut Africain (formerly CEDAF) has also produced an impressive collection of volumes on Congo in which Kinois issues of popular economy, religion, culture, media and transportation are remarkably well documented. Included in this series is probably the sharpest commentary on contemporary Kinshasa sociology, produced by Yoka (1995, 1999). Yoka's narratives offer a real Kinois' view of people's attitudes and practices in response to crisis and their perceptions of what it means to be Kinois. This question of identity has also been addressed in a meticulous historical volume by Didier Gondola (1997a), who mirrors life in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo on the opposite bank of the emblematic Congo river.

Editing a multidisciplinary book on a single African city presents serious methodological challenges. Few anthropologists working in Africa have responded to Ulf Hannerz's plea 'to seek further illumination in the political economy of urbanism' (1980: 79), probably because the Kinshasa population is too diverse to be studied using social anthropological methods and because fieldwork conditions were difficult in the 1980s and 1990s. Economists are confronted by conceptual and methodological difficulties of studying an economy that is essentially informal. Most political scientists study the postcolonial state by looking at large geographical spaces or political entities, ranging from the African continent as a whole to geographical regions (such as West Africa or Southern Africa), and sometimes linguistic spaces (such as French-speaking or Lusophone Africa) or individual countries. In the case of Kinshasa, however, attempting to understand political dynamics and social evolution by looking at a specific urban population is pertinent for three main reasons.

First, even though Mobutu was fond of repeating Kinshasa n'est pas le Zaïre (Zaire is more than just Kinshasa) the evolution of the city is intimately linked to the political economy of the country as a whole. Revenues generated by the copper mines of Shaba and the diamond fields of Kasai were controlled by a Kinshasa-based political elite. The capital's predominance in terms of infrastructure, administration, employment, investment, services and image is overwhelming. Zairian identity was largely an urban phenomenon dominated by Kinshasa's image. Mobutu made some attempts to transfer the seat of power from Kinshasa to Gbadolite, his native mini-Versailles in the jungle, but was unsuccessful. The political will of the dictator was unable to match the uncontrollable dynamics of the mega-city's expansion. Kabila's 1997 march into Kinshasa and more recent jockeying for power in the framework of the Lusaka Peace Agreement also proves that the role of head of state is associated with Kinshasa, an association reinforced by international law.

Second, like Jeffery Herbst (2000) or Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan (1997), we can consider that the degree of political control in Africa decreases in relation to the distance from the capital city. Land tenure practices in the Kinshasa hinterland support this hypothesis because traditional authority is just as important to local populations as modern law with respect to access, usufruct and ownership of real estate. In the Zaire of Mobutu, huge parts of the country were beyond the effective reach of any form of state authority, a situation exacerbated today due to war and rebellion. This reality is encapsulated in the title of Roland Pourtier's (1997) article 'Du Zaïre au Congo: un territoire en quête d'état' ('From Zaire to Congo: a territory in search of a state'). The state and, of course, foreign forces manifest themselves primarily in areas where rent-generating activities are possible.

A third factor is simply a demographic one. At least one in ten Congolese live in Kinshasa. With its approximately 6–7 million inhabitants, it is the second largest city in sub-Saharan Africa (after Lagos). It is also the second largest French-speaking city in the world, according to Paris (even though only a small percentage of Kinois speak French correctly). It is more populous than half of all African countries, a contrast admittedly exaggerated by the large number of very small African island countries (United Nations 2001).


Excerpted from Reinventing Order in the Congo by Theodore Trefon. Copyright © 2004 Theodore Trefon. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Theodore Trefon is a senior researcher at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa and a lecturer in environmental governance at ERAIFT/University of Kinshasa. He has published a number of articles and books in French and English, including Congo Masquerade and Reinventing Order in the Congo.

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