Sometimes Congo feels almost like a normal country, at least if you’re eating pizza, surfing the net and sipping mulled wine in the city, as I am right now. But then, just when you’ve had a few weeks to get complacent, some kind of Congolité craziness comes up, knees you in the stomach and puts in a few sly kicks as you’re writhing on the ground, for no reason other than to remind you that you’re working in one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional states in the world.
Individually people here as are bright and entrepreneurial as you could possibly hope to meet, collectively they (and all of us here) suffer greatly from the legacy of Mobutism and what the Congolese call Article 15 of the Constitution (the old Congolese constitution had 14 articles): “se debrouiller” which is difficult to translate exactly, but basically says “fend for yourself”. The complete breakdown of the state in the 70s and 80s in DRC, together with this state-sanctioned corruption led to a situation where the main function of the many state functionaries is to make money. This goes way beyond what would normally be considered corruption – this means teachers charging students, doctors charging patients…so far so like privatisation…but also judges selling judgements, prison guards selling the keys, soldiers and police selling their ‘protection’, and everyone else using whatever pieces of official-looking paper they can find to levy taxes so ridiculous even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have dared to pull them out of her handbag.
It’s easy to say it’s corruption, but this is the rule not the exception, thoroughly embedded into all facets of how things work at every level. How do you tell a teacher or a doctor they shouldn’t charge people when they receive nothing, or next to nothing, from the state? Official salaries for a teacher, when they arrive, are something like $20 per month, though they are in the process of being increased to something more like $70, it is still far from what would allow the idea of corruption to be taken seriously.
Two recent events reminded me of this recently. One was that the Congolese government recently purchased around a dozen new boats to take passengers across lake Kivu, between the major commercial capitals of Goma and Bukavu. But there are already a dozen or so private operators that run that route, so the government decided to massively increase the taxes on private operators, so as to allow the government to undercut them. So the private operators went on strike, the government boats were not yet functional, and so everything ground to a halt for a week or so. I guess what makes this a Congo special is that few people here would trust a government boat to get from one side of the lake to the other without breaking down, running out of fuel, or worse. Even the private operators run out of fuel on the lake on a fairly regular basis (despite making exactly the same trip every day); the concept of a government authority running anything that requires them to do more than apply their special stamp to a piece of paper and pocket their fee (something that the visa authority in Kinshasa takes an average of 2 months to do) is laughable.
The second ‘facteur declencheur’ of this rant was the arrival of two charming representatives of one of the many different local courts of somewhat unclear jurisdiction in our office this morning. They had come to seize assets pre-emptively over a debt that we do not actually owe, that other courts have already agreed was an entirely frivolous claim, but in the true style of the way things are done here, our litigant waited until the president of one of the courts was away, induced the interim to sign a document authorising seizure, and voila we have people at our gates seizing vehicles – pre-emptively, as they explained, just in case we were to lose a lawsuit that is not even in process. When we followed up with our lawyer, the president of the court agreed that he had not signed the order, his interim should not have signed the order, but unfortunately there was nothing that could be done about it until next week. So we have spent the week with two of our vehicles non-operational and me going through one of my semi-regular questionings as to why I bother.
These may seem relatively minor, but it’s only a small slice of what we deal with. Recent highlights that my colleagues and other NGOs have dealt with in the last few months alone have been:
- Claims of several hundred thousand dollars in back taxes for payroll taxes that NGOs did not pay to the Congolese state for operations in the East of Congo between 1997 and 2003 – when the Congolese state did not actually control this territory, and NGOs had to pay taxes to the groups who controlled the area.
- Claims that we should pay the Congolese state $150 for every water point that we construct.
- A tax of 1% of the value of all NGO projects for ‘monitoring’ by the government.
- A pollution tax for using generators (when there is a few hours of state electricity a day in the big cities only).
- An obligatory paid ‘refresher training’ for NGO drivers (maybe this is more funny for residents who see how non-NGO drivers drive around here).
And my personal favourite:
- $36 000 for unsafe disposal of 10 cans of beans that were emptied on a tip one month past their expiry date, apparently because the kids who scavenge on the tip might have eaten them. Typically after several hours of negotiation this was generously reduced to $100 and then finally, as with all the others, dropped entirely.
While this little rant has been caused by the problems I and my organisation have in trying to get things done in DRC. But I’m totally aware of the relatively privileged position I and my international organisation are in. We are quite capable of defending ourselves and generally can keep escalating things through the legal/administrative systems until we get to someone who is too far up the chain to be bought off over these types of petty claims. This kind of thing is a massive waste of time and energy that could be put to much much better use. And it’s not that NGOs don’t want to pay tax – NGOs are sadly far and away the biggest contributors to the state coffers, possibly excepting the mobile phone companies. Nor that the state should not exist: East DRC is a considerably less risky place to live in than Mogadishu.
But for people less connected and particularly the much put-upon private sector, this kind of dysfunctionality is a complete disaster. Talk to any business owner in the area about what their main problems are, and every single one can recite a litany of bureaucratic predation. I’d put it a close second to the continued armed conflict as to the biggest hindrances on economic development in this area. So if ever there was a place where a Tea Party-style small government agenda has its place, this is surely it. Sarah Palin, are you listening? Come to DRC! They like guns here too!