Scarcities and plunders: some economic thoughts from Bukavu

(June 28, 2009) BUKAVU, DRC – Like everything else, reading material is scarce and expensive here. There isn’t a daily newspaper in Bukavu, and after visiting several libraries and bookstores in different parts of the city, I didn’t see one even from another region. The media that people rely on seems to be the radio, but I’ve met a few radio journalists and they have the same scarcities, which makes it very difficult for them to cover issues and stories (not to mention the fact that journalists who cover controversial topics get assassinated every so often – more on that later).

I’ve picked up what I can. I went to the “SIMS” bookstore downtown (it’s next to a paved road and across from a school, and hence quite luxurious) and got a little book by an ex-kadogo (child soldier) named Josue Mufula Jive whose little memoir talks about his joining up at 11 years old to help overthrow Mobutu in 1996-7, his fighting against the 1998 Rwandan/Ugandan invasion, and then his desire to go to school (which landed him in jail a couple of times before he was able to fulfill his ambitions – in 2003 when the book was published he was a university student leader, not sure where he is now). At the cybercafe I’ve been using I picked up a May 24-30 edition of “Jeune Afrique”, which is sort of like the Economist for Africa, because it had Joseph Kabila on the cover. The cover story by Marianne Meunier mostly uses anonymous sources from the governing party and the opposition to describe DRC President Joseph Kabila’s leadership style (he’s secretive, not flashy like Laurent Kabila or Mobutu).

Old-school journalists mock bloggers because all they do is sit at home with their high-speed internet connections (and, might I add, their 24-hour electricity) and comment on stories that real journalists had to go out, incur expenses, pound the pavement (or the dirt road, which pounds you back) spend hours interviewing people to get nuggets of information and figure out how to put them together into some kind of coherent story. I think that a radio journalist trying to work here would have the greatest right of all to look at a blogger with disdain.

Another book I peeked at in a library is a history (by appearances from the 1930s) of “Congo Belge”, which is what the Congo was called after it ceased to be the personal property of King Leopold and became an outright Belgian colony. It’s horrifying stuff and the appendices include a table of all the material that was being extracted and exported from the Belgian Congo (I took a photo of it). The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite being a “geological scandal” that has almost every mineral imaginable. For some reason though in this world natural resource wealth seems to serve mainly to make other people rich, and this seems especially so in the DRC. It’s been well documented, from the Belgians (see Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”) to the present studies of Congo’s neighbours and multinationals. Filip Reyntjens is the lead researcher of a group in Antwerp that studies this region, and in one of their books they analyze the DRC conflicts as a form of “plunder”. A 2002 UN report documents recent plunders as well. Current controversy here has to do with recent contracts the DRC has signed with China, to the tune of $10 billion or so, and the details are mostly secret.

According to the Meunier article in Jeune Afrique, the Joseph Kabila government’s 5 economic priorities are as follows: Reconstruct the transportation infrastructure, render the health and education systems accessible, decent housing for those without it, water and electricity distribution, and jobs.

A sensible-sounding basic list, but without the means to do it. I think agricultural support should be in there, though, since most people make their living that way and are going to for the forseeable future. Mining operations are environmentally destructive but if the people of the country could get a good share of the revenues they could provide a source of capital for investments of various kinds.

Still, the biggest mining operations won’t provide jobs for tens of millions of people: for now, that’s agriculture, and finding ways to make life rich, healthy, and connected for rural people is a global economic problem so important it’s amazing so few people are working on it (Cuba is one of the few).

As to the electricity problem, I have heard that hydro power (which is the main source here, other than expensive petrol in individual generators, a feature of most places with sporadic electricity whose energy efficiency I bet is very low) in the area of Bukavu produces 16 MW, but only 4MW goes to Bukavu – the rest goes to Rwanda, Burundi, and other parts.

The main economic figure that jumped out at me, though, was the DRC’s external debt, which Meunier describes as “colossal”, at… wait for it… $10 billion. I know that many people have talked about Africa’s debt burden, but the idea that $10 billion is “colossal” is preposterous. Recent estimates are that the bank bailouts will end up costing $4 trillion and Stiglitz estimated the US’s Iraq war as costing $3 trillion. So, if one third or one fourth of a percent of these figures is “colossal”, what kind of adjectives do we use to describe these? I know that if the DRC’s debts were wiped off the books, its economic problems wouldn’t disappear. But the debts don’t help, and neither does losing our sense of scale when we think about them (that is, they’re not “colossal”, except in terms of the damage they do).

The first step would probably be to stop the plunder, and revert to some old crazy idea like the people should receive the benefits of their labour and of whatever is taken out of their lands. Sounds trivial, but if it actually happened it would be a revolution.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer, currently in Bukavu.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.