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As DR Congo decentralises, who will speak for minorities?

November 09, 2021
tags:#Africa, #rule of law, #colonialism, #ethnic minorities
located:Democratic Republic of the Congo
by:Frank Odenthal
The DR Congo rearranged its provinces, increasing their number from 11 to 26. The goal of improving the representation of its inhabitants was not achieved, however.

African regimes commonly use strategies of balanced ethnic representation to build support. However, decentralisation reforms, often promoted in order to improve political representation and state access, can undermine such strategies. 

Pierre Englebert from Pomona College in California, along with other scientists, published his research on the DR Congo's decentralisation reform and how it fosters ethnic exclusion. FairPlanet has met with him online for an in-depth interview.

FairPlanet: What are the benefits of decentralisation in the African context?

Pierre Englebert: The decentralisation agenda in Africa is fairly widespread. It‘s pushed across many parts of the continent more or less since the 1990s. There was a parallel push for democratisation. African countries had an unfortunate experience with excessive centralisation and in fact personalisation of power until the 1990s. They had personal rulers grabbing resources, like the mining institutions in the case of DR Congo.

And so, to avoid falling back into this default type of regime, reformists, whether they were Africans or part of the donor comunity, thought that pushing for decentralisation would further help democratisation by removing some authority from the state itself or at least limiting this authority to smaller units of statehood across the territory to allow for the participation of more regional politicians and elites, and to reduce the leverage, the control that those in charge of the central state could have.

What that a positive move in your opinion?

There is some logic to that. Because the post-colonial state in Africa remains a state that is very disconnected from society, and that tends to get used fairly well to appropriation by those who are in state power.

And to grow deeper roots at the local level, there is some intuitive benefit to that thinking: that the state might be better appropriated by certain comunities that might be otherwise not very well represented. It‘s been pushed back and it‘s been adopted by a lot of African actors themselves. Although I would suggest that in most cases, the original push was mostly from western donors. The idea was to avoid falling back into an autocratic regime.

These reforms were often taking place with a lot of constitution drafting at the local level. But, for example, if you look at Congo, the constitution of 2005 is of course the result of a two-year process among the Congolese. But it was based on advice and models proposed by Belgian academics, and by the support of Belgian development aid.

Would you say that the success of decentralisation depends on the functionality of the state at the national level?

It‘s a bit of an empirical question. I don‘t know if we have enough validation to be able to ascertain that.

On the one hand, you imagine that if the state is disfuncional to begin with, decentralising it might just multiply the dysfunctions. But, on the other hand, you can think that the centralisation may be part of what makes it disfuncional. And by decentralising, you may be able to create a more effective state. So there are two ways to think about it.

In my experience, there are very few cases of successful decentralisation in Africa, where you would have real authority, devolution of resources, of political representation, of administrative power. Maybe Kenya is an exception. Kenya has been doing okay, and there the different counties have significant policy autonomy in some resources.

But in most places that I‘ve studied - though I don‘t really know all the countries in that respect - you have two problems: You have seen that there is no resource transfer. African states typically, even when the law, the constitution says you must transfer a certain amount to the decentralised units, the reality is always well short of that; both because the resources aren‘t there really in the national budget and because national elites are not interested in actually transfering resources.

Then, most of the time, the law allows decentralised units to raise their own taxes and to find fundraising activities, but those are really minor amounts. And when you look at provinces or municipalities in African countries, they have the right to tax market stores, or maybe cars, or small things like that, like the making of charcoal, we‘re talking about pennies here. This is not the kind of stuff that one could really finance significant state institutions with. You need electricity, you need cars and motorbikes, you need some buildings, you need some paper, you need printers, you need Wi-Fi, you need pens and pencils, and people with a certain amount of training and salaries. So, in the end they‘re always shot of cash, which makes them very unlikely to be able to deliver their duties. That‘s one dimension.

decentralisation could lead to a more effective state

The other dimension is that, in general, the amount of devolution at the local level, even when you have local elections - which is not always the case, the local elites stand to remain in a centralised frame of mind, and they think of themselves more often as local representatives of the state rather than as representatives of the local communities towards the state.

So, for example, I was in southern Mali a few years ago, and I interviewed people in communes, the local municipalities, and the mayor and the city council, and the commune included about fifteen villages. Then I went to some villages, and the village people, the councils that I met, they said: you know what, we never see them, they only come here to collect taxes, and for elections, and they do not respond to our needs.

Do you think decentralisation could be a means to fight corruption?

It could, if it comes with transparency, if it increases transparency, if it increases accountability, yes, and you could imagine that by making it more local, people may have easier access to deliberation of the local assembly, they may be able to understand what their budget of their commune is, etc.

I haven‘t seen that really happening. In the country that I studied the most, in DR Congo, it has certainly multiplied opportunities of corruption. There is no oversight, there is no clear expectation of transparency. If transparency takes place at the national level, that should also have the same effects, so I‘m not sure that by itself that would really have an effect in theory.

What does it look like exactly when the level of corruption multiplies due to decentralisation?

In DR Congo, they went from a centralised state of eleven provinces to a state with 26 provinces. Each province has a governor, a cabinet and a provincial assembly. And then they have what they call "decentralised territorial entities" which are like municipalities. There are about 600 of them. Those have not yet had their own elections, although constitutionally they should.

So it‘s been since 2006 that they haven‘t had them. The way the system is set up, people should directly elect their provincial assembly representatives. And they‘re very small, they go from like 18 to 30-something members, so they‘re fairly small assemblies. These representatives then elect the governor. And when these representatives then go to their governor, he says: 'Okay, what have you got for me?' So the governor does not redistribute patronage. Consequently, they give him a "no confidence" within a few months.

So you have these provincial governors falling and getting no-confidence votes on a regular basis. The reality is that the governor is torn between the resources that he controls and the expectations of local assembly representatives to get a share of the patronage for redistribution.

"You don‘t become a governor in a province if you don‘t have the endorsement from the big bosses in Kinshasa"

On top of that, you don‘t become a governor in a province if you don‘t have the endorsement from the big bosses in Kinshasa, in the capital. Even when the place is decentralised, you can‘t really run for governor at the local level without the blessing of Kinshasa.

That means that once you‘ve been elected, they expect some redistribution. If your province has access to national resources, you will be expected to what the Congolese call 'reportage', to send back money up to 'do reports' to the authorities.

So policy and accountability and transparency are the victims of that. And corruption - what you and I would call corruption, but you can also think of it as a patronage politics that maintain a certain degree of stability in the system - that is definitely magnified by these reforms. The reform in DR Congo really backfired in contrast to the expectations of the constitutional drafters.

By Congolese law, 40 percent of national revenue has to be transfered to the provinces. But the government in fact transfers less than 10 percent. So as a governor, you have to beg to get some transfers. You won‘t be successful if you‘re not in the same party or if you‘re not declaring your support to the president.

So what had happened a few years ago, there was a change of the presidency, Kabila was succeeded by Tshisekedi, and for a while Tshisekedi did not have effective power. Then a year ago there was a real switch, and Tshisekedi certainly was able to control the national assembly and really got a government that consisted of members of his own party.

Almost overnight, all the governors in the provincial cabinets switch allegiance and declared their allegiance to Tshisekedi. And that of course goes completely against the notion of decentralisation, whereby they would be locally elected and represent local interest.

Now, they cannot function unless they are at the good grace of the central government. 

Have the recent decentralisation efforts in DR Congo been driven by donor countries, too?

It‘s a mixed motive. The donors were definitely pushing forward. Quite a few African elites eventually supported it, but it‘s not clear whether they were bowing to the aid donors, or how much of that was internally driven. Many donors, for example the British Dfid, have been very pro-decentralisation; USAid in the US. The World Bank works less on these things, but as part of the good governance agenda they‘ve certainly been in favour of decentralisation, too.

In DR Congo you had this two year peroid, it was a transition from the post-conflict era to the new constitution, and there was a constitutional assembly. And with respect to decentralisation there was a big debate. Some people were in favour of federalism, and others of a decentralised state, and in the end they decided what they call a "highly decentralised unitary state," which is a typical Congolese formula [...] It‘s a typical Belgian formula, when you think about it.

The Belgians were definitely influencial there. The University of Liege actually had a political science and law department that provided most of the experts who helped to draft the constitution.

But the Congolese were divided. In the end they settled on that, because they were afraid that if they went for full federalism, that would lead to secessionism, because they have a history of secession, in Katanga, and part of Kasaï.

a mismatch of political culture

In your recent research on decentralisation in DR Congo, you pointed out that the autochthonous status of the people is crucial. Could you explain why?

What we found out is that there‘s a rule in Congolese politics, it‘s actually a constitutional rule, that any kind of government, national or local, must be representative of the underlying comunities.

On the national level, it‘s understood that it means that every region or every big ethnic group must have some sort of representative in government. So you have a very big government, like 60 ministers or more, and that‘s partly because you have play this balancing game.

Many countries do this either legally or informally to make sure that everybody has a seat at the table, or to have access to some of the state‘s resources to build legitimacy.

If you translate that rule to a national level, the question is: who is a member of Congo? There are some groups, like the Tutsi of eastern Congo, that people question whether they are really Congolese, so they tend to be under-represented. But normally it‘s not controversial at the national level.

If you go to the provincial level, then the question becomes: what ethnics groups can be represented in the provincial governments? And the governments are limited - by law you only have ten ministers.

Can you give an example of that?

If you look at a province like Katanga, a big mining province - a lot of people have migrated into Katanga over the years, and have lived there for their whole life, and their children were born there, but they‘re not from the ethnic groups that are historically autochthonous the Katanga. So now, with decentralisation, people say, 'Ah, you‘re from Kasaï, so you have to go to Kasaï to get representation. A Kasaï can not be elected here' even though Kasaï is about fifteen percent of the population in the province.

So what‘s happening is that de facto you have an under-representation of groups that are deemed to be non-originaire, non-autochthonous of a province, which is a very ambigious concept.

The Belgians came up with this notion of who‘s autochthonous to where. It‘s not something that‘s purely objective, that you can say, well, you‘re from here and you‘re from there. You can trace your anchestry to an ethnic group that will have more or less a geographical focus, but it‘s not like this group is set at clearly defined boundaries. It‘s a mismatch of political culture. It allows you to exclude others from the benefits of locally decentralised statehood, which is signifcant in terms of access to jobs, to resources, to scholarships, to any kind of policy benefit.

Decentralisation, which was meant to increase the local representation, ends up squeezing more people out of effective representation, because they don‘t live in a province where they‘re autochthonous.

We calculated that increase in numbers of people who may be in that situation in Congo - there‘s something like 18 million people altogether, which is an increase of about four million from when there were fewer provinces. 

Decentralisation can become exclusionary at the local level. And you can end up having more ethnic mainstreaming among local representatives.

Is there a case where people who were underrepresented prior to decentralisation came to power after these reforms?

There are thirteen provinces out of twenty-six that have governors who come from the dominant ethnic group of that province. And in the other ones, there‘s usually no dominant group, or it‘s less dominant. So what you see is that when you have a dominant group in a smaller province, they tend to monopolise the state institutions: the governor, and all the ministerial institutions, they give it all to themselves.

So you end up having essentially homogenuous provinces in terms of administration. Sometimes almost in terms of population, but the administration reinforces the demographical trend. The governments of these provinces are even more ethnically homogenuous that the provinces themselves!

That can be worrisome, as it excludes some groups. It may, on the other hand, improve efficiency, as homogeneous political systems can design policies easier, so to say, because people share preferences.

In DR Congo, it‘s too soon to say, as we haven‘t seen an effect that the more homogeneous the province, the more successful. But it‘s probably too early to say.

Pierre Englebert is H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations at Pomona College in Los Angeles, CA. He is a Senior Fellow at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, and has spent more than 30 years studying African politics and development with a particular focus on Francophone West and Central Africa. He was born in Bruxelles, Belgium.

Image by Maibano Geabdaa.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Embed from Getty Images
In DR Congo, they went from a centralised state of eleven provinces to a state with 26 provinces.
© John Wessels/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
A lot of people have migrated into Katanga over the years but they‘re not from the ethnic groups that are historically autochthonous the Katanga.
© Arsene Mpiana / AFP via Getty Images
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