Congo: Change or stagnation? – A new book by Theodore Trefon
2010 was in important year for the DRC and the Congolese. It marked 50 years of independence from Belgium and the cancellation of the near totality of its foreign debt. Improved relations with its erstwhile Rwandan enemies and new investment perspectives with China were consolidated.
2011 is also an important year. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for 28 November. Incumbent President Joseph Kabila is likely to win the elections. How he plans on managing the country – creating political dialogue, reforming the justice system, providing physical security to citizens, reducing poverty and combating corruption while enhancing transparency – remains a mystery. The electoral campaign is completely dominated by personality politics – substantive issues are systematically ignored by both the incumbent and opposition figures alike. Since being elected five years ago, Kabila’s main agenda has been regime consolidation. Despite major problems that are historically embedded, the macro-economic environment and the security context have improved slightly. The social situation of ordinary Congolese has however shown no signs of progress. They remain impoverished, undernourished, under informed and vulnerable.
Congo Masquerade: the political culture of aid inefficiency and reform failure was crafted to help the informed general public grasp the intricacies of politics in Congo today. Africa’s second largest territory and one of the most populous, Congo is a country that fascinates and disturbs. Fabulously rich, its people are amongst the world’s poorest. No single book can provide all of the keys to understanding the challenges of rebuilding this notoriously failed state. Congo Masquerade is however a readable contribution. It is about mismanagement, hypocrisy and powerlessness. Several recent books have examined war and plunder in the Great Lakes region. But no other book evaluates the imported “˜template format’ reform package haphazardly pieced together. No other book offers an analysis of Congolese political culture and the way it hampers reform.
International partners and Congolese authorities share responsibility in failing to bring about genuine political and institutional reform. The former have underestimated the challenges; the latter, through ruse and strategy, deliberately hamper reform. Congo’s international partners have no master plan for reform, do not share a common vision and often implement contradictory programmes. Congolese authorities obstruct reform efforts to maintain their positions of relative power. Reform policies superficially respond to symptoms without addressing the root causes of problems such as the violence that emerges from deeply entrenched historical factors, social imbalances, institutional weakness, corruption and diverging perceptions of the need for change.
Through an analysis of the strategies, agendas and weaknesses of Congolese and international actors, this book explains the reasons for reform failure. It emphasizes the paradox of reform actors who are ambitious in their objectives but cynical about unsatisfactory results. It offers a theoretical framework that inspires similar critiques in other state rebuilding contexts and sheds new light on the nitty-gritty of aid inefficiency. Based on a political anthropological approach, Congo Masquerade presents a critical examination of why aid is not helping the Congo.
Theodore Trefon (PhD Boston University) is a Congo expert specializing in the politics of state-society relations. He has devoted the past 25 years to Congo as a researcher, lecturer, author, project manager and consultant. He is contributing editor to the Review of African Political Economy. Founding director of the Belgian Reference Centre for Expertise on Central Africa, he now heads the Contemporary History Section of the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa.
I haven’t read the book yet; therefore, my comment will only be on the paratextâ€”namely, the title of the book, which as valid a subject of commentary as the content of the book. In point of fact, I find the title (not the subtitle) particularly offensive to the Congolese people in general, and insulting to me as a Congolese individual in particular.
It’s just baffling, the way some experts on the Congoâ€”especially those who can’t justify their expertise with lengthy actual in-country ethnographic fieldwork stintsâ€”routinely come up with tabloidism such as the one so brazenly displayed in the title of Theodore Trefonâ€™s book.
“Congo Masquerade”? Why such an all-encompassing title? Is the Congo, as a nation-state, a masquerade? Or are politiciansâ€”Kabila and his associates of the oppositionâ€”the ones being encapsulated in the title? (If so, then the title should say so!) Are individual Congolese walking the streets of Kinshasa or Lubumbashi empty shirts and pagnes masquerading as sub-humans devoid of agency? Couldn’t the title be more appropriately rephrased, or crossed out, and simply replaced by its subtitle, which is more targeted and not reductive?
These interrogations seem valid to me as the book purports to be “based on a political anthropological approach.” As ethnographic fieldwork is one of the methodological pillars of anthropology, the questions that would readily come to mind are the following: has Trefon ever done any lengthy and worthwhile ethnographic fieldwork in the Congo comparable, for example, to the one Johannes Fabian experienced in Lubumbashi? Or does Trefon fall in the category of arm-chair anthropologists? Is this self-reflexive anthropology, or its thick-description variety, or just its multi-site ethnography variant with short stays here and there at air-conditioned tropical hotels without any actual rapport with natives or any immersion alongside them in their milieu?
I just mentioned Fabianâ€¦ And itâ€™s shocking that decades after heâ€™d warned anthropologists against the methodological impairment of â€œlack of coavelness,â€ one would only find it featured in the title of Trefonâ€™s book!
Thanks for your comment. Iâ€™ll try to respond to some of your preoccupations even though it seems premature that you should take such a firm stand on a book that you havenâ€™t read. (i), why masquerade? There is an explanation/justification of the term in the preface. Have a look and then we can exchange on its relevance after.
(ii) My view on Congolese agency? I believe that Congolese society is strong, vibrant, generous, creative and resilient. I published another book on the subject in 2004 â€˜Reinventing order in the Congo: Popular responses to state failure in Kinshasaâ€™. The conclusion of Congo Masquerade is devoted to agency in Congo today. (iii) am I an armchair anthropologist? Most of my daily work is indeed in front of a computer screen. However, over the years, I have been to Congo (and Zaire) 49 times doing research, teaching (UNIKIN, UNILU, UNIKIS), consultancies, project management, workshops, etc. Iâ€™ve done urban anthropology in Kinshasa (see book mentioned above and Lubumbashi (see Trefon with Ngoy 2007 â€˜Parcours administratifs dans un Etat un faillite: RÃ©cits populaires de Lubumbashiâ€™) and lots of participatory management work in forest concessions (in Orientale, Equateur and Bandundu) and protected areas (mainly Luki and Salonga). So Iâ€™ve had my share of bouts with malaria and water-bourne intestinal diseases which most armchair anthropologists probably avoid.
Looking forward to further exchange after you will have picked up a copy of the book.