The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

What future can there be for Kinshasa la Belle?

In the first in a series of reports for The Global Urbanist and Urban Africa, Valérie Bah wonders if Kinshasa's socioeconomic ills and a lack of adequate governance make it difficult to imagine a brighter future for the city.

Valérie Bah

Valérie Bah

Cities: Kinshasa

Topics: Roads and traffic, Water, waste and sanitation, Transport, National governance, Crime and security, Informal economy, Poverty and inequality, Foreign investment

There was once a time when Kinshasa boasted the nickname Kin la belle — "Kinshasa the beautiful". After all, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) capital and largest city is replete with what locals call ambience. It hosts Congolese pop music legends such as Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba and traditional dance scenes that rival if not surpass other African capitals. But aside from these charms, the city-province faces such socioeconomic degradation as to produce the unflattering rebaptism Kin la poubelle — "Kinshasa the trash can".

The symptoms of urban decay are ever-present. Buildings show their age. Young boys line the busiest avenues in pursuit of spare franc notes. At rush hour, ubiquitous black and white United Nations (UN) vehicles weave in and out of downtown traffic. They signify decades of conflict and underdevelopment in the Congo. Though it would be misguided to reduce the city to its national context. Kinshasa is not so much a microcosm of the diverse DRC as it is a symbol of its thwarted potential. Daily, N'djili International AIrport welcomes private investors, mining professionals and international development consultants and ushers out emigrating Congolese in search of better lives.

Extreme wealth disparity

The stark contrast between affluent zones and the cité (slum) encapsulates Kinshasa's colossal wealth disparity. The former consists of a minor ensemble of commercial, administrative and residential areas that dominate the banks of the Congo River. The latter includes seemingly everything else — sprawling low-income plots and ill-lit shanty towns.

Though the proportion of people in poverty is lower in Kinshasa than in the rest of the country, at 41.6% compared to 71.3% countrywide according to a 2009 UN Development Programme (UNDP) report, since the 1970s there has been a dramatic decrease in the rates of formal employment which is attributed to cuts in civil service jobs and structural adjustment policies.

In response, a large number of Kinois generate their own employment in the informal sector. In fact, this category of employment dwarfs all others as it represents 70.8% of jobs in the city, making it the dominant coping strategy for poor households in Kinshasa. However the sector is rife with difficulties and contradictions. A predominant concern is regulation, or the lack thereof. Take for example the case of street food vendors. Many are left to operate without proper permits and licensing and many more are harassed and have to pay bribes to local police.

Shedding colonial problems, taking on new ones

The city's current economic problems can be traced back to its infamous dictatorship. To illustrate Mobutu Sese Seko's impact on the national psyche, Jules Wemby-Lofudu, section chief and professor at the National Institute of Architecture and Urbanisation, summarises Kinshasa's history in three stages: colonial, Mobutu, and post-Mobutu.

Mobutu's claim to power in 1965, a mere five years after the DRC had gained its independence, marked a distinct era in the governance of the capital and the rest of the country. Opposing further foreign appropriation, he introduced laws nationalising corporate-owned land, ushering in "Zaïrianisation". This policy started with the sudden expropriation of businesses and assets from alien ownership in the Congo. With it declined enterprise and, by extension, construction projects. If a structure was to be built, it would be in the name of the state. Simultaneously, Mobutu's administration drove the rest of the country to bankruptcy, unemployment and civil war, leaving lofty unused buildings which today serve as a reminder of his extravagance.

Before independence, Belgian colonisers had laid out the city's skeleton. Though they designed it with relative coherence, they were admittedly more interested in extracting resources than accommodating the citizenry. For example, spacious avenues traverse the city, while intersecting secondary roads are inconveniently few, probably due to the colonialist preoccupation with shipping primary goods above moving traffic. There is also a strong demarcation between the city's downtown area in which the Europeans were almost exclusively stationed, and the underdeveloped periphery, where the Congolese resided.

Today the city is not held in the grip of a dictator or coloniser, but in the invisible hand of foreign investment. Construction and urbanisation projects take place, but rarely for the benefit of the population. In contrast to Kinshasa's ubiquitous crumbling structures, large-scale construction projects have recently started to dot the cityscape.

Case in point: In the spring of 2013 the government of DRC renewed its commitment to finishing the construction of roads and bridges under a national infrastructure project. The project, dubbed "Sicomines", is the result of an agreement between the Congolese government and a Chinese consortium of the same name in 2008, who have agreed to finance infrastructure (currently to the tune of $3bn) in return for the right to invest in the mining of non-ferrous metals. It has caused wariness among local human rights activists who fear that it will be just another "top-down" initiative that enriches the elite and forgets the most vulnerable. Their suspicion may be justified. One rule about Kinshasa's economic development is that for all the wealth it generates, it leaves the majority of the city's population to fend for itself.

Corroded infrastructure, even rustier service

The infrastructural problems in Kinshasa are daunting. Most Kinois suffer from a lack of access to potable water. The municipal water authority Regideso (a contraction of régie des eaux — "public water company") relies mainly on surface water installations and an insufficient number of distribution systems. The state of Kinshasa's water itself is alarming for a combination of reasons. Degrading water pipes, human waste and other polluting agents taint its quality.

Electricity is also scarce. Hydroelectric energy is publicly owned and is a widespread energy source (after coal and other fossil fuels) but doesn't reach the whole city. On 29 June 2013, SNEL (Société Nationale d'Electricité — "National Electricity Company"), the city's sole purveyor of electricity, had to announce "extreme, selective power cuts". These cuts happen seasonally, between May and September — the dry season — and affect the disfavoured communes (municipalities) first.

"We rarely see energy cuts in the Gombe Commune [the municipality at the city's centre], but they're such a chronic sickness in the cité that we don't even mention it over there," said Jean Kayembe, security guard and resident of Ngaba Commune. "Where the government officials and diplomats live, the same cuts wouldn't be accepted."

In terms of transportation, Kinshasa suffers daily from massive congestion. This is not only due to the centralisation of its economic areas, but also to the absence of reliable public transportation. To an outsider, the system of hand signals used to flag buses and reach a particular destination is cryptic. To all, the elevated incidence of road accidents is disconcerting. The big white vans that circulate with a surfeit of passengers are locally known as esprits de mort — "spirits of the dead". In 2010 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated the number of road traffic deaths at 20.9 per 100,000 population for the year.

On 30 June 2013, the Ministry of Transport unveiled a fleet of buses on the streets of Kinshasa. This measure was received with scepticism by some. Didier Kita, a 36-year-old engineer at Monusco, the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, expressed doubts about how long the fleet would last in light of the rough conditions of the roads. "If you want, I can show you a graveyard of deteriorated buses from every other time the government tried to put public transportation on the roads of Kinshasa," he said. It remains to be seen whether these new vehicles will have an impact on the present mortality rate and traffic caused by the informal transportation system.

Crime in the city

Unemployment, the flagging economy and insufficient law enforcement creates a molotov cocktail of crime and vulnerability. This is especially the case for the young. Kinshasa actually has a nomenclature to categorise juvenile delinquents. Boys who roam the streets to panhandle or rob are known as sheges. Boys who do the same with a machete in hand are labelled kuluna. This marginalised and idle demographic is referred to as "Mobutu's lost children".

It is important to note that there is no positive link between security and the presence of police or militia groups in the city. In reality, the multiple armed forces or police agents have a history of violent clashes, particularly during past presidential elections. Otherwise, in ordinary times, they leave the distinct impression that one must care for his or her own safety.

"People run away when they see us coming," said an incredulous police officer in front of a provincial police station in the Gombe Commune. "It's as if they think we want to steal their money or something."

Failing governance and an uncertain future

In its typical bombastic style, Foreign Policy magazine (jointly with the Fund for Peace) has ranked the DRC as one of the world's top five failed states since 2010. Though FP's assessment may be more sensationalist than informative, it is not far off the mark. It correctly describes the capital's governance.

Estimates of Kinshasa's population fluctuate between five and ten million. The quality of data on the city's residents is marginal, while the political will to invest in population surveys is low. Statistics are often fabricated and used for political gain; the last government census harkens to 1984. This absence of population data, a fundamental management tool, is just one illustration of the absent nature of Kinshasa's governance. Similarly in terms of budgeting and planning, the city's deputyship discloses very little information.

The DRC's current president, Joseph Kabila, has a Twitter account (@President_DRC) and a single tweet: "I think it's in the interest of our nation to take action through acts [sic] and not simply through 'a lot' of speeches." Incongruously, his 2006 presidential campaign noisily introduced the Cinq Chantiers programme, a five-pronged public works programme that promised drastic improvements in health care, road infrastructure, housing, and energy access. In 2013, the plan is barely mentioned, indicating a quiet failure.

In short, big problems with a side of ineffectual governance is the current order of the day in Kinshasa. For the enormity of its issues and its lack of a pleasant past, it is hard to imagine a recovered Kinshasa.

Valérie Bah is a Canadian freelance journalist who writes on issues of migration, marginalisation, crime and LGBT human rights. She has worked in several Canadian federal government ministries and non-profit organisations and currently serves as an associate reporting officer at the United Nations refugee agency in Kinshasa. Her opinions are her own.

This article was produced in collaboration with Urban Africa.