CSRC Working Paper 21

The Rise and Decline of the Congolese State: An analytical narrative on state-making
Working Paper No : 21 (series 2)
Author : Gabi Hesselbein
Date : November 2007
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This analytical narrative investigates the varying nature and strength of the state in Congo/Zaire from colonial times through the tumultuous years after independence, the ups and downs of the Mobutu years, the two wars at the turn of the century, the interim government and the beginning of the fourth republic in 2006.

After a discussion of the prevalent theories of state failure, this text discusses state resilience and fragility within the framework of late industrialisation and the difficulties in transforming a pre-capitalist society into a capitalist one. This unfinished transformation requires changes from a neo-patrimonial form of societal organisation towards a rational, bureaucratic state. This rational state has been and is challenged by rival actors, competing for political, military and economic power.

In order to capture these competing actors and their political coalitions, we use the concept of institutional multiplicity to explain the shifts in strength of competing groups of actors at different periods of time. Traditional authority, rational state authority, informal, illegal and violent networks and the international community all offer different ‘rules of the game’, presenting alternative frameworks for behaviour and survival.

At different times, state authority has manifested itself in concrete and visible ways across a number of sectors. To analyse the processes of the unravelling of the Congolese state we therefore historically trace state power in several sub-domains: political organisation, the organisation of the economy, the security system, the legal sphere and international interventions.

While the Belgian colonial state forcefully created a rational state in Congo that gained some authority over patrimonial societies, it also created a small group of people that were to become the elite in charge of the state after independence. This group, however, had no experience in political organisation and split immediately after independence. Several political and military rivals challenged the newly independent state until Mobutu was able to create an elite consensus by buying in or crushing rival groups.

This consensus resulted in nine years of state-building, but then started to crumble and eventually break down under serious economic pressure and outside intervention. State power was gradually eroded until even the monopoly of legitimate violence was lost. Unsolved questions of citizenship and land entitlements fuelled outside intervention, which eventually crushed the Congolese state altogether.

While reconstruction is partly under way, fundamental aspects of the monopoly of power, the means of 'broadcasting' power over the whole territory and the political consensus at the heart of the state remain unsolved.

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