Let’s play a game of free association.
When you read the word “Africa,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?
For a great number of us, I’m guessing the word “poor” ranks high on the list of most common terms associated with this vast continent.
Images of destitution, stories of desperation and publication of abysmal GDP figures fuel the perception that all of Africa is undeniably poor.
But what if I told you that this perception is flawed?
Africa, or at least many of the nations on this continent, is not poor. In fact, Africa is made up of some of the richest countries in the world. The problem is that these riches are out of reach for a majority of the local population – buried deep underground or held far above their heads in the hands of corrupt government officials.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a perfect example of this wealth paradox. The DRC is one of the most resource-rich nations in the world, with vast deposits of copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold and a long list of other minerals totaling an estimated worth of $24 trillion USD. But one look at the national GDP in 2013 (approximately $288.14 USD a year per person, the second-lowest in the world according to the World Bank and the IMF) and even the layman economist sees that something is terribly wrong.
How can a country rank so high on natural resources yet so low on individual wealth? The answer is greed. The Democratic Republic of Congo ranks 154 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013, with a transparency score of 22 out of a possible 100. The battle for natural resources has triggered the ugliest of vices in the country’s leaders, beginning over 500 years ago when Portuguese traders were some of the first to exploit the country’s natural riches. In the centuries that have followed, millions of Congolese citizens have been murdered or displaced, all because of a battle over resources that they will never even touch. The violence continues today, pulling neighboring countries into a proxy war that has ravaged the economy, the people and the land itself.
“Sure, Congo is rich in resources, but most people don’t even think about that. We have to focus on other things, like studying and getting a job that will help support our family,” says Adolphe, a 25 year-old Congolese refugee who now lives in Uganda. Adolphe studied IT for three years at a university in the DRC until he was forced to flee the country before finishing his degree. Although it is heartbreaking, his story is not unique: he is just one of approximately 450,000 Congolese refugees seeking shelter in the countries that surround the DRC.
While the current Congolese government labels itself a Democracy, Adolphe tells me that he feels the situation today is actually worse than it was during the decades of notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in a 1965 coup and ruled until 1997. At least then, it was obvious where the country’s wealth was “disappearing” to – for example, towards the construction of Mobutu’s massive palace in Ggadolite, DRC, often referred to as “Versailles in the Jungle.”
“In the past, you could talk openly about the problems with the government, because it was obviously a dictatorship,” says Adolphe. “Now, we have a democracy in disguise. We know that the government is corrupt but we are not allowed to say it. This is far worse than before.”
Congo’s current president, Joseph Kabila, assumed power in 2001 after the death of his father, former president Laurent Kabila. Many hoped that this young leader would turn things around for the corruption-ridden country. But now, according to Adolphe and other Congolese refugees interviewed, there is widespread skepticism about the president’s intentions. The battle over resources continues to rage throughout large portions of the nation, and while Kabila is not as ostentatious as Mobutu in his display of personal wealth, rumors of corruption abound and a personal net worth of approximately $215 million USD.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is not poor, but its people are. Recognizing the difference is the first step in understanding the complex challenges that face this conflict-ridden continent.
Author’s note: this article is the first in a series that will chronicle the wealth paradox that exists in Africa – immensely complicated political, economic and social conditions make it impossible to summarize things in a way that will cater to shrinking attention spans in the digital age. Please visit the blog again soon for the next installment in this series.