Picture a sinking ship in which a large group of people are fighting for a few, increasingly torn life jackets. Something similar is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at every point in a chain of bribe-taking that stretches from the lowest public officials to the top of the government. The DRC’s people are being harmed by a semi-official culture, known as “débrouillez-vous” (fend for yourself).
What the Congolese think about corruption & bribery
In our survey of 47,000 citizens in 35 African countries, the Global Corruption Barometer, we asked DRC citizens about their views on and experiences of corruption. Eighty-five per cent said that corruption is increasing, 80 per cent said that the government is doing a bad job at tackling it, and 80 per cent said they need to pay bribes for public services, like the police, water supply and identification documents.
It comes as little surprise that the Congolese see institutions like the police, the judiciary and the government as full of corruption, nor sadly, that less than a third think that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.
These findings are far worse than in most other African countries: slightly over half of all Africans think that corruption is getting worse, while 28 per cent of Africans have to pay bribes for public services.
Why is corruption so prevalent in the DRC, why is bribery so commonplace and why do two thirds of citizens feel powerless?
The state of corruption in the DRC
A range of factors contribute to the DRC’s high corruption levels. Weak democracy allows corrupt politicians to maintain power, while ineffective institutions give opportunities for corruption rather than preventing it. People who expose or oppose corrupt systems are suppressed. The country also has low levels of stateness, a key tool that undemocratic regimes can use against corruption: the government doesn’t control its own army, competes for local power with many militias and has little control of movement through its eastern borders.
The DRC’s leaders tend to drive corruption rather than try to clean it up. This is done through patronage networks where those with power give others jobs and contracts in exchange for bribes. This makes the powerful very rich — former President Joseph Kabila owns more than 80 companies and 71,000 hectares of farmland — and means that poorly paid low level officials have to demand bribes to survive.
This act of preying on the people with less power is made more aggressive by job insecurity; leaders tend to strategically and regularly fire public officials to stop them from getting too much power. This encourages many officials to grab as much money as they can — through bribes and also embezzlement — as quickly as possible.
They are able to do so undetected and with impunity because the DRC’s institutions are frequently not transparent — the state-owned oil company Cohyrdo is one of the world’s least transparent state-owned companies — and have low capacity to effectively monitor and manage their activities. This has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure loans from the Chinese government going missing, for example.
The chances of officials being sanctioned for corruption are further reduced by the DRC’s anti-corruption framework being very poorly implemented. Laws criminalising public sector corruption and requiring officials to report any bribery are rarely acted on, and any well-connected official who is prosecuted for corruption can expect an acquittal, as the judiciary is controlled by politicians and bribes.
Citizens footing the bill
Whether it’s through slowed development or bribe-taking, it is ordinary citizens who suffer.
The DRC’s 10 million market sellers are one of many demographics who get asked for bribes on a regular basis. A market seller’s drive to pick up goods might involve a traffic police officer demanding a bribe, an army run roadblock taking some of those goods and then a local government official requiring an unofficial tax to let the market seller trade.
Local and provincial governments are known to demand hundreds of types of taxes, frequently for services that aren’t delivered. Many officials also pocket — and then bribe superiors with — large proportions of the taxes that they collect. Additionally, their need to deliver sufficient tax revenues to government accounts, whilst taking tax money for themselves, means that officials tax impoverished Congolese citizens at very high rates, taking 40 to 50 per cent of their income.
There are, unfortunately, several reasons why two thirds of citizens don’t feel like they can make a difference against corruption: their votes are apparently not being counted in elections; the reported landslide winner of the 2018 general elections, Martin Fayulu, did not become president. Instead Felix Tshisekedi became president after an election involving many irregularities. Citizens are discouraged by protesters and opposition politicians being violently suppressed, and worry that the culture of fending for yourself is too deeply ingrained in their society.
What’s next for the DRC?
The Congolese can change their country and Felix Tshisekedi’s government has a chance to bring integrity to the DRC. It should start by strengthening democracy with a free press and judiciary, and full political rights. Tshisekedi must also adequately fund independent anti-corruption agencies, and fully implement the DRC’s anti-corruption framework. This will help strengthen its institutions while ensuring that state funds aren’t embezzled, procurement is ethical and corrupt acts are punished.