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  • Petro-Politics in Congo
  • John Clark (bio)

Most political scientists acknowledge the connection between higher levels of economic development and stable democratic institutions. In sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa has a truly industrial economy, which many analysts view as a prerequisite for democracy. Yet several other African states have achieved above-average levels of economic development through agricultural and mineral production. Of these countries, Botswana and Mauritius have developed stable democratic institutions while enjoying relatively high rates of economic growth. Thus it is fair to say that “middle-income” African states with economies based on commodity production have a better-than-average chance of achieving democratic transition and consolidation.

Broadly understood, “development” appears to facilitate democratic politics in at least two ways: First, it brings higher living standards and incomes, which are thought to make citizens more tolerant of political competition. Second, it typically enlarges the middle class, which is often seen as the chief support of democratic institutions. Development also makes it possible for elites who are voted out of office to continue living comfortably. Of course, mineral production, even on a vast scale, is not the same as industrial development. Yet while mineral revenues have led only to modest industrialization in Africa and the Middle East, they have substantially raised living standards in both regions.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only three states combine a relatively small population with substantial mineral wealth: Gabon, Botswana, and the Republic of Congo (as distinguished from the Democratic Republic of [End Page 62] Congo, the new name recently given to Zaire by victorious rebel leader Laurent Kabila and his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire). Congo is a particularly fascinating case because it experienced a real and promising change of regime in 1991. This transition in turn led to free elections for the presidency and a new legislature in 1992. Yet Congo’s transition was not trouble-free, and the country has since faced a series of crises, including armed ethnic conflict. Indeed, serious clashes between ethnically based militias re-erupted in early June 1997 during the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for July 27, and the consolidation of democracy is very much an open question. During these critical years in Congo’s political development, oil wealth has had mixed consequences for the processes of democratic transition and consolidation.

Political Development Before 1991

Like other former French colonies, Congo began its independent existence in 1960 impoverished but nominally democratic. The country’s first president, Fulbert Youlou, exemplified the conservative, neocolonial personality. Youlou sympathized with the separatist regime of Moïse Tshombe in the Katanga region, in what has until recently been known as Zaire, but deferred to France on most other matters. Moreover, Youlou had no comprehensive vision for Congo’s economic development. The population was relatively urbanized, educated, and sophisticated by African standards, and was thus impatient with his policies. As a result, Youlou was forced to resign after civilian street riots during three days in 1963, now known as les trois glorieuses.

Youlou was succeeded by a former schoolteacher, Alphonse Massemba-Débat, who was acting speaker of Congo’s Parliament. Under pressure from his more youthful and left-wing supporters, Massemba-Débat created a new single party for Congo, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which was conceived as a force for the social and economic transformation of Congolese society. Under Massemba-Débat, the religion-based school system was replaced with a radical, secular one, and some foreign enterprises were nationalized. The United States and Congo broke off diplomatic relations in 1965 when the Massemba-Débat government failed to protect U.S. diplomats who were assaulted by hostile Congolese citizens. Massemba-Débat also established relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, even while maintaining ties with France.

As the 1960s wore on, Congolese society became increasingly polarized between those elites favoring a truly Leninist path to development and those favoring more conventional approaches. Moreover, the failure of the economy to live up to expectations after independence exacerbated preexisting ethnoregional tensions. Massemba-Débat [End Page 63] lacked the force of personality to overcome these cleavages...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 62-76
Launched on MUSE
1997-07-01
Open Access
No
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