State Failure: The Dictator’s Success

This week, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) erupted in protests as the government announced that upcoming elections would be “delayed.” Many Congolese interpreted this phrasing, probably correctly, as a euphemism for elections being cancelled. Current DRC President Joseph Kabila’s term should expire in December 2016, with elections being held this November to replace him. But the DRC’s Constitutional Court ruled that local elections must precede the presidential. In a strategic move, Kabila failed to fund these local elections, delaying them. This caused the government to announce that presidential elections are logistically impossible in 2016, citing the short timetable between now and November.

Such tactics are commonplace in much of the world. Kabila inherited the presidential palace from his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who took power by overthrowing Mobutu Sese Seko in the First Congo War. Mobutu himself came to the presidency by murdering the only democratically elected leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba. In all of modern history, the Congo has known independence and democracy for three months, from the time Lumumba was elected to his assassination, between June and September of 1960. Since then, the country has held elections only twice, both of which were marked by widespread “irregularities” of a degree that would be unacceptable in any liberal democracy.

Many observers look at the perennial dysfunction of the DRC with resignation. Popular targets for blame include the military, the autocratic leaders, the people of the Congo themselves, Western countries, and transnational corporations. Few would dispute that the DRC is a “failed state;” our disagreement is over who failed it. But the fact is, no one did. The Congo didn’t “fail” at all. It performed exactly as it was supposed to.

We define a “failed state” as one that fails to accomplish those most basic elements of statecraft and governance. Put simply, if a state cannot govern itself, it has failed. This can mean economic collapse, gross political incompetence (of a degree to make the US Congress look like a well-oiled machine), or the inability to control large swaths of a state’s claimed territory. In the Congo, it’s all three, and more. The DRC scores virtually at the bottom of all development indices, due to their exceedingly low per capita income, a mean life expectancy of 60, and an abysmal education system. Rebel groups, both foreign and domestic, control much of the countryside. As reflected by the recent protests, the government is increasingly losing control of the rapidly growing capital, virtually the only part of the country they can actually govern.

Yet if you could inject President Kabila with truth serum and ask him how his time in office was going, he would tell you “great” (minus the protests). Kabila doesn’t actually want to fix these problems. It’s not because he’s some scheming Bond villain. It’s just the logical result of the incentives before him.

He could expend hundreds of thousands of Congolese soldiers’ lives trying to reestablish control of his western frontier. It would require an effort of billions of dollars, all of his political capital, and an everlasting commitment to that region’s continued defense as rebel groups continue to press in from neighboring countries who either fail to control their own territory or actively encourage such disruptions in the DRC. Plus, the army is the only thing keeping Kabila in power. Dictatorships operate on “bigger army diplomacy:” the guy with the largest army following his orders gets to be king. Sending the army away from the capital, on assignment for an indefinite period, on a mission they don’t want to undertake and have a substantial chance of getting killed while performing, would be a great way to provoke the generals into seizing power for themselves. So seizing control of the western Congo would not only be expensive, but would likely be literally fatal to Kabila.

Faced with that reality, what should a rational leader do? The only real course left open to them is to secure their capital and the lands surrounding it, which Kabila and his predecessors have done. It is advantageous to maintain a de jure claim to the land, so that if the rebel forces ever retreat, the legal claim to the estimated $24 trillion of minerals underground there would belong to the DRC. But for the moment, actual control is beyond Kabila’s means. His priorities are to maintain his hold on the capital and any other regions not beset by insurgency; to provide social services so the people don’t rise up against him; and to keep the army happy so they don’t execute a coup or fail to keep the public order. He funds the government through taxes on the major centers of commerce, the namely the capital, mining centers, and major ports. Foreign aid also constitutes a substantial portion of the country’s budget, much of which fails to make it to the worthy causes for which it was designated, and often ends up in corrupt officials’ coffers. But most importantly, the DRC exports valuable minerals to the rest of the world, the profits from which flow to domestic plutocrats and foreign corporations.

We should not let the humanitarian bleakness of this picture distract us from the fact that what has been described is a limited, minimally functional state. Social services are distributed to those in the capital and other government-controlled cities. An army is maintained, and while full control of the country’s territory is a fantasy, it does control the eastern provinces. Kabila’s hold on power is assured so long as the status quo persists. The fact that he sits atop a “failed state” is irrelevant. It’s only “failed” from our perspective.

I don’t mean to say that we should change our view of affairs in the Congo. The DRC features decades of conflict, rampant corruption, and abominable poverty. Much of this is inflicted by their own government, which pretends to democratic legitimacy while in reality running the country via military dictatorship and funding itself through stolen foreign aid and exploited natural resources. Yet calling it a “failed state” implies that something “went wrong.” And while the situation is unambiguously morally condemnable, it is also exactly what follows from the current incentive structure.

Until we change how most of the developing world does business, “failed states” will always exist. No amount of foreign aid or humanitarian assistance or UN intervention will solve the problem. We need a dramatic new approach, because the Congo and countries like it are not the fault of Kabila or people like him. The circumstances in which those people operate give them every incentive to do exactly what Kabila has done, and until we change those incentives, nothing will change. Let’s stop being surprised when dictators don’t magically adopt Jeffersonian tendencies. Let’s stop pretending that these states have “failed,” when in fact their leaders have succeeded at thriving in their corrupt environment. We need to change our thinking on this issue, or stop being surprised when state “failure” is the norm in so much of the world.

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