Kinshasa and Brazzaville are like hostile siblings. The inhabitants of the two capitals live side by side, they share culture and language – and yet look at the other river bank with suspicion.
It is said that there are no two capitals in the world that are as close together as Kinshasa and Brazzaville. They are only separated by the Congo River. The international flight to Brazzaville stops in Kinshasa. Then the plane takes off and lands in Brazzaville after ten minutes. Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of the Congo with five million inhabitants, Kinshasa that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with eighty million. Because, despite the different sizes, hardly anyone can tell the two countries apart, we speak of Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa for the sake of simplicity. The city of Brazzaville with two million inhabitants is like the little sister of the twelve million juggernaut Kinshasa. But, as is so often the case, the siblings have to differentiate themselves permanently, precisely because they are so similar.
The senseless bridge of prestige
They once belonged together and were part of the Kingdom of the Congo. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium sacked the lion’s share of the former empire, made the vast fertile land his private property, and had his subjects chop off his hands if they did not deliver enough rubber. To this day, the descendants of the enslaved people are overcome by a mixture of anger and shame when it is mentioned. The people of Congo-Brazzaville are completely different. It was the Italian seafarer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who mapped the country on behalf of the French and thus first took possession of it symbolically and then more and more real.
He later turned against his clients and wrote a report on the colonial atrocities of the Grande Nation. Brazzaville still sees the eponym as the good counter-model to evil Leopold II. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his death, the government built a bombastic marble mausoleum for the equivalent of CHF 10 million in 2006 – one year late. One wonders why. A special permit was required to visit the grave, and signs everywhere warn people before entering the lawn: “Respectez la pelouse”
For years there has been talk of a bridge over the Congo, which is supposed to connect the two capitals. Because the project was not making good progress, Brazzaville already built its bridge. It is 2500 meters long and completely pointless. It runs over a Congo sidearm, not much more than a trickle. But it is said that Denis Sassou Nguesso, the country’s president, wanted to annoy his rival Joseph Kabila on the other side of the river because he had no bridge. At night, the pseudo bridge is opulently illuminated to ensure that it is also noticed from the palace in Kinshasa, which is directly opposite.
Cold War Victim
It was not only colonial history that separated the siblings but also the Cold War. After both countries became independent in 1960, Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in Kinshasa in 1965 and renamed the country Zaire. The United States supported him despite his brutality and megalomania. His government was considered a bulwark against communism. In 1968 Marien Ngouabi took power in Brazzaville, proclaimed Marxism-Leninism as a new state doctrine and fraternized with the Soviet Union. But you weren’t quite that consistent. Brazzaville’s landmark, the 30-story Nabemba Tower, was built with money from the then French oil company Elf. The main thing in the construction was to show Kinshasa how much more modern you were.
Mobutu was overthrown after 32 years by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who was murdered in 2001. The perpetrators crossed the river and went underground in Brazzaville. His son Joseph Kabila took over, who was also assassinated in 2011 but failed. Kabila accused Congo-Brazzaville of pulling the strings. Whenever violence broke out in Kinshasa, residents fled to the other side of the river. Conversely, the victims took refuge in Kinshasa during the civil war between 1997 and 1999 and during the armed conflict in the pool region between 2016 and 2017. The Congo River is both a border and a connection between the two cities, which nevertheless share the same language and the same culture.
The two corrupt autocrats Kabila and Sassou Nguesso
Joseph Kabila clung to power even though his term of office expired. The protests against the autocrat killed many people. It was not until 2019 that he handed over power to Félix Tshisekedi in a flimsy election, with whom he had concluded an agreement that allowed him to continue to pull the strings in the background. In parallel, Sassou Nguesso was re-elected in 2016. The 76-year-old has been in power since 1979, with a short break.
In terms of autocrats, there is something else that connects the two Congo: the West supports the two pseudo-democracies, even if elections are brazenly falsified. That should have something to do with the raw materials. Congo-Brazzaville is the fourth-largest oil producer in Africa, while the bottom of Congo-Kinshasa is full of cobalt, coltan, gold, and diamonds. The motto is rather a stable injustice regime than chaos. Congo-Brazzaville is in huge debt; A debt relief agreement has recently been reached after long negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF): The IMF pays Brazzaville $ 448 million.
The tug of war lasted so long because, firstly, it is clear that the debts are primarily related to the corruption and self-service mentality of the presidential family. Secondly, because the debt is also due to huge Chinese projects that the West does not want to shell out afterward. And third, because the Congolese lied to the IMF about the true level of debt, which is at least 9 billion. This corresponds to 120 percent of the gross national product.
Because Brazzaville is making little progress in fighting corruption, the second $ 48 million loan tranche is delayed. But France is already helping the regime with 100 million euros, the World Bank is about to inject the same amount. The African Development Bank has even promised $ 2 billion. The regime was in the same situation ten years ago. The IMF helped, the debt relief brought nothing. This time, too, the government has not paid back any debt despite the financial injections. The country desperately needs investors, but those who are still waiting for their money will be careful not to do business with the country again.
The financial difficulties have to do with the falling oil price. Nevertheless, one should assume that it is not so difficult to feed five million citizens with the still huge oil revenues. Besides, the government has made little effort to diversify the economy.
A central figure in the corrupt oil business is the son of the president, Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso, director of the National Oil Company (SNPC). It is popularly known as “Kiki le pétrolier”. Last summer, the NGO Global Witness revealed that it had $ 50 million raised from the Treasury. His luxurious lifestyle is legendary.
How to get 59 salaries
Despite promises, there is no evidence of a relaxation of the dictatorial regime. Elections are scheduled to take place again next year. But the opposition will be eliminated in advance. One of the President’s main opponents, General Makolo, was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2018. Other potential counterparties are said to be on the government payroll. That means they are bought and pseudo-oppositional. It is an open secret that the President “Kiki” would like to be in office. At the moment, in the middle of the delicate debt negotiations, that would be an unfavorable signal. So – at the popular request of the people – he will probably run for election again and win, of course. It is unlikely that anything will change.
Sassou Nguesso has been primarily concerned with maintaining his power for decades; there is neither time nor means for development policy. Because undoubtedly his clientele policy goes into the money. It is said that there are 800 fictitious employees in the palace alone, i.e. employees who receive a hefty wage but never turn up. Besides, every minister has the right to fill 2,000 positions. Relatives and loyal supporters are most likely taken into account, competence is of secondary importance. Some of these people receive several state salaries. A government official reports that a chief official receives a total of 59 salaries.
The fact that France is holding the peg to such a regime may also have historical reasons. During the Second World War, Brazzaville was temporarily the capital of “Free France”, General de Gaulle had a permanent seat of government here.
Now the bridge between the two cities should be built. It will be open to both cars and the railroad. The groundbreaking is scheduled for late 2020. It is expected to take two years to build and will cost $ 500 million. That would connect the two twins separated at birth – at the mercy of both. The economic benefits for the two cities would be obvious. But at the same time, they would be exposed to the outbreaks of violence and insanity of the other – without the Congo River as a buffer in between – without protection.