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Federations Magazine Article
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Congo-Kinshasa leans toward federalism

Now that the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC ) has
held its first free elections in
40 years – in 2006 – following
a bloody five-year civil war that ended in
2003, it is laying the groundwork for
power sharing among 26 provinces and
for accommodating its four national
As the country attempts to recover
from that war, the question of federalism
is once again on the agenda. The DRC is
one of Africa’s largest and most populous
states, with 68 million people and 700
local dialects. These characteristics help
to explain the persistent struggle, both
during the colonial era and since independence,
to find the “right” formula to
balance central control and uniform
rules against decentralized administration
that would take into account local
The source of much of the fighting has
been over the spoils: the DRC holds 30
per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves
plus 10 per cent of all copper, in addition
to uranium, gold and oil.
The country’s new president, Joseph
Kabila, son of former president Laurent
Kabila, and Prime Minister Antoine
Gizenga, are both heirs to the centralist
tradition in Congolese politics. Of the 60
parties represented in the new National
Assembly, only three small parties have
the word “federal” or “federalist” in their
names, and none of them have more
than eight members in their caucus.
However, this is not the only indicator of
the strength of federalist sentiment or
ideology in the country.
Under the new Cons t i tut ion,
approved by a 2005 referendum, the
existing 11 provinces – Kinshasa, Province
Or ientale, Kasaï Or iental , Kasaï
Occidental, Maniema, Katanga, Sud-
Kivu, Nord-Kivu, Bas-Congo, Équateur
and Bandundu – are to be split up by
September 2009, creating 26 provinces.
The Constitution is silent on whether the
system of governance is either federal of
Sharing power with the provinces
Like many federations however, the DRC
has to accommodate diversity. The vast
country of 68 million people with four
times the area of France has 250 ethnic
groups and as many as 700 local languages
and dialects. It has turned to a
quasi-federal system to accommodate
One example of this quasi-federal system
is that the Senate of the DRC is now
elected by the assemblies of the provinces.
Senators now come from and are
chosen by their respective provincial legislatures.
This is part of the new
constitutional order in the DRC in which
the powers are divided between the
national, provincial and even local levels.
Second, a Conference of Governors was
created by the Constitution to give voice
to the provinces. The Conference, chaired
by the president, has a mandate to
“assure harmony among the provinces
themselves” and to “provide advice to
the two orders of government.” Third, a
constitutional court has been established
to settle disputes between the central
government and the provinces over competence
in any area.
To protect diversity, there are four recognized
national languages, each of
which is used as a common language in
different regions: Kikongo, Lingala,
Tshiluba and Swahili, in addition to
French – the official language. Every law
passed by the central government in
Kinshasa must be published in all four
national languages within 60 days.
Federalism and its opponents
Constitutionally, the DRC has had an
ambivalent relationship with federalism.
In the rush to independence in 1960, the
new state was given a “Fundamental Law”
that would run out after four years. After
independence, there was a chain reaction
whereby various parties carved out
miniature provinces that they could
dominate. These new provinces purportedly
had to meet certain criteria,
including “viability” and a minimum
population of 700,000. Most of the “provincettes”
(as journalists dubbed them)
corresponded to one, or occasionally two,
colonial districts. Setting up the new
areas created jobs for politicians and
administrators and brought government
closer to the people. But it also set off a
new round of ethnic conflict. Provincial
police forces functioned as miniature
armies, seizing territory from their rivals.
Federalism remains controversial,
however. This is partly because of the various
secessionist movements and civil
Congo-Kinshasa leans
toward federalism
The new 26 provinces hope to escape the fate of the
old “provincettes”
Thomas Turner is adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The
Congo Wars (Zed Books, 2007). He was previously professor of political science at the
National University of Rwanda and professor of international relations at the Higher Institute
of Human Sciences of Tunis, in Tunisia.
REUTERS/David Lewis
democratic republic of con g o
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
The wealth that caused the wars: a copper-mining complex
towers over the town of Lubumbashi in Katanga province,
Democratic Republic of Congo.
wars that followed the first government
after independence in 1960, led by
Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated
in 1961.
In 1964, a constitutional convention
was held in the capital of the former
Kasai province. The Luluabourg
Constitution was explicitly federalist. It
consecrated the political victory of the
f ede ra l i s t mode ra t e s ov e r the
Lumumbists, disempowered after the
assassination of Lumumba three years
earlier. Later that year, a civil war broke
out between the Lumumbists and the
central government. In 1965, when the
tide had turned against the Lumumbists,
the army commander, Colonel Joseph
Mobutu, seized power and began restoring
order. He re-established most of the
colonial provinces. Only the Kongo people
and the Luba-Kasai retained their
own provinces.
However, Mobutu deprived
the provinces of their separate
governments. An administrator,
who could not be a local
person, headed each province,
district and territory. The prefectoral
administrators were
incorporated into Mobutu’s
party-state, and given political
functions alongside their
more strictly administrative
Mobutu’s tentative moves
Late in the 1980s, the
Mobutu government began
experimenting with territorial
administration. The territorial
reforms got tangled up in the broader
struggle between the aging dictator and
forces that were calling for democracy.
When multi-party political competition
resumed at the beginning of the 1990s a
flock of parties appeared on the scene,
some opposing Mobutu and some supporting
The Congolese political landscape
was remodelled twice. The war of 1996–
97 brought Laurent Kabila to power with
the backing of Rwanda and Uganda.
However, in the war of 1998 to 2002,
Rwanda and Uganda backed a collection
of Kabila’s opponents and this second
war ended in a stalemate. Kabila and his
successor, Joseph Kabila, held a southern
belt including Kinshasa and Katanga.
Rwanda and the Congo Democratic Rally
(Ras s embl ement Démo c rat ique
Congolais, RCD) held the east. Uganda
and the Congolese Liberation Movement
(Mouvement de Libération du Congo,
MLC) held the north.
So, after a long war and long peace
process, a new constitution was drafted
and approved in 2006 and elections held.
The new Constitution represents a compromise
between federalists and
centralists. This Constitution has some
unitary attributes in that it provides for
supervision by the central government of
the decentralized territorial entities and
nomination of governors and vice governors
by the president of the Republic.
Elements of federalism can be seen in the
division of competencies between the
central government and the provinces,
and the administrative autonomy of the
Empowering the provinces
The Constitution specifically lists the
competencies of the central government
and of the provinces as well as concurrent
competencies. The cent ral
government shares with the provinces
powers including regulation of radio,
television and cinema; civil and traditional
law; land and mineral rights and
environmental protection. The provinces
are responsible for education from preschool
to secondary. Also, the provinces
have been given independent financial
means including land tax, taxes on rental
income and motor vehicle taxation.
The new Constitution may create jobs
for the political class and bring administration
and government closer to the
people. The big test will come during the
next round of elections. The elections of
2006 generated large-scale violence, as
parties and associated militias attempted
to establish control over one region or
another. The various militias are to be
disbanded or integrated into the national
army, and the police force is to be
national as well. It is unclear whether
these measures will suffice to ensure
peaceful elections in the future.
A crucial question concerns the distribution
of political power between the
centre and the regions. The attempted
secession of mineral-rich Katanga and
South Kasai, and the chaos of the era of
the “provincettes” (1962–66) discredited
federalism. In turn, 30 years of Mobutu’s
dictatorship discredited extreme centrali
z a t i o n . T h e R a s s emb l eme n t
Démocratique party called for federalism,
which had the effect of tainting that position.
President Joseph Kabila
and Prime Minister Antoine
Gizenga face problems posed by
a secessionist sect among the
Kongo people in the West and of
Hutu and Tutsi militias in the
Sharing mineral revenues
The 2006 Constitution does
address the vexing question of
how to divide revenues from
mineral resources. The provinces
can retain 40 per cent of
national revenues derived from
their territory. Resource-rich
provinces, like Katanga, thus
keep a large share of the money
from their mineral deposits. The
Constitution also creates an “equalization
fund” to redistribute up to 10 per
cent of national monies to infrastructure
projects in poorer provinces. This strikes
a three-way balance among the rich
provinces, the poor provinces and the
central treasury in Kinshasa. It remains
to be seen whether this can translate into
a practical check on centralizing and
secessionist forces in the DRC .
Congo’s riches should benefit all of its
people. That presupposes balance
between the interests of the central government
and the provinces. What that
balance should be is for the Congolese to
decide. Many fear, however, that excessive
provincial autonomy could serve as
an invitation for continued foreign interference.
Supporters in Kinshasa celebrate the victory of President Joseph
Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, November 2006.