Sandlines: Exile and patriotism – Who will rebuild DR Congo?

Throughout the Congolese conflict (1996 – present), civilian populations have served as the primary target for diverse combatant groups: ethnic militias, so-called ‘popular defense forces’, rebel factions and the government army. As attacks on civilians continue, persistent insecurity and suffering have triggered a different kind of explosion—a mass exodus of Congolese citizens seeking safety and opportunity in Africa, Europe and North America. An extensive Congolese diaspora was born.


Under fire, often from their own national army, the poorest of the poor seek safety and refuge in neighboring countries on foot, without clothing or food. Their survival needs are met by the many humanitarian agencies working in the region. Those who can afford the voyage to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Brussels or Montreal are of the skilled and educated middle class, once central to Congo’s administrative and professional sectors. A reality for many African countries today, conflict-driven brain drain is often wrongly attributed to the ‘globalization dynamic’, and whose consequences are measured by their impact on host countries. On the contrary, the most devastating result is felt at home. The mass exodus of middle class, educated Africans fleeing violence at home into the foreign diaspora creates a crippling cultural and professional void, one with far-reaching consequences for the home country.

In the case of DR Congo, filling this void depends largely on the country’s success at rebuilding a functional state, one to which Congolese expatriates can confidently return. Now that the presidential election results have been announced and the defeated party, led by a former warlord, has promised to accept peacefully, the new government can begin the path of national reconstruction. First priority is to establish a secure environment in which reconstruction can begin, thereby attracting expatriate Congolese to return home.


The costs of a thriving Congolese diaspora go deeper than the void left by an absent educated middle class, whose departure also sees the voice of civil society fall completely silent. Few are left to challenge the predations of a militarized and self-interested political class, atrocities to which all are witness but none dare condemn openly. Congolese human rights activists are few and far between, and independent journalism is sold to the highest bidder. Reporting on the conflict itself is left to foreign news agencies whose media outlets are inaccessible to local residents, the real victims of the war. As Congo’s wartime history has gravely illustrated, the greater the number of educated people leaving, the deeper the darkness and isolation enveloping the country. While no numerical figure exists, a near-total absence of skilled, literate labor force in the country suggests the enormity of the present vacuum.

Another component of Congolese society that has disappeared in the mass exodus is its patriotism, understood as commitment to one’s country and a willingness to sacrifice for its cohesion and progress. National pride is now articulated in divisive and xenophobic terms. Looking inward, this means a tense cleavage between the Lingala and Swahili-speaking demographic who supported the two presidential finalists, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Joseph Kabila. Looking outward, patriotism takes the form of suspicion of western powers, who are conveniently blamed for all Congo’s woes. There is no collective condemnation of the failures of Congo’s political elites, no popular mobilization to dismiss ineffective politicians and replace them with sincere leaders. With the educated class lost to the diaspora, this dynamic of oppression and submission is perpetuated in two ways: corrupt politicians go unchallenged and the illiterate masses comprising the voting electorate are more easily manipulated by the same leaders.

I have worked regularly in the Congo for the last 18 years, and am often asked what I think the country needs to return to normalcy. To Congolese ears, my response is contrarian but not incomprehensible: “Where are Congo’s patriots? Those who abandoned the country in search of a better life should come home, sacrifice, and rebuild. Stop waiting for others to do this in your place.” Embarrassed, a Congolese friend living in the US responded: “But it is so hard to feel patriotic today. What is there to invest in or be proud of? I live abroad because it offers the one thing, the most important thing that I can’t get at home: a decent place to raise and educate my children.”

You can’t argue with that. Or can you?

In the popular psyche, the perception that the political class is an untouchable elite group, inaccessible to ordinary Congolese and above the law, is wholly entrenched after forty years under President Mobutu Sese Seko and, in his wake, eight years of violent conflict. Such blind acceptance is extremely disempowering to the masses, who in so doing sacrifice all vestige of political agency. Blind faith in one’s leaders opens the door to impunity for the political class itself, who are thereby removed from all accountability to their political subjects. In Congo and elsewhere, the post-colonial era of African dictatorships has unfailingly applied this simple formula for success. And while many see the cult of personality as a sham—the ‘Big Man’ myth, Africa’s panem et circum—no alternative political models are within reach.

An extended period of oppression by a long cast of characters, not limited to the war but dating from the Mobutu era, each of whom claims to be ‘of the people and for the people’, has eroded much of the popular will to mobilize for a better present and future. The cynical patriotism manifested by political elites—cronyism and corruption instead of serving the collective interest and cultivating a culture of accountability—has left many Congolese with no other model to follow. At the local level, authorities regurgitate the same false rhetoric of serving the nation as they bribe local citizens and divert vital resources away from intended beneficiaries and into their own pockets.


But as the saying goes, hope dies last. For many Congolese, a solution to their problems will come not from their leaders or even themselves, sadly, but from the western countries where so many have fled in search of a better life. Paradoxically, western countries are seen both as responsible for Congo’s crisis and as its only legitimate savior. During the war’s most bitter years, many felt that only a ‘Marshall Plan’—one implemented and managed directly by the international community—could deliver Congo from its chaos and misery.

Although many pockets of conflict and insecurity remain, the presidential elections transpired without a return to all-out war, as many feared. The next six months will determine whether the elected government will sufficiently right its course to begin attracting the diaspora to return home. Should this fail, replacing the educated and professional Congolese diaspora will take an entire generation of imprinting today’s youth in the image of the departed. But Congo cannot afford to wait another generation for its renewal. The heart and mind of its collective professional and economic capacity—the diaspora itself—must return from their places of refuge abroad and begin rebuilding the country.

Edward Rackley posts frequently at his personal blog, Across the Divide: Analysis and Anecdote from Africa.