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From war to wealth in Africa: Congo must help itself

Better governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo could unleash its vast potential.

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“That,” said the head of the United Nations mission pointing to the great Congo River sweeping past, “shows why energy is more than just oil.”

Later, in a boat puttering slowly down the Nsele River, we encountered a flotilla of dugouts lashed together transporting giant bags of charcoal in a two-day journey from neighboring Kongo Central Province for sale in the capital. Many of the sailors were naked. Good morning, Mr. Kurtz; hello, Marlow. Technology and life had scarcely budged in the 100 years since Joseph Conrad’s controversial novel “Heart of Darkness” was published.

Twelve years ago, one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II gripped this vast country, involving eight nations and affecting millions. Fighting persists in the east, home to the world’s worst sexual violence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) does not have to be a splotch of darkness at Africa’s heart, routinely exporting instability across its borders and keeping its people down and insecure.

But transforming from war to wealth won’t come from outside aid but by what the Congolese do themselves. It will come, too, from long-term investment by businesses, foreign and local. They, in turn, require policy predictability along with investor security – not a predatory, rent-seeking elite.

Congo’s infrastructure exists mostly only on paper. The airport in Lubumbashi is a yellow and blue-trimmed 1950s edifice proudly displaying the half-painted words “Aeroport Lubu,” replete with a giant picture of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – the former president who was assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph, the current leader. It’s a museum of derelict aircraft, including a biplane, Dakotas, and Soviet-era jets.

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