Decentralization in DR Congo: what application?


In DR Congo the centralized administration struggles to harmonize its management with provincial governments. Difficult coexistence of local autonomy and central power sought with decentralization?

The assessment that can be made of the decentralization established in 2007 in the DRC resembles a journey marked by uncertainties linked in particular to the failure of the State. Reading the organic law of October 7, 2008 (on the composition, organization and operation of Decentralized Territorial Entities and their relationships with the State and the Provinces), we see the successive establishment of three levels of governance: 1° the central government, 2° the provinces and 3° the decentralized territorial entities which are the cities, municipalities, sectors and chiefdoms.

But the local governance desired and advocated in the carefully crafted legislative texts is still slow to materialize. What can we identify today as an obstacle to the application of this revolutionary reform which, at the time, was approved by referendum?

Political power, decentralization and good governance

In theory, the decentralization of power is a method of organizing the State supposed to promote good governance. This would imply a participatory democracy in which the voice of all individuals counts and an appropriation of democratic processes by all the actors involved. The desired long-term effect would be the establishment of institutions close to citizens and capable of best responding to their needs and concerns. Thus, abstract concepts such as “democracy” and “state” are concretized in local governance structures of political organization. In other words, “power” descends from the distant, inaccessible and centralized pedestal and takes the form of a forum for local dialogue. Citizens thus become active stakeholders in the governance process.

Decentralization also has the virtue of allowing better administrative efficiency, less bureaucracy, more effective collaboration with local actors, better participation and representation in the democratic process. Concretely, the decentralization of power takes place at three levels: political, administrative and financial. In other words, power is delegated to decentralized political entities while providing them with the administrative means as well as the financial resources necessary to guarantee good governance.

Democracy with variable geometry in DR Congo

What about decentralization in fragile states? Can we apply the same analysis grid mentioned above or should other factors be taken into consideration to understand the internal dynamics of the process? What are the risks of decentralization in fragile states?

  • Instead of being a local governance structure, decentralization often fills a void left by the state apparatus. This translates concretely into the total absence of public services and no management of the conflicts which devastate civilian populations. Thus, decentralized structures assume the security and sovereign role that the central State is not capable of ensuring.
  • At the level of perceptions, citizens can associate decentralization with the same bureaucratic twists and turns of centralized structures. Thus, any form of governance, whether national or local, is seen more as an administrative labyrinth and a costly burden rather than a structure intended to best meet the needs of citizens.
  • For fragile states, decentralization can pose the risk of capture of local power by armed groups or local non-state structures. These may be in disagreement with the central power or pursue their own interests, or even have secessionist intentions.
  • Another danger is that of seeing the perpetuation of a rather elitist system which puts faithful copies of central power and plutocrats at the head of local structures. [1]Person who draws his power, his political power from money - Larousse dictionary. without any legitimacy.

However, despite the risks it may generate in certain contexts, the relevance of decentralization should not be called into question. It constitutes an indicator of success and constitutes a strong demand from local populations. This is the case in DR Congo.

Decentralization was launched in DR Congo in 2007, after the promulgation of the 2006 Constitution which explicitly refers to the provinces and provincial political institutions (Article 195), to the distribution of powers between the central power and the provinces (Article 201) and finally, to customary authority (Article 207). Two organic laws were also adopted in this regard in 2008, one relating to the free administration of the provinces, the other detailing the organization and operation of Decentralized Territorial Entities (ETD), i.e. cities, municipalities, sectors and chiefdoms, and their relationships with the central government and the provinces.

In order to strengthen this process, a first National Forum was organized in Kinshasa in 2007 bringing together representatives of the central government, the Senate, the National Assembly, provincial assemblies, provincial governments, civil society, customary leaders and all actors involved in the decentralization process. The Forum enabled the outcome of a document laying the foundations of the decentralization process, namely the “ Strategic Framework for Implementing Decentralization ". While the status of the Forum was already ambiguous, this did not prevent the proliferation of other structures whose role has not been well defined and which remain unknown to local populations. The list is rather long: the National Council for the Implementation and Monitoring of the Decentralization Process (CNMD), the Interministerial Steering, Coordination and Monitoring Committee of the CNMD; the Technical Unit to Support Decentralization; the Conference of Governors which, in theory was supposed to meet at least twice a year, but since 2008, has never met; the Association of communes and sectors planned by the Ministry of Decentralization in 2009; the provincial technical units supporting decentralization. Since 2007, a second Forum on decentralization was organized in December 2019 under the patronage of President Tshisekedi who urged the leaders of decentralized entities to “ translate into action the resolutions resulting from this forum ".

Historically, decentralization in DR Congo is the result of the 2003-2006 post-conflict transition regime established after the Third Congo War. The period was marked by the presence of international partners rather inclined to support the process. But the central power has clearly indicated its support for a more unitary system, corroborated with certain fears of witnessing the breakup of the country barely reunited after years of war. This could explain both the recentralization of power and the failure of effective decentralization in DR Congo. The State is diffracted rather than decentralized and it reproduces at the local level its image projected at the national level: State - consumed by corruption, State - predatory and State - ineffective administrative machine.

Generally speaking, the decentralization process as analyzed upstream did not succeed in overcoming the climate of suspicion established between the central power of Felix Tshisekedi and the local authorities, most of whom are members of the Common Front for Congo ( FCC) of former President Joseph Kabila. One more “ingredient” which threatens to further unbalance the already fragile cohabitation between the two leaders. In addition, we are witnessing an ambiguous and chaotic institutional proliferation in which laws often remain a dead letter. For example, the provincial elections were organized in 2007, but the elections for the Decentralized Territorial Entities scheduled for 2008 were postponed to 2010 and then to 2013. This concretely implies that mayors, mayors and chieftaincy heads continue to be appointed by Kinshasa.

Confusion has taken root at all levels, including regarding the status of local civil servants, most of whom are transferred from national ministries. The question that emerges relates to the remuneration of these hybrid status staff who are employed by the State and who are therefore responsible for paying their salaries. On the other hand, the salary bases of Congolese civil servants are very low and constitute up to 10% of the real salary, the rest being supplemented by bonuses, bonuses and other compensation. Therefore, by “offloading” these officials to local entities, the State transfers the responsibility for these compensations to them, thus adding a financial burden on the shoulders of these structures which are often cruelly lacking in money. This has a direct impact on civil servants whose rather uncertain income makes them precarious and makes them more likely to give in to the temptations of corruption and the collection of wild taxes from local populations.

13 years of decentralization in DR Congo: what results?

From economic and security points of view, the country is bloodless: according to the latest human development report produced by UNDP, DR Congo records a low Human Development Index (HDI) and occupies 179th place in the world ranking. 13 years after the implementation of the decentralization process, many pockets of insecurity are bogged down across the country, especially in the eastern provinces. Several armed groups have filled the void left by the central power, incapable of controlling the entire extent of the territory.

The process of establishing local democracy was interrupted along the way. The strategic axes in terms of delegation of skills and transfer of financing which should have accompanied this local development have not seen the light of day. Decentralization therefore remained theoretical. The underlying problem is rather structural and leads us to believe that governance in DR Congo is not geared towards the well-being of the population. However, decentralization can only be understood when political actors work for collective well-being. Therefore, mechanisms must be put in place to approach decision-makers from the local population to build more social cohesion together. But when institutions deviate from this objective, when provincial assemblies serve rather to create new elites who also come to enrich themselves at the expense of the State without thinking of the popular interest, then decentralization is condemned to failure. 'failure. There is a gap between texts and practice and we still notice reflexes resistant to decentralization and a tendency to return to the past form of excessively authoritarian and centralized regimes in power.
Until we have local elections, we cannot really talk about participatory democracy in DR Congo. The population plays a crucial role, as do elected officials and their accountability to citizens, both at local and national level.

Larisa Stanciu.



1 Person who draws his power, his political power from money - Larousse dictionary.

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