Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents


Local Government

Internally, Zaire is a unitary state, whose power is projected downward to the local level. In such a centralized system, local government enjoys little autonomy.

The local government of Mobutu's Zaire, like the colonial administration that served as its model, has as its major function the control of the population: counting the people, controlling their movements, issuing identity cards, and taxing them to pay for the operations of the local administrative units that carried out these tasks. Although the labels attached to the administrative units and to the administrators who hold them have changed, the structures themselves are very similar. In many ways, the texture of the relationship between the citizen and the state apparatus resembles that of the Belgian era.

At the same time, there are great differences between the Mobutu administration and its colonial predecessor in the related areas of efficiency and honesty. Few would dispute the effectiveness or probity of the colonial administration, within its own terms of reference. By contrast, the Mobutu administration is widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient. Indeed, political scientist Michael Schatzberg has shown that the administration has long constituted a powerful mechanism for pumping resources out of the impoverished rural population.

The territorial administration was the crucial armature of the colonial state. A thorough penetration of the subject society was basic to the colonial project, and the loss of control in some territories in 1959 was a mortal blow to colonial self-confidence.

Territorial control was no less central to the policy calculus of the independent state that became Zaire. The loss of effective provincial administration, and the fragmentation of administrative authority through a multiplicity of factionalized provincial jurisdictions and local rebellions, were defining characteristics of the First Republic. During the 1964-65 rebellions, the vestiges of state power even remotely responsive to Kinshasa were eliminated over large areas of the republic. Reestablishing the authority of the state, by restoring the ascendancy of its central territorial administration, was a first priority for the Mobutu regime.

Initially, it appeared that this goal was being met. The unified hierarchical grid of the centralized state was restored, at least in form. But new self-destructive tendencies became apparent by the 1970s; the credibility of the state was at issue as its inability to perform basic services became manifest, and corruption pervaded its apparatus.

Under the Belgians, the entire colony was divided into nesting subdivisions. Each province was divided into districts and each district into territories, all units on a given level being juridically equivalent. There were about 125 territories and twenty-five districts; totals varied as a result of the frequent redrawing of boundaries in a vain attempt to obtain the perfect match between administration and society. The province, the district, and the territory all were headed by Belgians. The territory was the most crucial echelon, as it represented the point at which the European administration exercised its control upon African intermediaries, the so-called chiefs.

The local colonial administration functioned without substantial oversight or control from outside bodies. There were consultative provincial councils appointed by the government, but until the last few years of the colonial era they represented only European interests (see The Colonial State , ch. 1). At the very end of the colonial period, elected communal councils in urban areas and appointed rural councils were authorized. The former continued to function in the major cities until the end of the 1960s (the last elected organs from the First Republic to survive). Rural councils never really took shape.

In the First Republic, the province was a political unit, with an elected assembly and ministers theoretically responsible to the assembly. However, such elected bodies were never created at the working level where the state had its interface with the intermediaries it had created, the chiefs.

The symmetry and formalism of the Belgian system, its density (almost unparalleled in Africa), and its relative freedom from legislative oversight, all were powerful influences on contemporary Zaire. The Second Republic attempted not only to reconstitute this system, but to extend its application to the cities and to the local level in the countryside.

In February 1966, three months after his seizure of power, Mobutu signalled his intention to bring the provinces to heel by reunification and depoliticization. By the end of the year, the twenty-one so-called provincettes had been reduced to eight provinces (renamed regions in 1972), plus the capital, Kinshasa, meaning that colonial provincial boundaries had been almost completely restored. The exceptions were the division of the former Kasai Province into Kasai-Oriental and Kasai-Occidental and the division of the former Léopoldville Province into Bas-Zaïre and Bandundu (see fig. 4). The provinces, once quasi-federal political units with their own governments, were reduced to administrative subdivisions of the unitary state. Their chief officers were named by the president, they were rotated frequently, and they generally were assigned outside their home areas.

The heads of the various administrative subdivisions all had essentially the same role--representing the central state. The similarity in role was symbolized by the adoption of uniform terminology: the regions, subregions, zones, and collectivities (as the colonial provinces, districts, and territories were known from 1972 on) all were headed by commissioners (commissaires). However, the weight of the colonial legacy was reflected in a decision in 1982 to revive the prestigious title of gouverneur (governor), in place of regional commissioner (commissaire de région).

Although the governors clearly were dependent upon the president, problems of control did not disappear. At first the governors were kept on a short leash by the simple expedient of shifting them very often. Despite the frequent changes, some governors briefly succeeded in building up personal political machines. To prevent this process, and generally to keep an eye on the regional administration, Mobutu added a parallel control organ of state inspectors. The state inspectorate seems not to have served its purpose; it was abolished in 1971. By the late 1970s, Mobutu also had abandoned the practice of constant reshuffling; instead, governors were named to three-year terms.

Although in theory the Mobutist state was highly centralized, in practice local administrators enjoyed a degree of autonomy. They were charged with implementing within their regions the decisions taken by the president, and an administrative memorandum stipulated that the word "decisions," which appears in the constitution, must be understood in a very broad sense. Mobutu frequently made such decisions, and governors often had nothing more to go on than a radio broadcast, telephonic instructions, or a vaguely worded telegram. Thus, they had considerable discretion as to how decisions should be implemented. There were risks at the same time; if their interpretations were subsequently to incur presidential displeasure, they could lose their jobs.

Since 1977 the Mobutu regime supposedly has been committed to a policy of decentralization, beginning with urban areas. In fact, there seem to be two contradictory tendencies: toward decentralization and democratization, under pressure from external aid donors, and toward tighter administrative controls. Also in 1977, a plan was announced for sweeping reorganization of rural areas, so that no zone would contain more than 200,000 people and no subregion would comprise more than three zones. New subregions were created in parts of Bas-Zaïre, Équateur, Kasai-Oriental, and Shaba. But full implementation of this plan would have meant a huge expense, and it was never completed.

Reorganization moves reflected both the administrative rationale and political considerations, particularly in Mobutu's home region of Équateur. Mobutu's transformation of his home village of Gbadolite into a city, and the development of the small town of Gemena, also in northwest Équateur, into an important center as a result of his activities and those of his relatives and associates, led to the creation of new subregions around them. Had greater importance been attached to "administrative rationality," then surely the reorganization of Équateur Region would have been completed. Indeed, plans had been prepared for all the remaining "unorganized" regions and portions thereof, but the deteriorating politico-economic situation led to their indefinite postponement.

This wave of reform affected only the number and scope of the administrative units, not their relationship to the center. Not until 1984, when Mobutu accepted suggestions from external aid donors that he carry out political "liberalization," were the regions given legislative assemblies and a degree of politico- administrative autonomy.

In May 1988, Mobutu proposed improving the functioning of the regional structures and redrawing their boundaries, so as "to bring the administrator closer to the administered." The experiment was to begin with the division of Kivu Region into three new regions, Nord-Kivu, Sud-Kivu, and Maniema; the reorganization was not implemented immediately, but seemed to be in effect by the early 1990s. Zaire thus was divided into ten regions plus the city of Kinshasa.

Data as of December 1993

Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents