Political Culture, Neopatrimonialism, and Foreign Relations in the DRC

After decades of war and violence, the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least on a surface level, appears to be recovering, albeit slowly. Years of decline due to the corruption that came with weak political institutions caused what should be a promising country due to vast resources and territory to become effectively a war zone, ruled in a patrimonial then neopatrimonial fashion by the political elite, and their friends and family, both domestic and international.

Corruption has been far too common in what is now the DRC since Joseph Mobutu seized power following the hasty installation of a government under Patrice Lumuba, as Belgium withdrew from the continent in the 1960s. Mobutu, like Leopold before him, utilized the country as a personal piggy-bank, taking advantage of the vast resources it had to offer to accumulate enourmous wealth, and allowing those closest to him, including partners from the United States (the U.S. viewed Mobutu as anti-Soviet) and other foreign powers significant advantages in extraction and trade.

Today, current President Joseph Kabila has been implicated by international watchdogs in similar corrupt activities, even though Kabila’s father led forces which overthrew Mobutu’s reign. This is significant, because it highlights the political culture in the DRC, which allows neopatrimonial corruption, and even expects it from its leaders. Although Kabila has pledged to combat the problem of corruption within his government, “there is neither indication of firm political will, nor evidence of progress beyond the establishment of a strong legal framework, which is rarely enforced in practice.”  (transparency.org) This is consistent with Taylor’s and Williams’ assertion that “neopatrimonial states house hybrid regimes wherein the informal mechanisms of political authority described above ‘coexist with the formal trappings of the modern state’ such as a bureaucracy, written laws and the institutions of a Weberian legalrational system.” (Taylor and Williams)

The political culture of the DRC, along with its neopatrimonial structure provide ample opportunity for foreign powers to take advantage of the DRC within the international community. For example, China is far  and away the DRC’s largest trading partner, accounting for 43.5% of exports, primarily of raw materials including copper, gold, cobalt, wood, and even diamonds. (CIA World Factbook) The structures in place allow for close relationships between those political elite who control natural resources, and foreign (especially Chinese) investors. These relationships have been evidenced by the skyrocketing net worth of not only Kabila, but his close group of advisors called “the Kabila boys.” (BBC) Although Kabila himself has never been implicated in any corrupt extractive schemes, one of the “Kabila boys”, Katumba Mwenke was accused of profiteering off of the recent five-year civil war through shady dealings with Zimbabwe. This is consistent with Cameron Thies’ idea that increased incidences of war can be linked to increased extraction. (Thies)

Although on a surface level, Joseph Kabila appears committed to ending neopatrimonialism, and severing toxic international relationships, his actions show otherwise. Only time will tell whether or not the DRCs’ vast resources will ever be used not only for the economic benefit of a privileged political elite, but for the good of the entire nation.



 “National Design and State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa” – Cameron g. Thies

“Political Culture, State Elites and Regional Security in West Africa” – Ian Taylor and Paul D. Williams









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