What future can there be for Kinshasa la Belle?

There was once a time when Kinshasa boasted the nickname “Kin, la Belle” (“Kinshasa, the Beautiful”). After all, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital and largest city is replete with what locals call “ambience”. It hosts Congolese pop music legends like Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba and traditional dance scenes that rival if not surpass other African capitals. But aside from these irrelevant charms, the city-province faces such socioeconomic degradation as to produce the unflattering rebaptism and pun: “Kin, la Poubelle” — “Kinshasa, the trash can.”

The symptoms of urban decay are ever-present. Buildings show their age. Young boys line the busiest avenues in pursuit of spare franc notes. At rush hour, ubiquitous black and white United Nations vehicles weave in and out of downtown traffic. They signify decades of conflict and underdevelopment in the Congo.

Photo: UN vehicles in Kinshasa. Valérie Bah.

But it would be misguided to reduce the country to its capital city. Kinshasa is not so much a microcosm of the diverse DRC as it is a symbol of its thwarted potential. Daily, N’djili International Airport welcomes private investors, mining professionals, and international development consultants and ushers out emigrating Congolese in search of better lives.

Extreme wealth disparity

The stark contrast between affluent zones and the Cité (slum) encapsulates Kinshasa’s colossal wealth disparity. The former consists of a minor ensemble of commercial, administrative, and residential areas that dominate the banks of the Congo River. The latter includes everything else — sprawling low-income plots and ill-lit shanty towns.

Though the proportion of people in poverty is lower in Kinshasa than in the rest of the country, at 41.6% compared to 71.3% countrywide according to a 2009 UN Development Programme (UNDP) report, since the 1970s there has been a dramatic decrease in the rates of formal employment which is attributed to cuts in civil service jobs and structural adjustment policies.

In response, a large number of Kinois generate their own employment in the informal sector. In fact, this category of employment dwarfs all others as it represents 70.8% of jobs in the city. Informal sector activity is the dominant coping strategy for poor households in Kinshasa. Certainly, it is a flexible and diverse alternative. The informal jobs vary from shoe-shining, to cellular phone-charging, to money-changing.  However, the sector is rife with difficulties and contradictions. A predominant concern is regulation, or the lack thereof. Take, for example, the case of street food vendors in Kinshasa. Many are left to operate without proper permits and licensing and many more are harassed and have to pay bribes to local police[ii].

Photo: Man on a motorbike in Matonge Commune. Valérie Bah.

Shedding colonial problems, taking on new ones

The city’s current economic problems can be traced back to its infamous dictatorship. To illustrate Mobutu Sese Seko’s impact on the national psyche, Jules Wemby-Lofudu, section chief and professor at the National Institute of Architecture and Urbanisation summarises Kinshasa’s history in three stages: Colonial, Mobutu, and Post-Mobutu.

Mobutu’s claim to power in 1965, a mere five years after the DRC gained its independence, marked a distinct era in the governance of the capital and the rest of the country. Opposing further foreign appropriation, he introduced laws nationalising corporately-owned land, in essence ushering in “Zaïrasation”. This policy started the sudden expropriation of businesses and assets from alien ownership in the Congo. With it declined enterprise and, by extension, construction projects. If a structure was to be built, it would be in the name of the state. Simultaneously, Mobutu’s administration drove the rest of the country to bankruptcy, unemployment, and civil war, leaving lofty unused buildings today as a reminder of his extravagance.

Before independence, Belgian colonisers laid out the city’s skeleton. Though they designed it with relative coherence, they were admittedly more interested in extracting resources than accommodating the citizenry. For example, spacious avenues traverse the city, while intersecting roads are inconveniently few. This is probably due to the colonialist preoccupation with shipping primary goods above moving traffic. There is also a strong demarcation between the city’s downtown area in which the Europeans were almost exclusively stationed, and the underdeveloped periphery, where the Congolese resided.

Today, the city is not held in the grip of a dictator or coloniser, but in the invisible hand of foreign direct investment. Construction and urbanisation projects take place, but rarely for the benefit of the population. In contrast to Kinshasa’s ubiquitous crumbling structures, large-scale construction projects have recently started to dot the cityscape.

Case in point: In the spring of 2013, the government of DRC renewed its commitment to finishing the construction of roads and bridges under a national infrastructure project. The project, dubbed “Sicomines”, is the result of an agreement between the Congolese government and a Chinese consortium of the same name in 2008, who have agreed to finance infrastructure (currently to the tune of $3bn) in return for the right to invest in the mining of non-ferrous metals [iii]. It has caused wariness among local human rights activists who fear that it will be just another “top-down” initiative that enriches the elite and forgets about the most vulnerable. Their suspicion may be justified. One rule about Kinshasa’s economic development is that for all the wealth it generates, it leaves the majority of the city’s population to fend for itself.

Photo: Unpaved street in the Cite. Valérie Bah.

Corroded infrastructure. Even rustier service.

The infrastructural problems in Kinshasa are daunting. Most Kinois suffer from a lack of access to potable water. The municipal water authority Regideso (a rudimentary spelling of Régie des Eaus or “Public Water Company”) relies mainly on surface water installations in the city and an insufficient number of distribution systems. The state of Kinshasa’s water itself is alarming for a combination of reasons. Degrading water pipes, human waste, and other polluting agents taint its quality.

Electricity is also scarce. Hydro-electric energy doesn’t reach the whole city, but is public, and the most widespread energy source aside from coal and fossil fuel power. On 29 June 2013, SNEL (Société nationale d’éléctricité), the city’s sole purveyor of electricity, had to announce “extreme selective power cuts.” These cuts happen seasonally, between May and September, the dry season, and affect the disfavoured communes first.

“We rarely see energy cuts in the Gombe Commune, but they’re such a chronic sickness in the Cité that we don’t even mention it over there,” said Jean Kayembe, security guard and resident of Ngaba Commune. “Where the government officials and diplomats live, the same cuts woul
dn’t be accepted.”

Photo: Out of order urban rail in Gombe Commune, Kinshasa. Valérie Bah.

In terms of transportation, Kinshasa suffers daily from massive congestion. This is not only due to the centralization of its economic areas, but also to the absence of reliable public transportation. To an outsider, the system of hand signals used to flag buses and reach a particular destination is cryptic. To all, the elevated incidence of road accidents is disconcerting. The big white vans that circulate with a surfeit of passengers are locally known as Esprit de mort, or “spirit of the dead”. In 2010 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated the number of road traffic deaths at 20.9 per 100,000 population for the year.

On June 30, 2013, the Ministry of Transport unveiled a fleet of buses on the streets of Kinshasa. This measure was received with scepticism by some.

Didier Kita, a 36-year old engineer at the United Nations’ DRC Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO), expressed doubts about how long the fleet would last in light of the rough conditions of the roads: “If you want, I can show you a graveyard of deteriorated buses from every other time the government tried to put public transportation on the roads of Kinshasa,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether these new vehicles will have an impact on the present mortality and traffic caused by the de facto transportation system.

Crime in the city

Unemployment, the flagging economy, and insufficient law enforcement creates a Molotov cocktail of crime and vulnerability. This is especially the case for the young. Kinshasa actually has a nomenclature to categorise juvenile delinquents. Boys who roam the street to pan-handle or rob are locally known as “sheges”. Boys who do the same thing but with a machete in hand are labelled “kuluna”. This marginalised and idle demographic is referred to as “Mobutu’s lost children”.

It is important to note that there is no positive link between security and the presence of police or militia groups in the city. In reality, the multiple armed forces or police agents have a history of violent clashes, particularly during past presidential elections[iv]. Otherwise, in ordinary times, they leave the distinct impression that one must care for his or her own safety.

“People run away when they see us coming,” said an incredulous police officer in front of a Provincial Police Station in the Gombe Commune. “It’s as if they think we want to steal their money or something.”

Failing governance and an uncertain future

In its typical bombastic style, Foreign Policy magazine (jointly with the Fund for Peace) has ranked the DRC as one of the top 5 failed states in the world since 2010. Though FP’s assessment may be more sensationalist than informative, it is not far off the mark. It correctly describes the capital’s governance.

Estimates of Kinshasa’s population fluctuates between 5 and 10 million. The quality of data on the city’s residents is marginal, while the political will to invest in population surveys is low. Statistics are often fabricated and used for political gains; the last government census harkens to 1984. This absence of population data, a fundamental management tool, is just one illustration of the absent nature of Kinshasa’s governance. Similarly, in terms of budgeting and planning, the city’s deputyship discloses very little information[v].

The DRC’s current president, Joseph Kabila, has a Twitter account and a single tweet: “I think it’s in the interest of our nation to take action through acts, not only through many speeches.” Incongruously, his 2006 presidential campaign introduced the Cinq Chantiers programme, a five-pronged public works programme that promised drastic improvements in health care, road infrastructure, housing, and energy access [vi]. In 2013, the plan is barely mentioned, conceivably indicating a quiet failure.

In short, big problems with a side of ineffectual governance is the current order of the day in Kinshasa. For the enormity of its issues and its lack of a pleasant past, it is hard to imagine a recovered Kinshasa.


[i] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2009. Province Kinshasa, Profil Resume Pauvreté et condition de vie des ménages, Kinshasa: UNDP.

[ii] Lyenda, G., 2001. Street food and income generation for poor households in Kinshasa. Environment & Urbanization, 3 (13), p. 231-241.

[iii] Radio Okapi, 2013. Parternariat sino-congolais : le gouvernement fait le point. Radio Okapi, 27 May, p. 1.

[iv] Martin, M., 2008. Human Security in the Democratic Republic of Congo: The European Union as a Force for Good?, Kinshasa: IPG.

[v] Kapagama, P. & Waterhouse, R., 2009. Portrait of Kinshasa: City on the Edge. Cities and Fragile States, 1(53), p. 1-23.

[vi] de Boeck, Filip, 2010. The Modern Titanic: Urban Planning and Everyday Life in Kinshasa. The Salon (4), p. 76-85.


Valérie Bah is a Canadian freelance journalist who writes on issues of migration, marginalization, crime, and LGBT human rights. She has worked in several Canadian federal government ministries and non-profit organisations and currently serves as an associate reporting officer at the United Nations’ refugee agency in Kinshasa, DRC. She holds a master’s in International Relations from the Universidad de Cadiz, Spain.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series, and is published in partnership with The Global Urbanist.

Headline photo: Welders and brake-fixers in Matonge Commune, Kinshasa. Valérie Bah.


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