Exasperation. Rage. Bewilderment. Impatience. That is the range of emotions that go through the mind of those living next door to our giant (how they love to boast about that) western neighbour. The whole lot, except indifference. However, sometimes one is also moved to pity for its hapless citizens. They deserve better. But history has not been kind to them. They have been blighted by the worst leaders imaginable. For nearly a century and a half, what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been led by a succession of looters and murderers, clowns and bunglers, gangsters and even self-ordained demi-gods, and unless they change, soon by those complicit in genocide. But pity and trying to understand why they are the way they are cannot be a reason for their remaining so. They must also be faulted for their inability, sometimes wilful, to take charge of their destiny instead of looking for scapegoats for their own weaknesses. It seems leaders able to lift the DR Congo out of endemic chaos and violence, political malaise and dysfunction, and make it realise its full potential are not yet born or are in very short supply and hard to find. Still the search for leaders goes on. In December this year, Congolese will be going to the polls to elect the president and members of parliament. No one expects any better luck this time around. The same bumbling creatures are presenting themselves again and are blocking opponents (maybe only marginally better) from contesting. That should be the news and campaigns should be in full swing. But we do not hear much of that. Instead, it is the sound of war and a creeping genocide that fill the air, the result, of course, of inept leadership. But even then electoral concerns form the background of what is happening in that country today. They have occupied President Tshisekedi’s actions from the time he was declared winner of the last election, although clearly not, and as it turns out totally unsuitable. He has been wriggling out of the hold of the coalition that put him in power and has succeeded in shunting them aside. Even with all the manoeuvring, he is still not sure of victory and so wants to extend his rule by creating conditions that will make the holding of elections across the country impossible leading to their postponement. According to this logic, the strategy is: escalate the war in the east, blame it all on Rwanda, extend the state of emergency and stay in power. Or if elections take place, the anti-Rwanda stance will win him votes. That, of course, is only part of the picture. But it is not beyond Congolese leaders’ imagination, even capability, to put personal interests before those of the nation. That has been the history but also the tragedy of DR Congo, one catastrophic leader after another. Everyone knows about Belgian King Leopold II, owner of the country as his personal estate. Inept, vain, and brutal; more savage than the supposed savages European rule was supposed to turn into civilised beings. His rule had debilitating effects on the Congolese that are still felt today. It sapped their self-belief and confidence, and eroded their dignity as human beings. All of which made them lose any sense of agency and regard human life as worthless, and turned them into violent creatures. The atrocities of Leopold’s Force Publique, which was essentially an army created to terrorise the people into producing the commodities the king wanted, have been well documented. Its legacy runs through successive Congolese armies. They have never made the transition from the Force Publique of Leopold’s Congo Free State and its successor Belgian Colony. They have maintained the same exactions and violence against the people. The Belgian State that took over control of Congo continued much in the same vein as Leopold. The cruelty was perhaps less crude but much else remained unchanged. The post-independence period was supposed to be better. But that possibility was killed in infancy. The only leader that held the promise of liberating the Congolese from decades of abuse and indignity, restoring their humanity and confidence, and giving them the ability to conduct their own affairs was killed before he could put his plans into practice. We will never know how far Patrice Lumumba would have gone in this direction. The flame of hope he had lit was snuffed out before it could burn brightly and light up the whole vast expanse of Congo. The start of life as an independent country could not have been more chaotic and violent and has been so since. There was the struggle at the top, prime minister and president sacking each other instigated no doubt from the outside, which allowed those external interests to determine the outcome of the conflict. Amidst this was the threat of secession of the rich province of Katanga. That threat still hangs over the politics of DR Congo as it has done all these decades. The overthrow and assassination of Lumumba was followed by years of armed rebellion, especially in the east of the country. The region has been restive since then, with only short periods when there was a lull. In this chaotic and violent environment came Joseph Desire Mobutu, later Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, both as beneficiary and principal actor who, then positioned himself as saviour and indispensable ally to western interests. His rule was equally disastrous for ordinary citizens. Only a small elite group of rich business executives and top government officials and military officers benefitted from his eat and let eat rule. Perhaps the only good thing he did was an attempt to restore Congolese dignity through his policy of authenticity, the use of African names instead of European ones for both people and places. That is how he became Mobutu Sese Seko and the big cities previously called Leopoldville, Elizabethville and Stanleyville became respectively Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kisangani. But even that limited success did not live long after him. He stashed away the country’s wealth in foreign banks, made himself the most powerful figure with the pose and attire to go with it. At the height of his power, he even cut the image of a demi-god. Like all such pretenders especially when they play at being a deity, he eventually came crashing down in an ignominious end, chased out of power and his country, sick and powerless and apparently friendless. Mobutu’s biggest mistake and greatest disservice to DR Congo and whose effects haunt the region today was his siding with genocidaires from Rwanda, giving them sanctuary and allowing them to regroup, rearm and launch attacks on Rwanda in order to overgrow the new government and complete their genocidal mission. His successors, from Laurent Kabila to his son Joseph and now Tshisekedi, have learnt no lesson from this. They have all hitched their political and diplomatic fortunes on the genocidaires’ wagon (FDLR). Laurent Kabila ruled like a gangster king and enlisted the military services of the FDLR to remain in power, enforce his mafia plans and as a threat to Rwanda’s leadership. His son Joseph Kabila was perhaps only a little less crude but he too ruled in the same way, with the FDLR as his military allies. Now there is Felix Tshisekedi, put in power following some arrangements between Congolese politicians, perhaps because they thought he was more pliable or might have some hidden capability that might come into the open once he was in office, or even harmless. He has proved them wrong on all counts. He has shown he cannot keep his word, cannot be trusted, cannot take responsibility for matters Congolese. And he has gone farther than his predecessors in relations with the FDLR. He has openly embraced them, armed them and allowed them to spread their genocidal ideology among Congolese and actually carry it out against his own citizens. It is a dangerous thing and he might be placing DR Congo on a destructive path. And worse, he wants to draw the region into his destructive plans. The world cannot sit by comforted by the knowledge that it has been like that for 62 years and that somehow the Congolese will stumble along until they find some sort of solution. Someone must act to stop the headlong rush to another catastrophe, this time with genocide added to it.