It has become a bit of a surreal experience to fly into Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Visitors are greeted by a modern terminal, opened in 2015 and capable of servicing 1 million passengers a year. The fresh tarmac of a 10-lane highway that glides commuters into the city center is lined with solar-powered streetlights and stops for a new public transit system. Clearly Kinshasa is trying its best return to its former glory, when it was admiringly called “la belle.”
On the surface, a lot has changed since the last presidential election in 2011. Air-conditioned shopping centers have opened along the Boulevard, the city’s most prestigious street, along with upmarket fashion boutiques and jewelers. Kinshasa’s nouveau riche down cocktails in trendy bars, and rents in certain parts of the city, which the government has ridded of street children and other undesirables, now surpass those in New York and Paris. Has DRC, notorious for its seemingly endless civil wars, finally turned a corner on its way toward peace and economic development?
Unfortunately not. The slums are still there, bordering the new highway from the airport, and diplomats and experts fear the arrival of a major new political crisis, akin to what took place in neighboring Burundi in April 2015, when youth-led protests erupted against a disputed third mandate for President Pierre Nkurunziza. Burundi’s security forces brutally suppressed the protests, and Nkurunziza was re-elected in a sham election in July 2015. Since then, the country has been on the brink of civil war. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, and thousands have been killed.