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Life gets better for Kinshasa elites, but is a struggle for most

I have just returned from a quick trip to Kinshasa, my first in a long time.

Several things surprised me. First, the city has developed spectacularly in some respects over the past several years. Dozens of kilometers of new roads have unclogged traffic in some select areas of the city as Chinese contractors have repaired and broadened some of the main thoroughfares: Boulevard de 30 Juin, Avenue des Huileries, Boulevard Lumumba (under construction), Boulevard Triomphale and Avenue des Poids Lourds. The favorite word for the construction seems to have been “anarchique,” as the roads often lacked drainage, resulting in flooding, and traffic signs – dozens of people have been killed in traffic accidents as a result.

But there is no doubt that there has been some modest – and relatively untransparent, given some opaque tenders – improvement to infrastructure in the city. The main Boulevard de 30 Juin is a different (and less leafy) street altogether. Add to this the Hôpital du Cinquatenaire, the largest Central Africa apparently (but which has also raised questions about expropriation of land, long delays, and management challenges), the Rakeen Towers, the quixotic Cité du Fleuve, and a possible new Sheraton, and some Kinois grudgingly admit that the government is developing the city.

But the progress has mostly benefited the narrow elite – the number of new highrises, restaurants, internet cafés and bars is astounding (as are the prices on the menus). For the average citydweller, life has gotten harder, mostly because the cost of living has gone up. A look at food prices gives a decent idea of these hardships:

Much of this price hike is due to inflation, but for Congolese who earn in Congolese francs, that is not a great consolation. In addition to this, gas prices have gone up around 10% in the past two months alone, which trickles down to higher food and transport prices. So when the Kinois see a new highrise, instead of talking about development, they are more likely to quip about which minister is gone into business with which Lebanese businessman.

(The Crown Towers, the Congo Futur Shopping Mall, Paradise and Riverside complexes belong to the Tajideen family, which is close to Kabila and (partly) under US sanctions for supporting Hezbollah; the Rakeen Towers is a UAE investment; the Sheraton building reportedly belongs to an Indian businessman who owns Services Air airlines.)

It is difficult to separate perception from reality and to say whether life has really gotten worse for most. But the frequent strikes by state employees (including doctors) and the rising food prices put a stain on the picture that the government wants to paint of its burgeoning capital.

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