The banking system is, as usual, surprisingly robust. It seems to be very hard to kill a banking system. War, coups, famine and terror may cause banks to go turtle and stop making loans to any but a few favored lenders, but when the dust settles the banks are still there. Corruption and misregulation seem to be more serious threats than a war or two.
Congo has never had government bonds. That's actually sort of strange. Even Burundi has T-bills. (And, weirdly enough, has never once defaulted on them.) But Mobutu didn't like the idea, and then after he fell things were just too crazy for a while. So, no bonds. Foreign debt consists entirely of bank loans. And when the government runs a deficit, it doesn't issue bonds: it just asks the Congolese Central Bank to lend it the money at zero interest. Historically, this has led to problems. They're talking about starting to issue bonds Real Soon Now, but they've been doing that for a while.
Does anyone want to hear about Congo's financial system? Let's talk about Kinshasa a little
Kinshasa is a very poor city, but it is a city. It has hair salons, car repair shops, dry cleaners. (Dry cleaners are everywhere. I bet there are dry cleaners in Antarctica.) Astonishing traffic -- there are a surprising lot of cars, and the roads are bad. The driving is African, which is to say it would be terrifying if anyone could get up any speed.
There are several very expensive supermarkets aimed at expats. (Everything imported is very expensive; see the last post for part of the reason why.) Internet connectivity is spotty, but Blackberries seem to work just fine -- go figure.
Kinshasa is bloody huge. There are six or seven million people here, and few high-rise buildings, so the city just sprawls on for miles and miles. To the credit of the Belgians -- I can't believe I just wrote that, but fair is fair -- like the Mormon founders of Salt Lake City, they built with an eye towards future growth. Even when Kinshasa was just a little colonial town of thirty or forty thousand people, they were laying out immense boulevards stretching for miles and a grand esplanade along the river. One of the few positive legacies of Belgian colonialism everywhere (i.e., here, Burundi and Rwanda) was decent urban planning and some nice architecture. You can still see some of the latter around. The Belgians really seemed to like Art Deco. Since I like it too, I find myself feeling an unexpected twinge of sympathy. (Unexpected because Belgian rule, for the most part, sucked.)
To be honest, I don't get to see that much of Kinshasa, except from the window of a car going from meeting to meeting. I've been able to take a couple of strolls along the western esplanade, and two short walks around the downtown near the U.S. Embassy. And that's about it. Evenings are spent in my hotel room at the Grand Hotel, which I am, frankly, starting to dislike. The Grand Hotel has a muzak loop that plays endlessly in the elevators and lobby. Notable songs include "Tiny Bubbles", "The Sloop John B.", and "Fernando" by Abba. I've heard all of those at least four times in the last five days.
Also, the Grand has installed one of those not-quite-life-size animatronic dancing Santa Clauses by the main door. If we were staying in a Motel Six just outside of Youngstown, Ohio, this might be sort of cute. Here it's just unnerving.
Also, the electricity went out in half (but only half) of my room an hour ago. This suggests a blown fuse, except that I haven't been doing anything that would blow a fuse? And I sent my laundry out two days ago, and nobody seems to know what happened to it.
God, listen to me. Let's talk about something else.
Okay: Kinshasa has a nuclear reactor. A research reactor, one megawatt. The United States gave it to Mobutu back in the early 1970s. I guess because all the cool kids were going nuclear, and we didn't want Mobutu to feel left out? In fairness, Congo was a huge uranium producer. (The uranium for the Manhattan Project came from Congo.) The reactor sits in a small building on the campus of the University of Kinshasa, not far from here. Brief googling turned up this interesting story:
In 1967 the Organization of African Unity decided establish a regional nuclear research center in Kinshasa, and the US agreed to provide a Triga Mark II reactor to the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies (CREN/K). The first 50-kilowatt Triga Mark I reactor was retired in 1970, and replaced with the more powerful TRICO II reactor in March 1972, said to have a capacity of one megawatt of thermal.
Zaire's government stopped funding the reactor in 1988, and it reportedly ceased operations in 1992 when the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission blocked export of an essential replacement part, citing the "economic and political collapse in Zaire." In March 1998, cracks caused a wall in the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies to collapse, as a result of torrential rain which had undermined the foundations. Some shoring up work has been done, but it will not be enough to permanently combat the erosion...
In March 1998 Italian authorities seized a TRIGA fuel element shipped to Zaire in 1971. The fuel element, seized in an anti-Mafia operation in Rome, was said to consist of 190 grams of uranium enriched to 19%, inside a 70 cm stainless steel tube. It was offered for sale for US$12.6 million to a supposed Middle Eastern buyer. The fuel element was apparently stolen in 1997 from Zaire, and seven more fuel elements are being sought. Italian investigators concluded that Mobutu Sese Seko absconded with the fuel elements, when the dictator escaped to France...
The U.S. Department of Energy has been trying to persuade the Congolese to decommission the reactor for a while now. Successive Congolese governments have resisted; it may not be working most of the time, but it's theirs. (And apparently CREN-K does still do some science; a moment's search turned up a couple of papers.)
Right, off to bed.
[Update: a guy with a ladder and a screwdriver came, rummaged around behind a ceiling tile, and turned the electricity back on. Point, Grand Hotel.]