Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same: Congo’s Education Crisis

Cyril Brandt, Tom De Herdt and Stylianos Moshonas look at the implementation of the Free Primary Education policy (gratuité) introduced by Congo’s new President, the struggle over payroll management, the tensions between people allied to the current and the former president and the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Cyril Brandt, Tom De Herdt and Stylianos Moshonas

The world has started to think about ‘the day after’ the current Coivd-19 pandemic, namely how to manage the economic and social recovery while at the same time preparing for a possible next crisis. The doors of schools remain closed to hundreds of millions of children worldwide. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the majority of students do not have access to distance learning opportunities. Reopening schools is therefore a priority and expected to happen soon. But how muddy is the public ground on which to build a post Covid-19 education system in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Early March, just before the outbreak of Covid-19 in Africa, the DRC media reported that Tony Mwaba, a Member of Parliament of the President’s party Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS), accused the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education of massive payroll fraud. He claimed to possess lists with the names of tens of thousands of people who would soon fraudulently appear on the educational payroll. At the beginning of May 2020, the government announced that over 250,000 names were removed from the original teacher census – reportedly because these persons did not comply with several technical conditions to become registered and paid. Does this prove that Tony Mwaba was successful, or are there other reasons for this surprising turn of events?

Below, we discuss these accusations and the government’s response in light of a number of background elements currently occupying the political and social stage in the DRC: The implementation of the Free Primary Education policy (gratuité) introduced by Congo’s new President, the struggle over payroll management, the tensions between people allied to the current and the former president and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Same, same but different

After 18 years rule of Joseph Kabila, the joy over the advent of a new President of a former opposition party has been severely tainted by alleged election fraud. The rigged results are assumed to be part of a deal between former President Kabila and current President Tshisekedi. Tshisekedi has struggled with Kabila’s on-going control of the parliament, much of the security sector and much of the country’s economic benefits. While the lion’s share of high-level rents are reaped in lucrative business deals, often via offshore companies, one of the main domestic structures for rent-seeking and employing people through state funds is the education sector. As of December 2017, slightly over 400,000 teachers and administrative staff were on the government’s payroll, and another 140,000 were formally registered but awaited their inclusion onto payroll. Ever increasing numbers reflect the inefficient and unplanned growth of the education system and its propensity to create jobs for administrative staff only remotely related to actual needs (which are huge). For several decades, households in the DRC have been obliged to co-finance various ‘public’ services and the education system is one of them.

School fees to cope with state implosion

School fees in the DRC date back to the ‘structural adjustment’ period of the eighties, but they exploded considerably in the early nineties, as a way for school networks to cope with the collapse of the Mobutu regime. School fees worked as a mixed blessing: they allowed a public service and its ancillary administration to survive the implosion of the DRC state in the nineties. They also provided for an incentive to expand the network of schools to areas with limited statehood. But they have also been one of the main barriers to reaching a universal primary education of decent quality.

After several failed attempts to abolish them, including a budget-neutral gratuité policy by former President Kabila in 2010, President Tshisekedi announced the immediate implementation of gratuité in August 2019, coupled to a government commitment to integrate all effective teachers in the public payroll.


Various government and civil society actors have voiced accusations about illicit practices in relation to this policy. For example, the infamous ‘opération retour’ is noted, i.e. the requirement to transfer a part of the salary with the person who facilitated the inclusion on payroll. There are also provincial civil servants accusing their own department of adding fictitious teachers to the payroll .

Tony Mwaba’s accusations fit into this picture. This Member of Parliament from UDPS accuses the educational authorities of using the teacher payroll for patronage, adding ghost teachers (around 100,000 fictitious teachers, compared to a total of around 400,000), creating administrative offices and posts without need, adding teachers from private schools to the state’s payroll, amongst others. Counter-accusations immediately claimed that powerful actors – Vice-President of the Parliament Jean Marc Kabund (President of UDPS) and former Minister of Education Maker Mwangu – used Mr. Mwaba, revealing the highly politicized nature of the gratuité policy. But the accusations also point to a major obstacle that the gratuité reform faces, beyond a lack of public funding to supplant parents’ contributions, namely a lack of knowledge about who really works as a teacher. Indeed, even if the financial problem would be solved, the gratuité policy looks like walking blindfolded on one leg.

We explain below why this is so.

Controlling teachers’ salaries: mission impossible?

Parents obviously reacted enthusiastically to gratuité: they immediately withheld financial contributions and sent all their children to school. Yet teachers not-on-public payroll lost their main source of income and many of them absented themselves from schools. As a consequence, classrooms burst with students. All this increased the pressure on the government to rapidly register and pay teachers. In February 2020, the MEPST, the education ministry,  launched the ‘Opération d’identification des enseignants – Nouvelles Unités, écoles et gestionnaires’  and promised to register and pay all teachers by April 2020.

However, the Congolese state administration has never had a complete overview of teachers. Back in the 1970s and 1980s no such details were needed: the Central Bank transferred ever increasing monthly lump-sums to provinces and school networks, who recruited their teachers locally. When, during the structural adjustment period, the IMF identified the civil service as a major source of leakage, SECOPE (Service de Contrôle et de la Paie des Enseignants) was created as a new department within the Ministry of Education and tasked with registering all teachers. What began as a highly reputed and feared department in 1985, crumbled amidst wider state collapse in the 1990s, however. True, the growing gap between official reality and actual practice created an important flexibility for the school networks to quickly reshuffle salaries to those who really teach, but the same flexibility also allowed the salary payment service to be misused – the kind of activities that Tony Mwaba is currently denouncing.

In fact, allegations have suggested a close link between SECOPE and politics: a part of its budget was reportedly systematically siphoned off to finance the ex-president’s party, kindly helped in this by the former Minister of Education, Maker Mwangu, an old-time political ally of Joseph Kabila. Given Mwangu’s alleged involvement in orchestrating armed conflict in Kasai province, such manoeuvres appear even more likely. Rumour has it that, upon arrival in office, the new Minister arriving in December 2016, Willy Bakonga (also PPRD, the former ruling party), would have asked ‘Mbongo eza wapi?’ (where is the money?). He apparently found it in a mass expansion of the private education sector and the  creation of new administrative bodies and posts – which for a long time have also been funded through school fees.

The gratuité policy undoubtedly works as a catalyser in all this, the Ministry of Education is in firm control of the PPRD, President Kabila’s party, while the gratuité policy has been promoted as a major accomplishment of an electoral promise by President Tshisekedi (UDPS), whose position rests on an unholy alliance with the former President. One interpretation of Tony Mwaba’s intervention is that he intends to put the blame for a policy with an unclear future on the Ministry instead of the Presidency. In fact, it is interesting to note that about one hundred thousand teachers have been added to payroll since January 2020, while the central government has not transferred any money to the provincial governments (rétrocession) in about that same period.

Fictitious employees and payroll fraud at large

Viewed historically, such payroll manoeuvres are not that surprising. Over forty years ago, a close observer of the Zairian administration noted that fictitious employees – ghost workers – represented almost two thirds of the entire civil service; in fact, Mobutu himself admitted that much when he declared at a press conference held in Paris in March 1979 that budget cuts of two-thirds could be made easily by eliminating those from the payroll. Many indications suggest that this problem is far from being resolved.

Today, the wage bill absorbs over one-third of the domestic budget in the DRC. Since the early 2000s, the steady rise in the budget has been accompanied by a sustained increase in personnel remunerated by the state: between 2007 and 2017, personnel featuring on the public payroll rose from around 600,000 to over 1.3 million. However, public sector remunerations remain beset by severe problems, including an uneven and opaque distribution of salary supplements, and the fact that many civil servants often go unpaid.

This situation partly has to do with uncontrolled recruitment in violation of official legislation, which results in large numbers of new civil servants who have yet to be recognized by ministerial authorities. Part of this  has to do with the very cumbersome procedure in which civil servants are registered, and then added onto the payroll – which relies on a procedure linking several institutions (line ministries, civil service, budget, finance, and central bank). The paradoxical result of this procedure was that, instead of allowing for multiple controls, it has increased the number of strata and actors involved in the payment of remunerations, and proportionally multiplied the concomitant risk of abuse and leakages.

The results are widespread allegations which periodically surface in the media concerning the embezzlement and leakage of remunerations through what a former minister of budget called ‘mafia networks’ skimming monies off the payroll through ghost workers. There have been policy initiatives explicitly targeted at reducing this problem: the policy of ‘bancarisation’, namely the payment of civil servants through individual bank accounts, and payroll reform, via upgrading the payroll software used at the Payroll Department of the Ministry of Budget, were both framed as solutions to the underlying problem of ghost workers. Each of those, however, has ended up reconfiguring the political economy of payroll fraud, rather than eliminating it.

After all, in the DRC, financial flows in the civil service – whether remuneration expenses or functioning costs – are typically heavily politicized. Ministerial cabinet authorities and senior bureaucrats are closely tied to the political parties that head particular ministries, and mobilisation of funds constitute major stakes around which political battles are fought out. As we already noted, this process helps explain current evolutions and disputes concerning the teachers’ payroll, but also extends beyond it.

As such, gratuité nearly facilitated massive payroll fraud via the proposed mass registration of teachers. The government, however, backpaddled early May and announced the results of the latest attempt to register all teachers. Of all teachers whose names were on the initial list, merely 144,944 teachers are eligible for registration whereas nearly 250,000 teachers were removed from the list as they did not comply with a number of criteria. We cannot tell whether Toni Mwaba’s public and detailed accusations are the reasons for this – if this were so, it would be a remarkable example of accountability. Either way, none of the remaining teachers have yet been formally registered or added to payroll.

SECOPE plays a primordial role in these dynamics as a cow that networks of powerful actors are trying to milk for their own benefits – not always with success, as we have just seen. The DRC’s current financial policies, and advocacy by Members of Parliament and civil society activists, might be reasons why the cow’s grazing land could dry out.

Within all of this, Covid-19 has taken up centre stage for three reasons: First, Covid-19 has curbed the opportunities for non-registered teachers to publicly demonstrate. Second, teachers in some regions are threatening not to return to school after they are reopened, as they were closed due to the pandemic at the end of March. Finally, the government is accused of using Covid-19 as a justification for the slow progress in registering and paying teachers.

Donors part of the game

Concerning the attempt to register and pay all teachers, the so-called international community has been half-heartedly present – and hence partly an accomplice from the very beginning. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the diagnosis of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) with regards to Zaire’s economic and debt crisis was ‘mismanagement’, to be addressed via organisational and managerial change. The status of Mobutu as a Cold War US-client precluded any stronger political stance with regards to regime change, and so this ‘mismanagement’ diagnosis by IFIs was adopted wholeheartedly by national authorities, insofar as it allowed for cosmetic changes via administrative overhaul rather than tackling the fundamental problems – which were eminently political – lying behind Zaire’s predicament.

While successive structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s failed to redress economic growth in Zaire, the policy of retrenchment did prefigure certain key changes: with public budgets slashed in health and education, a new network of private schools entered the scene, but most importantly, the informal privatisation of the public school networks set in, effectively shifting the burden of austerity onto the population which would now have to shoulder their administrative costs. Additionally, the deepening of economic crisis in the 1980s saw public sector remunerations slide into insignificance, partly through cutbacks in the wage bill, viand also their erosion in the face of rising prices. While IFIs and donors had pulled out of the country by the early 1990s, the effects of their policies would be long lasting and devastating.

Two decades later, when donors returned after the murder of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 one priority was the financial support of the process of post-conflict reconstruction, through the DRC’s integration in the process of debt relief and support for the DRC’s efforts to realise the Millennium Development Goals. The educational payroll system was identified as a major risk from the very beginning, but when the Congolese government did not fulfil initial project conditions, donors nevertheless continued their support. Sandwiched between short-term humanitarianism, politics as usual and long-term structural change, donors eventually opted for not rocking the boat.

Today as well, the World Bank will reportedly support the gratuité with a 1 billion dollar program, while it seems only a question of time for the short-term effects of such support to be neutralised by the effects of reproducing the status quo of opacity and systemic fraud in a context where domestic funding of the gratuité is structurally short.

Cyril Brandt is Associate Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. Stylianos Moshonas (@SFMoshonas) is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. Tom De Herdt (@tomdeherdt) is Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Featured Photograph: Secondary schools in Uvira, in South Kivu, demonstrate against corruption (8 December 2018).


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