THE path along which Papua New Guinea is headed is indeed frightening – it’s similar to the route the African country of Zaire, formerly known as the Congo, took many years ago.
The Congo was as rich in natural resources as PNG but was reduced to becoming one of the poorest nations on earth.
The Congolese people suffered at the hands of colonisers and later a dictator of many names – Joseph-Desire Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga [pictured], which literally translates as ‘the cock who jumps on anything that moves’.
The Cock’s private fortune was estimated at $8 billion at the same time as income among his subjects dropped to the equivalent of $135 per person each year.
In 1885 Congo became the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium, who named it the Congo Free State. The Belgian King’s men then proceeded to freely wipe out five to eight million people and routinely maim and enslave millions of others.
This cruelty provoked outrage among European nations which forced King Leopold II to hand over the Congo to the Belgian government. But exploitation continued and the people fought hard to free themselves from unremitting cruelty.
Finally, in 1960, the Belgian government granted independence, which was followed by five years of secessionist chaos and political instability resulted in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister, paving the way for an obscure army officer, Joseph-Desire Mobutu, to take power.
By this time, copper, cobalt and diamonds had replaced rubber as the Congo’s most valuable resources. Copper prices were rising and the Congo looked like it would become one of the riches countries in Africa.
But Mobutu presided over an era of corruption and widespread plunder. Assuming a role akin to a national chief, he devised a system of patronage that enriched himself and his tribe and collaborating local chieftains.
By offering cash in return for loyalty, he also brought potential rivals to his table. The many people who refused to take part were murdered or imprisoned.
Mobutu cut a flamboyant figure and set about elevating himself to godlike status. He dubbed himself the Messiah, The Sun-President and The Guide. In processions he was carried on a throne on the backs of his subjects.
Among the Congolese, it was rumoured that bullets could not pierce his skin. People said he consorted at night with identical twin beauties and that he was a sorcerer possessed of irresistible magical powers.
He maintained a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces, built 11 palaces and acquired estates across Europe, South America and North Africa. His private fortune, consisting mainly of revenue stolen from the state treasury and diverted foreign aid, was estimated at $8 billion.
After dumping the colonial era name, Congo, and rechristening the country Zaire, Mobutu expropriated the prominent Indian, Greek and Belgian commercial and handed over their businesses and plantations to his cronies who bankrupted them.
What infrastructure the Belgians had left behind crumbled and the country returned to bush: roads decayed, telephones stopped working, electricity and running water disappeared.
The copper boom ended. Western aid dried up. In 1991 and then in 1993, his unpaid army ran amok and looted the cities. The people joined in the destruction of their own country.
Mobutu, protected by his loyal, well equipped and Israeli-trained troops, retreated to safety on his helipad-equipped yacht in the middle of the Congo River.
Hyperinflation rendered the national currency worthless, revolts and disturbances afflicted the land and government withered. Soon two of every five Zaireans suffered from chronic malnutrition.
Zaire, one of the most promising countries in Africa, became one of the poorest on earth. Yet Mobutu’s wealth continued to increase, coming now largely from black market trade in minerals.
In 1996, a civil war led by Laurent-Desire Kabila broke out and, in 1997, Kabila’s forces marched unopposed into the capital, Kinshasa.
Mobutu fled Zaire for Morocco in his private jet, dying later that year from prostate cancer.
The experience of Zaire is hair-raising. PNG is blessed with rich natural resources and diverse cultures united with a common goal to prosper as one nation, one country and one people.
There was no bloodshed when Australia gave the country independence on a platter 40 years ago.
Peter O’Neill, in his maiden speech soon after being sworn in as prime minister in 2012, paid homage to Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, who he had deposed, when he said: “It’s not easy to replace a man of such stature, but we will do our best to work in the best interest of our country.”
But under Somare’s and other prime ministerships, public service pay was never delayed as happened this very month.
Is this a sign? It will be interesting and nerve-wracking to watch what happens next to this rich and beautiful country.