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Riven by lawlessness, corruption and economic failure, the beleaguered country could fall back into civil war at any time

A displaced woman and her baby, from a forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer group in Congo, live in an abandoned factory in Nyunzu, Congo, March 22, 2016. Traditional forest dwellers, known for their capacity to co-operate, have become embroiled in and displaced by one of the conflicts that typify the Democratic Republic of Congo as an election crisis looms.

When he writes his court rulings, Justice Emile Dhekana buys his own paper, pens, staples and carbon-copy sheets. Then he asks for a cash payment from whichever side will win the ruling.

Justice Dhekana says he cannot support his family on his monthly salary of $600 (U.S.). So, like other judges here, he extracts money from the parties in the cases before him. He tells them he needs the payment for his cellphone costs or office supplies, though he admits it's mostly for his family expenses. "It's not legal, but we have to do it," he said.

The court system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, like most other state functions, is close to collapse. "It's a catastrophe," Justice Dhekana said. "We don't even have a budget to run our office. To get money, we have to hassle the people in our cases."

Riot police remove a barricade used to block a road during a protest in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. Human Rights Watch says security forces have killed three people in Congo’s capital and arrested scores more amid protests against President Joseph Kabila’s hold on power.

The prolonged and brutal wars in eastern Congo have receded in recent years, but a near-total absence of state authority is still blighting the country, leaving it in jeopardy of further eruptions of violence and chaos. As it lurches through political and economic crises, Congo remains a dysfunctional and destabilizing factor in one of Africa's most volatile regions.

Here in eastern Congo, only a few armed militias are still raiding villages in the remote forests, largely contained by troops. But conflict still rages in the central region of Kasai, where more than 500 people have been killed in the past five months in clashes between Congolese security forces and an opposition militia. Two United Nations investigators were among those killed, and UN peacekeepers have discovered dozens of mass graves in the region.

Almost 1.3 million people have fled Kasai because of the fighting. A third of the region's health clinics have been forced to close, and about 400,000 children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, the UN says.

In this Thursday, June 30, 2016 photo, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, center, waves as he and others celebrate independence for the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kindu, Congo.

At the national level, President Joseph Kabila is clinging to office after 16 years in power, despite the end of his legal mandate last December. His actions have triggered a political and constitutional crisis, with elections delayed and protesters shot dead by police. The political stalemate, combined with weak prices for Congo's mineral exports, has left the economy in disarray. Congo's currency has plummeted, food prices have soared, and public-sector salaries are deteriorating in real terms.

The national crisis has raised tensions across the country. A recent poll of 2,301 people in Congo, conducted by a U.S. research group and a Congolese polling agency, found that a strong majority expects strife in the country within months, and 69 per cent believe Mr. Kabila should have resigned in December.

"The combination of political uncertainty, predatory state institutions and low commodity prices is contributing to an increasingly toxic situation," the International Crisis Group, an NGO based in Brussels, wrote in a recent commentary.

In another sign of the government's growing dysfunction and disorder, more than 4,000 inmates escaped from a maximum-security prison in the capital, Kinshasa, in mid-May. It was the biggest prison break in Congo's history. Two days later, another 70 prisoners escaped from jail in another part of the country. The government refused to acknowledge the full extent of the Kinshasa jailbreak for days.

Congolese police patrol outside the main prison in Kinshasa, Congo, Wednesday May 17, 2017.

Ituri province, in eastern Congo, is a microcosm of the country and its woes. It is rich in natural resources, with vast amounts of gold and timber. It gained autonomy in 2015 as one of the new provinces created in a decentralization plan. Yet it remains paralyzed by rampant corruption and lawlessness, a crumbling government, violent crime and banditry and a desperate lack of state revenue.

Like most provinces in this sprawling country, Ituri receives little help from faraway Kinshasa. The provincial capital, Bunia, is shrouded in darkness at night, except for a few dim streetlights. Its residents have little electricity or running water.

Pierre-Claver Bedidjo, a member of the Ituri legislature, said the province is impoverished because the government fails to collect taxes from the booming trade in gold, timber and other goods that cross the nearby Ugandan border.

" Ituri is one of the provinces with the richest resources," he said. "There should be enough money for water, roads, schools and hospitals. But officials are putting the money in their own pockets. Our resources are not benefiting the people."

The collapse is most visible on the roads. Even on major routes, cars must crawl along the potholed and rutted dirt roads at 10 or 20 kilometres an hour. When it rains, a lack of drainage means the roads turn into raging torrents, with cars up to their axles in water. For the privilege of driving in these appalling conditions, motorists are routinely charged a $10 road tax – a huge amount in a country where many people earn less than a dollar a day. This tax revenue often vanishes into private pockets before it reaches any government coffers.

On the main highway running west from Bunia, gangs of young men throw logs onto the road as makeshift barriers. Then they extract money from passing motorists. The police ignore the barricades or seem powerless to stop them.

It's part of a broader pattern of lawlessness that cripples the Congolese state at all levels. Tonnes of gold and truckloads of timber are smuggled out of the country by politically connected gangs. Tankers of fuel and convoys of new cars are brought into the country without taxation, sometimes accompanied by police vehicles to ensure that nobody will dare question them at the border. Only a tiny fraction of the revenue reaches the government.

Corruption plagues the police and the army, who demand bribes from villagers in exchange for defending them from rebel militias. "Instead of protecting the people, they harass them," said Augustin Kangamina, a human-rights activist in Ituri. "If you don't pay, you're tortured or beaten."

The graft reaches down to the lower levels of the state. At Bunia's airport, officials demand cash for the routine processing of a visitor's passport or health documents.

Not surprisingly, the prisons are corrupt and badly overcrowded. Luc Malembe, jailed for a month in Bunia's central prison in December for participating in a protest against the President, said he and four fellow prisoners had to pay a $600 bribe to a powerful gang of inmates for the right to sleep on a floor indoors. Those who could not pay were forced to sleep outside on the ground near the toilets. The prison, designed to hold 200 inmates, now holds as many as 1,300 and has so little food that some inmates are severely malnourished, Mr. Malembe said. "It was horrible. We were shocked."

Mr. Malembe is a member of Lucha, a national protest movement founded in 2012 by university graduates who were spurred by social and economic grievances such as unemployment. Last month it led protests against Ituri's governor. Despite frequent arrests and threats against its leaders, the movement has broad public support across Congo, polls show. "We had only 10 members when we began and now we have thousands," Mr. Malembe said.

Security personnel sitting on a truck watch burned vehicles at the front gate of the Makala prison after it was attacked by supporters of jailed Christian sect leader Ne Muanda Nsemi in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo May 17, 2017.

Back at the office of Bunia's judges, there is no electricity, except for a small solar panel, and the clerk has to use a typewriter, Justice Dhekana says. They even had to buy their own chairs until UN peacekeepers donated some furniture.

Every year the judges write a report to the national government, explaining their needs. "Nothing ever happens," Justice Dhekana said.

He tries to protect his ethics by asking for money only from the side that he knows will win the court case. But other judges ask for money from both sides, he says, despite the fact this might influence their decision if one side gives more than the other.

"It's so widely practised that everyone who goes to court now understands that he has to give money."