Relief agencies estimate that nearly three and a half million people have died from war in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998-more than in any conflict since World War II. Many died in the fighting, but most from malnutrition and disease caused by the disruption of war.
How can 3½ million people have died with barely a ripple in the U.S. media? Even among progressives, little is known about the whole of Africa, except for South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. How many of us who avidly devour news about the Middle East or Europe turn the page when we come to a story on Africa, thinking, I really don’t know enough about this, it’s a long way away, it’s all too overwhelming. But the ancestors of over 12 per cent of our population were ripped from the shores of the African continent, and their descendents suffer the effects of that atrocity to this day. So how much of this lack of attention is a devaluing of the subject? In short, how much is racism?
It is time to change this. It is time for progressives to become informed about the second most populous continent in the world. A good place to start is with one of Africa’s largest countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are fortunate that there are four exceedingly readable books and a powerful film to make the learning process easy.
King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, is history as it ought to be written-vivid, exciting, and revealing. It begins in the 15th century with the tale of Diogo Cao, a Portuguese explorer who “â€¦came upon something that astounded him. Around his ship, the sea turned a dark, slate-tinged yellow, and brownish-yellow waves were breaking on the nearby beaches.”1
It was, of course, the mouth of the mighty Congo River. By the 1530s, a village near Diego Cao’s landing place had become a port from which over five thousand slaves a year were being shipped across the Atlantic to the mines and plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean islands. By the 1600s, it had risen to fifteen thousand a year. Written records of this period contain few African voices. Hochschild quotes one, that of King Affonso I of the Kingdom of the Kongo writing to King Joao of Portugal in 1526:
Each day the traders are kidnapping our people-children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own familyâ€¦.This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulatedâ€¦.2
In the 19th century, driven by the industrial revolution’s need for raw materials, European powers began what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa,”3–an increasingly frantic competition to partition the whole continent. “In the mid-1870s, sub-Saharan Africa was a logical place for an aspiring colonialist to lookâ€¦.”4 and King Leopold II of Belgium fastened on the Congo basin as his target. When he died in 1909, the royal treasury was overflowing with money made from Congolese rubber, and 10 million Congolese had died from his policies.
Imagine a plague that killed one out of every two or three people. This was Leopold. In a horrendous story of exploitation and murder, told with skill and compassion, Hochschild describes how Leopold’s Congo came about-the forced labor, atrocities, abductions-and the world-wide protest movement which finally brought it to an end.
A national independence movement, spearheaded by popular nationalist leaders Joseph Kasa Vubu and Patrice Lumumba, took Belgian colonial officials by surprise and led to a disorderly transition to independence in June of 1960. Kasa Vubu became president and Lumumba prime minister after the Congo’s only democratic elections. Lumumba, by then the most radical, did not last long.
In his book The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo De Witte brings to light the shameful and cynical roles played by Belgium and other western powers in the removal of this charismatic leader. Why did they do it? It is a murky story, and he tells it well.
Foreign intervention began shortly after the Belgian colony gained its independence on 30 June 1960; first Belgian soldiers landed in the Congo, then the Blue Berets [U.N. troops]. Brussels and the other Western powers, operating under cover of the United Nations, were determined to overthrow Lumumba’s nationalist government and install a neo-colonial regime, thereby putting the country at the mercy of the trusts and holding companies which had controlled it for decades. The West soon obtained its first success. In September 1960, the Congolese government and parliament which supported Lumumba were swept aside by Colonel Joseph-Desire Mobutu. The war against the Congolese nationalists came provisorily to a head when, on 17 January 1961, Lumumba and two of his closest associates were assassinated in Katanga, which was then being propped up by Belgian military and government personnel.5
Extremely well researched, De Witte’s description of the role of the U.N. in Lumumba’s overthrow and assassination is particularly fascinating and a timely reminder of this institution’s vulnerability to manipulation by major powers.
The film Lumumba, directed by Raoul Peck and released in 2000, makes this all the more personal and immediate-the Congolese people dancing in the streets at independence, the stunned dismay on the face of the Belgian king and his cohorts when Lumumba turns a polite handing-over-the-reins-of-government ceremony into a victory celebration for the liberation movement, Lumumba’s betrayal by his chief of staff of the army, Mobutu, and, finally, Lumumba’s assassination in the secessionist state of Katanga. Peck is skillful at mixing the personal and the political, but it helps to have a little historical background before you see this film. Lumumba was ranked among the 10 best pictures of 2001 by New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell.
Another and very readable account of this period can be found in a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible relates the story of an evangelical Baptist missionary who takes his wife and four daughters to a village in the Belgian Congo in 1959. The life and struggles of the family-with each other, with their environment-are drawn against the backdrop of the political events taking place in the Congo over the subsequent 30 years. The story is told from the point of view of the wife and daughters, each decidedly different, and sometimes very funny:
We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. “And heaven knows,” our mother predicted, “they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”6
Following Lumumba’s assassination, his strongest supporters scattered, some to eastern Congo where intermittent and uncoordinated peasant nationalist rebellions continued until the late sixties. Chief among these was one in the Kwilu region led by Lumumba’s Minister of Education Pierre Mulele, which lasted from 1963 to 1967. Another was led by Laurent Kabila, who, when Che Guevara visited in 1965, was so fleeting in his visits to his own front that Che disgustedly dismissed him as a lightweight: “Nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour,” Che wrote in his diary. Nonetheless, these rebellions, and the west’s fear that President Kasa Vubu would align the Congo with the progressive countries of the
Organization of African Unity finally brought on a complete regime change:
The key figure in the Congolese forces that arranged Lumumba’s murder was a young man named Joseph Desire Mobutu, then chief of staff of the army and a former NCO in the old colonial Force Publiqueâ€¦.With United States encouragement, Mobutu staged a coup in 1965 that made him the country’s dictator. And in that position he remained for more than thirty years.7
By wooing cold war foreign aid and appropriating public money, Mobutu purportedly became one of the world’s richest men. As his fortunes rose, those of the long-suffering Congolese people plummeted further:
In 1955, nearly 40 per cent of the active population worked in the formal sector. By the 1990s, this had shrunk to 5 per cent and the official figures for per capita income had fallen to a laughable-and obviously impossible–$120 a year. Zaire’s real economy had dropped off the map. The vast majority of Zaireans were living off the ubiquitous vegetable plots and their wits, buying and selling, smuggling and haggling, hustling and rustling.8
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is a long look backward over the Mobutu period by foreign correspondent Michela Wrong who lived in Kinshasa during the last three years of his reign. More biography than history, it is a fascinating account of the intrigue and corruption which brought Mobutu to power and sustained him until his overthrow by Laurent Kabila (the very same) in 1997. But it also gives a powerful picture of the underground economy which develops where people have no other choice. She describes, for example, the Mutual Benefit Society of Kinshasa, an association of paraplegics which, because they get a discount on the ferries across the Congo River to Brazzaville, can set a slightly lower price for their goods and “thus became the favourite go-betweens for the ferocious ‘Soeurs ya Poids’ (Heavyweight Sisters), the buxom merchant women who sell in the sprawling markets on either side of the river.”9
Mobutu was overthrown, but life in the DRC did not improve under Laurent Kabila:
Mobutu ruled thanks to the support of a mono-ethnic security force. So does Kabila. Mobutu plundered the central bank. So does Kabila. Mobutu destroyed the formal economy. Kabila has gone even further, choking off the informal economy. ‘Kabila,’ as one European politician astutely remarked, ‘has simply replaced Mobutu with Mobutuism.’10
In 1998, Uganda and Rwanda, which had supported Kabila but now found him less useful, organized a military rebellion against him led by the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie. Kabila turned to Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola for military assistance. The rebellion split into many factions as Rwanda and Uganda vied for control to further their own interests. Fighting was especially heavy in the eastern section of the country, where it continues today.
In January of 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. Democratic elections, promised by Mobutu, Laurent Kabila, and Joseph Kabila, have yet to take place. An agreement signed by the warring parties in April of 2003 in Sun City, South Africa holds out some hope, as it stipulates elections must be held within two years. But this presumes a cease fire, and recently reported massacres in the northeast do not augur well.
Despite this tale of horror, there remain, in and out of the Congo, forces which struggle for peace, democracy, and social justice. We need to support them.
In this world fallen prey to the criminalisation of the economy and a globalisation dominated by the law of the jungle, we count on the active solidarity of democrats from everywhere so as to protect our country from a programmed catastrophe.11
1 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999) 7.
2 Hochschild, 13.
3 Hochschild, 26.
4 Hochschild, 42.
5 Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, trans. Ann Wright and Renee Fenby (London, New York: Verso, 2001) xxi.
6 Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) 13.
7 Hochschild, 303.
8Michela Wrong, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) 153.
9 Wrong, 156-57.
10 Wrong, p. 308
11 Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, Chart of Congolese Self-Determination (Bunia, 2000), online, www.congorcd.org.
Suggested further reading:
Ronan Bennett, The Catastrophist (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, Simon and Schuster, 1997). A novel set in the Belgian Congo just before independence.
William Galvez, Che in Africa. Che Guevara’s congo Diary, trans. Mary Todd (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1999).
Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (Zed Books, 2002). A lengthy and pricey academic text written by a Congolese intellectual. Two talks he gave on the crisis in the Great Lakes region have been posted on Africa Action’s website: www.africaaction.org.