It has been said and written and subsequently confirmed during a recent mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in January and February 2010 that the colonization, impoverishment and neo-colonization of Africa began in DRC initially through instability, disruption of economic systems, trade networks, social, cultural and political institutions, ruthless and massive exploitation of human and natural resources. Ipso facto, Africa will not stabilize and develop peacefully and sustainably while DRC remain mired in neo-colonial conditions of exploitation and destabilization by foreign interests and their neighboring and Congolese surrogates.
Before the arrival of Europeans and Arabs in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, the Congo basin was occupied by Bantu people who had developed strong kingdoms that were engaged in production of a wide variety of agricultural, pastoral and industrial products the surplus of which were exchanged in local and regional markets. They had also as noted above developed strong and viable cultural and social systems that together with adequate and balanced diets promoted rapid and healthy population growth.
The search for ivory and slaves by Portuguese and Arabs that began in the Congo basin initiated the process of political instability, wars increasingly using European weapons, disruption of trade networks, economic decline and depopulation and ultimately the destruction of the kingdoms and the beginning of the process of pauperization of Congolese survivors.
With the help of Henry Morton Stanley, Leopold II, the king of Belgium, turned his attention to Africa and ended up securing the Congo Basin, its people and natural resources as his personal estate, thereby attracting the interest of other Europeans – who until then had avoided the ‘dark continent’ largely because of its many deadly diseases – and resulted in the 1884-85 Berlin Conference at which Europeans agreed on a formula to colonize Africa – without consulting any African – and avoid war with one another. Thus the creation of Congo Free State in 1885 with Leopold II as the owner initiated the process of the colonization of Africa.
The industrialization of Europe, rapid population growth and the increasing shortage of space, increasing demand for cheap foodstuffs and industrial raw materials and African space and markets for European surplus manufactured products and excess population led to the fierce scramble for Africa and ruthless exploitation of her labor and resources and the de-industrialization of the continent. In the interest of time and space let us look at what happened in Congo using the tapping of rubber to maximize profits as an illustration.
The demand for ‘red’ rubber to feed the tyre industries initially for bicycles and subsequently motor vehicles led to the ruthless and inhuman exploitation of Congolese and rubber trees. In order to maximize profits, Congolese were set rubber quotas to be delivered according to a schedule. Congolese men, women and children traversed the wide forest in search of rubber.
Travelling long distances in search of rubber without adequate food led to under-nutrition and loss of energy which resulted in failure to meet the rubber quota. Those that failed to deliver on time faced serious punishments including whipping, torture, death and amputation of hands and feet as a warning to others of what would happen to them should they fail to deliver their rubber quota on time. The presentation of amputated hands and feet to their bosses was proof that the agents were taking their jobs seriously.
The ruthless search for rubber resulted in depopulation of once densely settled areas as many people got killed – hence red rubber – while others disappeared in the thick tropical Congolese forest. The decline of food production and increasing poverty – as Congolese worked virtually for nothing – was followed by massive malnutrition, loss of immunity and widespread of diseases and high mortality rates. Further, the focus on rubber tapping diverted labor from manufacturing industries resulting in the de-industrialization of the Congo Free State.
It is estimated that the population of Congo was reduced in half – from twenty to ten million – as a result of this ruthless exploitation of Congolese people. As a result of these atrocities King Leopold lost his estate in 1908 to his Belgian government which turned Congo Free State into the Belgian colony with exploitation of labor, agricultural, mineral and forestry resources continuing albeit somewhat less severely until independence in 1960.
Just as Congo initiated the process of colonization, it also began the process of neo-colonization on the Africa Continent. The Belgian government but especially the companies that exploited labor and natural resources of Congo were unwilling to give up the rich area. They therefore stirred up political trouble that degenerated into a Cold War struggle and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of DRC. The murder of the prime minister is believed to have begun the process of neo-colonialism that has spread to all parts of the continent and is intensifying as some powers get involved for the first time or old ones invade areas previously occupied by other European colonial powers.
As new countries especially in Asia are industrializing and increasing rapidly the population in the middle income category with increasing demand for high quality foodstuffs such as beef and fish that feed on cereal and wild fish, their demands for African raw materials, foodstuffs and markets for surplus manufactured products has increased competition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other parts of Africa. The increasing parceling out of African land to foreign companies to produce food for their home markets using capital-intensive methods is part of the neo-colonization process which is increasingly pauperizing the people of Africa.
During a mission to and consultations in DRC referred to above, it became clear that the intense external neo-colonial struggle for control of DRC and its resources is the root cause of instability, rebel activities, abuse of human rights and plunder of the country. There is consensus that without peace, stability and prosperity in DRC – located at the centre of Africa – there won’t be peace, stability and prosperity anywhere on the continent.
To achieve peace, stability and prosperity for all in Africa, neo-colonial practices in DRC by direct external forces or using neighboring countries and Congolese agents will need to be addressed first.