The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the third largest country in Africa (2,344,885 sq.km) after Algeria (2,381,741 sq.km) and Sudan (2,505,813 sq.km) – is potentially the richest on the continent. Paradoxically Congolese people are among the poorest on earth. According to many Congolese, the principal cause of this paradox is to be found in colonial and post-colonial ruthless exploitation of Congo’s vast human and non-human resources. Ruthless exploitation of Congo with impunity began with the arrival of Portuguese and Arabs. The hunt for slaves and ivory using European weapons resulted in constant armed warfare within and among different ethnic groups and depopulation of vast areas with serious political, economic and social consequences.
Leopold II who was king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 wanted to accumulate vast wealth for himself and his country. He also wanted his tiny Belgian country to be recognized in the corridors of power. To this end, he searched around the world for areas to colonize. His efforts in the Far East were fruitless. He then turned to Africa. He formed the Comite d’Etudes du Haut Congo (Survey Committee for the Upper Congo) which was in 1876 renamed the Association Internationale du Congo (International Association of the Congo). With the help of Henry M. Stanley and the reluctance of Britain and Germany to get involved in Africa at that time, the king finally settled on Congo. Under the guise of humanitarian and scientific exploration the king got actively involved in Congo affairs – without ever setting foot on Congo soil! The Belgian government, after a political setback (the government that had agreed to take on Congo was overthrown), did not want to get involved in Congo’s affairs. Accordingly, Congo (eighty times the size of Belgium) became the personal and private property of king Leopold II.
Leopold’s adventure into Africa initiated the scramble for the continent. The Berlin Conference – to which no African representatives were invited – was held from November 1884 to February 1885 among European powers on the partition of Africa without going to war against one another. At the conference king Leopold II presented his venture into Congo as a commercial and philanthropic effort to unite Congolese societies into an association of ‘free states’ that would be engaged in legitimate commerce with all European nations and be introduced to European civilization, Christianity and development. The conference formally acknowledged Leopold’s jurisdiction over the Congo on the understanding that the king would undertake to suppress slave trade and improve the socioeconomic conditions of the local population. In 1885 Congo was renamed Congo Free State as an independent entity with its own flag. At the Berlin Conference, it was further agreed that the Congo Basin would be regulated in accordance with principles of freedom of navigation and trade for all nations. Accordingly Leopold could not impose tariffs on imports into the area except a charge of ten percent. The king used his own resources and loans from his government to administer the state. However, by 1890s, the Congo Free State was on the verge of bankruptcy.
In order to raise enough resources to run the territory with a balance for personal gain, the king sought other ways. Earlier in 1885 all so-called unoccupied land had been seized by the state and in 1891 the state became the owner of all natural products – principally ivory and rubber. Much of the so-called unoccupied land was leased to private companies for exploitation and administration. In return, the companies paid taxes to the king. The rest of the unoccupied land remained the king’s who exploited it to amass wealth.
In the second half of the 19th century, there was high demand in western markets for African raw materials particularly ivory and rubber. Elephants were thus killed en masse for their tusks. Congolese were forced to carry the tusks long distances to points from where they were exported to the outside world. Many of the porters and agents perished in the process of hunting and killing elephants and transporting tusks. What the native workers earned was turned over to the authorities in the form of taxes.
The horror of ivory trade pales in comparison to the exploitation of rubber which began in the 1890s. Men, women and children were forced at gun point to collect rubber from trees widely scattered in a huge forest. Terror tactics including holding chained family members hostage until the set rubber quota had been produced were applied. Additionally, flogging, summary execution, torture and cutting off hands and feet are methods that were extensively applied. Many missionaries and others turned a blind eye to this brutality driven principally by the king’s greed.
The terror and brutal treatment of Congolese was eventually reported by some commentators including in a novel titled “Heart of Darkness” (1902), by Joseph Conrad after he made a trip to Congo. Because of the international criticism including British and American diplomatic pressure, responsibility for the administration of Congo was transferred from the disgraced king to Belgian government as a colony in 1908. However, human atrocities continued albeit the worst excesses of the concessionaire companies were checked. It has been estimated that between 1880 and 1920 alone, 10 million Congolese – half of the entire population – perished as a result of rubber and ivory trade and other colonial abuses.
The allocation of more land for national parks and white settlers after WWII resulted in additional massive dispossession of natives. More land was required for growing coffee, rubber, oil palm and extensive cattle ranching resulting in acute land shortage that reached explosive proportions especially in Kivu and parts of Katanga – a problem that has remained to this day in 2010, made worse by rapid population growth as a result of excess births over deaths and excess in-migrants over out-migrants. In North Kivu province the population is growing at 3.5 percent per annum.
Earlier in 1917 another ordinance had been introduced forcing peasants to grow cotton and bureaucrats made sure there was compliance or they meted out heavy punishments. Accordingly, the production of cotton rose from 32, 000 tons in 1932 to a staggering figure of 127,000 tons in 1939. The mining of minerals and the felling of trees for timber exports added pressure on the Congolese people. A sixty day compulsory labor was introduced in 1933 and extended to 120 days after WWII. In practice, however, peasants worked continuously and mostly at gun point throughout the year to raise tax money. It is believed that Congolese suffered more severely than any other African group during the colonial era.
According to Peter Biddlecombe (1993) “The Belgians plundered the country remorselessly for its mineral wealth [and other resources]. They ran virtual slave camps to keep the rubber plantations going. Whole villages would be razed to the ground if a single worker caused trouble. People did not count. No Africans were ever promoted into the civil service. There were no Africans in the army. Hardly any were literate”. The Congolese were denied education beyond primary level for fear that advanced learning would serve to politicize the Congolese and embolden them to question the colonial system and even demand independence.
All these atrocities which included forced labor, resource plunder and land dispossession, torture, execution and other forms of loss of human life were justified as the price of civilization and consequently went unpunished.
Although the Congolese people were denied meaningful education and participation in government and armed forces, divided and isolated from one another through indirect rule, application of different laws, lack of integrating infrastructure such as roads and the suppression of the development of a national language, they were able to organize themselves in order to overcome land hunger, oppression and massive exploitation etc. The issues of land and oppression were particularly significant in rousing popular discontent and bringing all social and ethnic groups together to demand freedom and independence which was hurriedly granted in 1960 after the 1959 riots that were violently suppressed resulting in many deaths.
Because there was no adequate Congolese capacity at the time of independence, Belgians believed that they would stay on in Congo and continue business as usual – in the economy, administration and even in security forces. An attempt by white farmers to declare a separate and independent state failed signaling that post-independence days were going to be different. And within days of independence, the whole world got a shock at the Congolese reaction to decades of brutal Belgian rule. The ensuing Congo crisis resulted in the abrupt departure of Europeans whose number declined from 110,000 in 1959 to 20,000 in a very short time.
Independence was followed by a period of crisis, destruction of properties and loss of lives – black and white – including the murder of the first prime minister in Katanga, short-lived secession of some provinces and invitation into the country of United Nation Peacekeeping troops. In 1965 Mobutu Sese Seko became head of state through the barrel of the gun with the backing of western powers largely to keep communism out of central and southern Africa.
Mobutu pillaged his country from the beginning with impunity until he was overthrown in 1997. Mobutu figured out that Congolese people would not organize themselves and throw him out of power for his dictatorial and exploitative governance style if the country was denied infrastructure such as roads, energy and telephones and kept the people poor, illiterate, hungry, sick, divided and isolated from one another. In short, there was a denial of state and society construction. Accordingly the country right now in 2010 has less than 600 km of tarred roads. Only a mere 2 percent of 80 percent of rural population has access to electricity, eight percent of urban population use electricity and over 70 percent of the population is poor. Many Congolese eat one non-nutritious meal of cassava or corn once in two days. It is reported that the late dictator Mobutu told his compatriots that stealing was ok provided they were not caught. It is believed that he stole up to $10 billion. There was no distinction between Mobutu’s family finances and those of the state. He ran a system of government that was described as a ‘kleptocracy’ (government by thieves). Mobutu was described by his people as le grand voleur – the big thief.
Kleptocracy, however, began during the reign of King Leopold II and continued during Belgian colonial rule and was inherited by Mobutu and has continued after his departure under the new name of corruption with impunity. Mobutu was described as a man who ruled by the barrel of the gun, ruined the economy through extravagance, indifference and greed and was heedless to his people’s suffering. Notwithstanding, Mobutu’s autocratic rule for over thirty years was justified as the price of stability in Zaire. Further, western countries saw him as a bulwark against communism, rushed in aid to sustain him in power, only to dispense with him after the Cold War was over in 1990.
Experts from around the world including the late Erwin Blumenthal, the German banker, tried to put Congolese finances in order but all failed. Blumenthal’s life had been threatened so many times that he slept with his pistol under his pillow! Revenue from natural resources and massive aid all disappeared into private pockets. For example, between 1975 and 1997 – when Mobutu was shown the exit – Zaire had received $9.7 billion in foreign aid but there is nothing to show for it. Books with titles like “Mobutu or Chaos” were written to justify that he should stay in power indefinitely because he made Zaire the only stable country in the region. Many are still saying so.
According to Mobutu Congolese people did not count as demonstrated by the record on human condition. Let us show how Ebola virus spread among patients because of poor hospital conditions. According to El Tahir in Laurie Garriet (1995) “The hospital must be viewed as an epidemic amplifier. Both in Maridi and Yambuku the poorly supplied clinics reused syringes hundreds of times a day, injecting drugs from one person to another without sterilizing the needles. McCormick calculated that during the months of September and October 1976, an individual’s odds of getting Ebola virus from a single injection at the Yambuku and Maridi hospitals exceeded 90 percent. Seventy-two of the primary cases in Yambuku (out of 103) were caused by unsterile needles used in the mission hospital. The Commission determined that injected Ebola infections were far more likely to result in terminal disease than were secondary exposure to sick friends and family members”. A caring government would not have allowed this to happen. Mobutu was removed from power in 1997 when his external backers felt they did not need his services anymore. This should serve as a lesson for other African puppets.
The challenges created by the Mobutu regime have remained in force especially corruption. Corruption and mineral exploitation have perhaps got worse since Mobutu’s departure. Many antagonistic warring groups were brought together into a coalition government and security forces following the Sun City (South Africa) agreement of 2002 to end hostilities. Many who committed crimes have not been touched for fear the coalition might collapse. Accordingly justice, equitable development and observance of human rights have been sacrificed for the sake of consolidating peace.
That the Congolese people do not count can again be deduced from the level and intensity of sexual violence in DRC. According to CPR (Crisis Prevention and Recovery) Newsletter (UNDP) of June 2009 “The extent and cruelty of acts of sexual violence committed in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have sent shock waves around the world. In a highly ethnically and politically charged environment, rape and sexual abuse have been an integral part of the pattern of intimidation of targeted communities, in spite of the presence of UN peace-keepers. It occurs as women and girls, caught up in the fighting but going about their daily lives, collect food, water and firewood. Sexual violence, often used to advance military objectives, causes unspeakable physical harm and trauma to the victim and tears apart the social fabric of communities”.
Appointment of people not qualified or experienced has drastically weakened government capacity to coordinate external financial and technical assistance. For this and possibly other (hidden) reasons development partners are determining which regions and/or sectors to support regardless of government priorities and principles of national ownership and sovereignty.
This behavior of development partners has rekindled discussion about neocolonialism and possible partition of DRC in search of raw materials, foodstuffs and markets for manufactured products. This position has been reinforced by arguments largely from external agents that the country is too large and decentralization or separate semi-autonomous territorial entities might be the only solution. Patriotic Congolese believe that decentralization was included in the constitution under external pressure. Many Congolese also firmly believe that the root cause of instability in DRC is external.
They argue that Western Powers and their multinational corporations in concert with surrogates in neighboring countries and inside DRC are responsible for the atrocities especially in the eastern part where the struggle for control of minerals has become intense. Since 1996 when the war to remove Mobutu started between 5 and 6 million people have lost their lives in DRC. Furthermore, many Congolese are convinced that the many small planes that fly into DRC daily from airstrips – some of them constructed recently in remote rural areas near the Congo border – in neighboring countries bring weapons in and fly out with minerals that pay for those weapons especially in Eastern DRC. The weapons are then used to murder Congolese people. MONUC (UN Peacekeeping Force) which has mandate to control illegal trade in minerals has yet to act decisively. The entry into the Great Lakes Region of new powers has intensified the already complicated geopolitical situation.
One thing is clear from conversations with many patriotic Congolese people from different backgrounds, social status and perspectives – they are determined to keep DRC as one country. They will need help because they believe disintegration is not a viable option in the short, medium or long-term.