A century of agony in the Congo

from the Dian Fossey Gorilla FundNAIROBI, KENYA: Within the next few weeks the Democratic Republic of Congo will see two firsts: the first free elections for 45 years and the first of its militia leaders to be tried at the International Court in The Hague. The accused, Thomas Lubanga, is suspected of involvement in the death of nine UN peace-keepers and of mass atrocities in northeastern Congo.

Perhaps these development will help the world to notice the unending tragedy of the Congo. While the international news agencies keep viewers and readers up to date on developments in Iraq, and other more accessible war zones, a war described by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as the “deadliest since World War II” has been going on since 1998 in eastern Congo. Most reports on this conflict are filed here in Nairobi, about 500 miles away in a direct line that goes straight across Lake Victoria, but much further by road. The IRC claims that more than 31,000 people die every month as a result of the conflict.1

“Rag-tag militias, soldiers and tribal fighters, were still preying on civilians, especially in the remote east, keeping villagers from crops, safe water and health centres,” their report added. Of this huge numbers of casualties, most are collateral damage. People die from easily preventable and treatable diseases, owing to the collapse of even basic health services: maternal deaths, meningitis, deaths of infants, fever and malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition, measles. Had there been clean water, immunisation, bed nets and food security probably most of the deaths could have been avoided. Indirect deaths can account for as much as 90 per cent of the total war-related death toll.2

Tragic history of colonialism

King Leopold II of BelgiumThe English-speaking public first became aware of the Congo in the 1904 report of Roger Casement, better known for his execution by the British for treason in 1916 for soliciting German help for Irish independence in the middle of the World War I. But Casement had worked in the British Foreign Service as consul in Leopoldville, as the capital was called during colonial times. He was also a friend of the writer, Joseph Conrad, the sailor, novelist, explorer, jack-of-all-trades, who travelled to the Congo and wrote his classic novella, Heart of Darkness. Casement founded the Congo Reform Association, together with E.D. Morel, one of Britain’s most powerful pamphleteers and effective social reformers, and described in horrific detail the burning of villages, the severed hands and the kiboko (hippo-hide) lashings administered under the regime of King Leopold’s Congo Free State.

The novella, set in the Congo, all river, forest and silence, tickled the imagination of reader and critic alike, with its powerful story and symbolism. The journey along the river -- the only means of transportation, slow, uncomfortable but efficient -- penetrating more deeply into the immense jungle with its overpowering spell was a descent into the half-conscious and unconscious mind, even into the impenetrable darkness of hell. The bizarre ceremonies, the strange people, the cruelties: “six black men chained together, with small baskets of earth on their heads... black rags around their loins; every rib visible; joints of limbs like knots in a rope. Each had an iron collar on his neck. Their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with complete, death-like indifference...”

Yet the atrocious suffering of the native workers, witnessed by Marlow, the narrator, sent to replace the river-steam captain killed in a quarrel over two hens, goes unnoticed by his colleagues who are in Africa only to extract ivory. In a hundred years little seems to have changed in the perception many have of the Congo. It epitomises the Dark Continent, unreal, frightening yet exciting, and an inexhaustible source of treasure for whoever gets there first.

But the real story is much less romantic. At the turn of the twentieth century, Leopold had his private “empire” known as the Congo Free State, described by Oliver and Fage in A Short History of Africa as a “close-fisted commercial monopoly”. Unable to provide the capital outlay needed, the empire was badly administered. Leopold employed undisciplined and brutal local soldiers to levy tribute in the form of rubber and ivory to maintain the empire and the concessionaire companies in which it had interests.

Rubber-collecting was as cheap for the agents of the Congo Free State as it was costly in health and life for the Congolese who were forced to do the work. It is impossible to measure the effect of this labour on millions of subsistence farmers and their dependents. Large areas were denuded of able-bodied adult males for long periods of time. Even this was not enough. When, eventually, news of the atrocities leaked out, international opinion forced the king to hand over his empire to the Belgian government in 1908.

Leopold is recorded as saying: “When the Negro has generally shaken off his idleness and become ready to work for the lure of wages alone, then the coercive system (forced labour) may be changed.” Leopold’s last gesture of defiance was to fire his documents. When the French explorer Pierre de Brazza returned in 1905 to the countries he had helped win for France (the Congolese republic north of the Congo River, opposite what is now DRC, was a French colony), he observed in disillusionment that “ruin and terror have been visited on this unhappy colony”. How many died? No one knows. Estimates of the death toll under Leopold’s regime range from the 3 million of Roger Casement’s 1904 report to the 10 million (half the original population) of Adam Hochschild’s Leopold’s Ghost. The Encyclopaedia Britannica claims that the population declined from 20 or 30 million to 8 million. The mean figure of these guesstimates is 8.5 million deaths .

Belgian government rule was not always smooth and benevolent either. In 1915, according to archives of the Belgian Congo, there were no fewer than “30 armed operations” against Africans, in the process of “pacification”. Throughout the years of colonial rule, primary education and technical education were developed; as deliberate policy, secondary education was not. By the time the Belgians left in 1960 the country had only 17 graduates, all trained outside the colony. This was to prevent graduates returning disaffected with the mother country. Africans were allowed some economic advance, but little political scope.

Wars of independence

In the late 1950s some African political associations were allowed, but only on a tribal or regional basis. In 1958 Patrice Lumumba (who had more than just a local following) went to the All-African People’s Conference in Accra (Ghana) and his radical approach to independence made him the hero of Congolese nationalism on the spot. Tension mounted, and the Belgians granted free elections and immediate independence, thereby hoping to retain their enormous economic interests. The army, which was run by white officers and NCOs, mutinied, and everything collapsed. Civil war broke out. Katanga, rich in mining interests, broke away under Moise Tshombe. Lumumba was murdered in Katanga, and the UNO troops restored order, at great cost.

When the troops withdrew, President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Tshombe, with help from the West, including mercenaries, kept a crude control over the whole country, except the remoter areas. This fragile rule was soon swept away, and Mobutu Sese Seko, an army commander, took over in 1965. He was to stay in power for 32 years with financial backing from the West. Once the rigid colonial framework of Belgian rule was removed, this huge country, of 453 dialects and tribes, could only be held together by a similar framework, or by the unifying force of a national movement based on the supra-tribal loyalties of people from all over the country. The latter was perhaps asking too much at that time; it was the former that filled the gap, with military rule.

In 1997 Mobutu was ousted after years of looting the government coffers. War began shortly afterwards, mainly in the east, the area furthest from the capital, Kinshasa, which is almost at the western extremity. Very quickly it became linked with the genocidal conflict in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi. In late 1959, many Tutsis from Rwanda settled in eastern Congo after their king was deposed in a coup. They called themselves the Banyamulenge, the owners of the Mulenge mountain from where they could survey the whole Great Lakes region, which it was their dream to govern, and which included areas of eastern Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, western Uganda and parts of Tanzania. They were not liked by the local people.

However, when Mobutu, who was from the north and based in the west, took over, he needed support from the east, and incorporated Tutsis into his army. Later on, Laurent Kabila, Mobutu's successor, followed the same policy. He had an agreement with the Banyamulenge that he would give them the eastern part of the country, but he reneged, with the outcome that we are now witnessing.

Complicating the issue are rumours surrounding Kabila's successor, his son Joseph. It is widely believed that he is a Tutsi. Joseph’s real father, so the story goes, was a Banyamulenge soldier in Kabila’s army named called Kanambe. He was executed, apparently at Kabila’s command, before the boy was born. Kabila then married Kanambe’s pregnant wife, who was Congolese and adopted the boy. So President Joseph Kabila is perceived as Banyamulenge and is not fully accepted as Congolese. Many people think that this will make it impossible for him to balance the competing interests in his turbulent nation.

A complex and unending war

a Congolese recruit -- Chicago TribuneThis is a power struggle with complex roots, brutally fought out in the harshest conditions, miles from anywhere, with many innocent lives sacrificed. The Congo entered the 20th Century as the deadliest conflict of its time and it has ended the century in the same way. The slaughter in the Congo, a country of 60 million, is far greater than any other conflict of our times, including the horrors of Rwanda and Burundi, the former Yugoslavia, Biafra, Cambodia and Sudan.

Since the end of the Cold War, it seems that for many in the international circles of power large tracts of Africa are still off the map, unexplored and irrelevant. We have only to think of the non-response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Africa is trying to solve its own problems, as well as many of those brought in from outside -- and this is as it should be -- but there are times when disinterested help from outside has to intervene, despite the dangers involved, help which seeks the just solution without being affected by mineral wealth and the power that comes with it. Fortunately assistance is forthcoming when disasters such as famine occur, and the aid agencies do wonderful work. But when the lives of innocent civilians, especially women, children and the elderly, are caught in the cross fire the right kind of assistance is still more necessary but too often not there.

Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.

(1) Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey. Conducted April - July 2004. International Rescue Committee.
(2) Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century. Human Security Centre. Oct 17, 2005.


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