I am in Brussels airport waiting for my flight to Kigali at the start of a project to assess the scope of the suffering of people in Northeast Congo after 20 years of war. It is a project that in an academic sense is both interesting and worthwhile. It is not being done out of curiosity or academic interest but to see if such an assessment will further the development of the necessary and useful services for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This project is also more than a bit unsettling. The war has seen extreme and disturbing atrocities that are continuing. Understanding what people have suffered means understanding what they have been exposed to, so I wonder what I am in for. To prepare myself I have been reading to try and make sense of the Congo and the war that has gone on for 20 years now. To help me sort out this experience I will write a series of blog posts that I hope will help others understand what is happening there. In this first blog I will try and describe how the Congo got where it is today.
In this effort I owe a special thank you to Paul Robinson, who lived in and knows the D.R. Congo like few people I know. I am also relying heavily on what is arguably one of the best books on the Congo wars: “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa” by Jason Stearns. I recommend it. Paul also recommends David Van Reybrouck’s “Congo: The Epic History of a People”.
The West has many myths and much confusion about Africa in general and the Congo in particular. I hear people express ideas suggesting Africans are incapable of development or self-governing, and seem prone to unending war and corruption. Even a cursory review of history can put this into perspective.
In the 1500s the stateless society that would become the Congo was a collection of kingdoms across the country that were progressing toward stable and effective infrastructures in the country. Some argue that some parts that would become DRC were more advanced than Europe at the same period. Then in the early 1600s came the European slave traders who extracted millions of Congolese and sold them in the Atlantic Slave . This decimated the local population and set off wars between local kingdoms that was the start of 400 years of exploitation and destruction.
The end of the slave era was followed by control of Congo by King Leopold of Belgium. He treated the Congo as his personal preserve for his own enrichment. Leopold forced the population into labor in the mines so he could extract resources and enrich himself. This was a period when rubber was taking off as a valuable commodity. Brutal tactics by the Belgian overlords included the use of a special whip that was so effective at lacerating it’s victims that by some estimates only half the people who were whipped survived. By the time the Belgian parliament stepped in to end Leopold’s brutality an estimated half of the population died from execution, maltreatment, disease and starvation – totaling about 10 million people during the first 30 years of Belgian rule.
While the Belgian parliament ended Leopold’s control of Congo in 1908, the exploitation of resources did not stop. For example, during WWII the Congo was the richest source of uranium in the world, and the Allies and Germany began a struggle to control it. Large quantities were mined by local people who were not told of the consequences of handling the highly radioactive uranium. Some local workers even built their homes from the radioactive debris from the mines. (See Susan William’s “Spies in the Congo: America’s atomic mission in World War II” for an interesting account of this period). The US paid the Belgian mining companies for the Uranium and built its stockpile of weapons grade uranium ore; the Congolese got radiation poisoning.
By some accounts, Belgium was built in part at the expense of the Congolese people. By the time colonial rule ended in 1960 Congo was well positioned for failure. The Congo infrastructure, including government agencies and military, was all run by foreigners. By 1960, even though Belgium built an education system, only a small number (some say 5, some 13) of Congolese had been granted college degrees. Likewise, in the Congo Army, often a source for raising up effective managers, few Congolese had risen above the rank of Sargent to Warrant Officer. One of those few was the notorious Joseph Mobutu.
Mobutu, a typist in the Army, was the first, and worst, of a series of leaders who emphasized personal control over building strong and accountable agencies, and cronies over competent managers and leaders. During 32 years Mobutu continued to run the Congo into the ground. He feared rivals to the point of paranoia, destroying Congo infrastructure just to punish people he feared. He also allowed militias from other countries to operate there against his neighbors. Finally, a joint African force from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi deposed him in 1992.
What followed were two rulers less destructive than Mobuto, but who have still struggled to build infrastructure. First Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu, was assassinated in 2001. He was followed by his son Joseph Kabila, current President, who assumed power after his father. In the absence of an accountable and professional police force and military, local militias have flourished, creating a continuing cycle of conflict.
The aim of these militias is not to control territory, it is to control the local population. In that campaign, atrocities become an effective tool of war and control. Local people suffer unspeakable atrocities, which seem to focus especially on women and children.
On the way to the Congo I joined a meeting at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Pastors in Congo shared photos and reports of further atrocities in Congo. There are allegations that the Congo government has undermined efforts to make peace with rebels, and have carried out attacks against those that have confronted the government. The Catholic Church had been leading talks with the rebel groups, and pulled out after 50 protesters were killed in Kinshasha in September. Attacks against the Catholic church, and especially nuns, have increased, mainly by young men, forcing the church to close seven convents. They have since restarted their efforts at negotiation.
The World Evangelical Alliance has a permanent mission to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and together with partner Micah Global, is reporting on the Congo to the Council. The plan is for WEA and Micah to play a part by increasing the pressure on the UN and member countries to do something about atrocities in Congo.
But, some ask, what can they do? The West has a moral obligation to Congo after the history I briefly described. Western companies have exploited Congo resources while Western governments look the other way. Fighting goes on, and more than 5 million have died in the last 20 years, and millions more before that, but most people in the West are unaware. Contrast this with Syria, which gets daily news coverage and major power involvement. The death and destruction in Congo is at the level of a major global war, but gets scant attention. NGOs like World relief can provide compassion, care and development support, but alone they cannot bring justice and stability.
A big part of the problem with the lack of Western awareness is the complexity of the Congo conflict. The “rebels” do not fit our conventional idea of rebels fighting a government. Their presence is tied to the cultural and economic conditions in Congo. In the next few blogs I hope to be able to describe what is happening there. In the meantime WEA and Micah press forward with the UN.