||The most modest estimates suggest that around three and a half million people have died in North or Eastern Congo as a result of war, in the last five years. Médécins Sans Frontières recently published a call for aid, ‘In war devastated Congo, children have only one thing left to cling to - their Kalashnikovs’. Yet the question remains: has the problem of the Congo been too much intervention, or too little?
The sending of French and British soldiers to Bunia in North East Congo has received little comment in other countries. As the phrase goes, ‘something had to be done’, and where more true than here? The Democratic Republic of
the Congo is among the world’s greatest producers of gold, diamonds,
uranium, copper and cobalt, yet the state takes an average of just five
dollars in taxes for each person per year. Even before the current fighting,
the country’s per capita income was one of the lowest in the world. Since
then, conditions have worsened. The most modest estimates suggest that
around three and a half million people have died in North or Eastern Congo
as a result of war, in the last five years. Médécins Sans Frontières
recently published a call for aid, ‘In war devastated Congo, children have
only one thing left to cling to - their Kalashnikovs’. Yet the question
remains: has the problem of the Congo been too much intervention, or too little?
The story of the country begins properly in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Before then, the region was a diverse mix of federations, tribes and city-states, not united by ethnicity nor language, nor even by much trade. The nation is a high plateau from which drains the river Congo, one of the great rivers in the world. But even the river failed to unify, before 1850. It was so steep as to be impassable upstream from thecoast. The experience which created one society was conquest, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, by the Belgian King Léopold. Frustrated by the rise of parliamentary and social democracy in Europe, and the weakening of his own rule, Léopold hoped to create a new tyranny in central Africa. He even had the cheek to mask his campaign as a struggle against 'slavery', meaning the ad hoc practices of Arab traders from the East.
Under Léopold, a much more significant system of forced labour was established. Villagers were instructed to levy a punitive tax to the state in ivory or rubber. Where they refused to produce, the entire village was destroyed. Mercenaries were paid in piece-rates, and given Belgian francs for every severed hand they cut from the bodies of the dead. Historians have estimated that the population of the country fell by anything up to one half between 1890 and 1905, from around sixteen to eight million people.
After 1906, the Belgian government took over the running of the colony, ousting the King (and paying him generously for the loss). The most
productive sector of the economy became the copper mines of Lubumbashi in Katanga in Southern Congo. Forced labour continued, as did an extraordinary rate of workplace deaths. Up to 40 per cent of all workers died as a result of industrial accidents or disease in each year before 1918. One early sign of a desire for reform was a 1941 strike by copper miners in Katanga. The country continued to be ruled without any hint of democracy or basic justice. As late as 1954, there was not a single state-run school in the country. Nor had the white-dominated universities trained a single black
Congolese doctor or lawyer.
Self-government was granted in the early 1960s, as part of the general wave of African freedom. Yet Belgium was determined to retain an influence. When the Congolese elected a reform-minded President, Patrice Lumumba, the old colonial power responded by engineering a rebellion in the South. Belgian soldiers kidnapped Lumumba, and participated in his murder. With the support also of France and America, power was handed instead to an officer in Lumumba’s army, General Mobutu, who ran the kingdom for the next thirty-five years as absolutely as Léopold had done before him. Ludo de Witte’s recent book, ‘The Assassination of Lumumba’ describes the killing well.
The recent crisis has been partly the result of an African intervention. Following the genocide in Rwanda, the new government there sought to force its old enemies out westwards into the DRC. Other states then intervened, Angola, Burundi, Uganda and notably Zimbabwe, all hoping to stake a claim to the vast mineral wealth of the Congo. Rwanda may have been looking just to create a buffer zone beyond its borders. Yet the necessity of continuing the conflict brought the Rwandan troops west, until they had taken the state and imposed their new ally Laurent Kabila, who then turned on his recent allies.
Behind this murderous struggle, Western interests have never been long concealed. France sent mercenaries to aid Mobutu. By the mid 1990s, his main challenger Laurent Kabila was receiving significant US military aid. American policy has followed the lead of mining conglomerates such as American Mineral Fields. Support for Kabila waned after he showed a
willingness to bargain with French and South African mining interests (Anglo-American, de Beers), rather than their American counterparts.
Laurent Kabila had history. David Caute's novel The Decline of the West portrayed him as a guerrilla hero who escaped from the scene of Lumumba's murder, and offered hope for the future. Several of the young students at
Lubumbashi University seem to feel the same way about the new regime. They sport badges for Laurent's son Joseph, 'He is young, like us.' Yet in Che Guevara's account of his months in the Congo, Kabila was a main culprit for
the stagnation of the rebels. Wining and dining with the comrades in the city, Kabila refused to appear in the field. Without his presence, the
troops would not fight. Let down by local leadership, Guevara's mission suffered an inevitable defeat.Charles Kukwikila is a leading figure in the democratic struggle. His memories are shaped by the legacy of a different period of principled struggle, the parliamentary opposition that came close to toppling Mobutu in 1991-3. 'When Kabila took power, we all thought there would be changed. People remembered his name from the sixties and the guerrilla struggle. Within months, he started to appoint people on ethnic lines.' It seemed that Kabila would put an end to the old cronyism and the dreadful torpor of patronage. In the first few months of his government, the cities demonstrated an extraordinary thirst for reform. Soon, though, it became clear that these hopes would be disappointed. Laurent Kabila was then killed in an officer’s coup and his son Joseph took over.
As the war has continued, any hint of idealism or principle has been lost. It has become a simple battle of interests. Two of the worst offenders have been Rwanda and Uganda, both signatories to America’s ‘Coalition of the
Willing’ in Iraq. French policy has been to back up the central state in Kinshasa. Britain has followed American policy. The South African government has tended to argue for peace talks. Its hands are less dirty, say, than Zimbabwe’s. But the future envisaged by the ANC is one of regional stability, in which South African parastatals will be able to buy up the Congo on the cheap.
A visit to the DRC reveals a country in a condition of utter collapse. The current ruler Joseph Kabila's authority is largely negative. It comes from his control of the army, plus the absence of any serious rival. There are no elections, nor any parliament to scrutinise the regime. If there is any positive character behind Joseph Kabila's leadership, it starts with the memory of his father, Laurent. A statue of Kabila père stands on the main streets of several Congolese towns. In Lubumbashi, it shows a short, tubby and balding man breaking apart breaking some thick copper chains. Bath in blue and purple ultra violet, it must be one of the kitschest such monuments in the world. The symbolism, anyway, is all wrong. For if any one town offered hope it was Lubumbashi, home to the copper trade. Here were the industries. Here, investment was made. Here were schools and hospitals opened for the miners. One small tragedy of the past few decades has been the decline of copper mining, and its displacement by diamond, as the main industry on which the state depends. Copper relies on investment, on factories to refine the metal, on a settled infrastructure of roads and skills and trade. Diamond production by contrast can begin with one man working on his own. It affords more opportunities for invading armies, to tax production by controlling the roads. The war has contributed to the destruction of the economy, but so has neo-liberal capitalism. In the new computer age, electrical wiring is as necessary as ever. But the free floating of copper on the stock markets, has led to an inevitable fall in its commodity price. The industries that might bring in foreign currency are now ruined. The hotels have been destroyed by successive incursions of drunken troops.
The mines in Lubumbashi no longer work, the copper has been shown to be contaminated by uranium, and the resources are lacking to separate the two metals. A consortium of companies has assembled under the guiding hand of Georges Forrest. A forming builder, his name is stamped on all the important buildings in town. Yet Forrest's track record suggests a man looking for quick profits, not to invest, even briefly. In his hands, Lubumbashi feels more than a little like the company towns of the old American West. Even the museum gives thanks to its donor.
Meanwhile Forrest managers brag openly of their support for Kabila. 'We sent him trucks you know, at the beginning.' Instead of sustaining the sort of settled working class that has played an important role in the history of neighbouring Zambia, the mines have been taken over by the townships of the urban poor. Families drink, bathe and excrete in the waste water from the uranium dump. Every day there are funerals through the narrow, earthen streets. The condition of society now is wretched. Banknotes crumble in your hand. The roads have not been repaired in decades. Television is dominated by music videos, on repetitive loops. The few news programmes largely ignores the war, pretending to concentrate on regional or international events.
There are few national newspapers. Outside the capital, the people make do with photocopied stories or pages off the internet. The organic economy which should link the various cities is too weak to fulfil that role. The university rooms are broken. The small shacks cut from canes and concrete smell of urine and fading hope. The books have been stolen from the libraries. Working-class or professional salaries are barely paid. When they are, the level is too low to sustain life. Unemployment is so high as to be
almost uncountable. Doctors can be seen on street corners, trading phone cards. Everything becomes a miserable run of petty commerce. 'Je suis homme d'affaires', the unemployed tell you. Everyone claims the title of businessman. Yet few people possess any real valuables to trade. According to democratic theory, the legitimacy of the state should begin from its successful provision of vital services: education, health care and the like. The relationship between these and the people should be negotiated
through strong institutions of civil society, trade unions, consumer groups
and other non-Governmental organisations. But here everything depends on
money or force. In conditions of civil war, there simply is not enough space
in society for a thriving civil society to emerge. Maybe, this is the most
depressing thought of all: the realisation that international capitalism can
thrive even in conditions of absolute social catastrophe. Millions are
starving in the Congo, but still the diamonds, the gold and the copper are
shipped off to the West.
The Congolese state has been bankrupted by the costs of war. The people
survive in conditions of desperate poverty. Successive outside players have
done nothing to encourage self-government or even the conditions in which
democracy could grow. The arrival of the French troops has been met
therefore with cynicism. So many others have come here to ravage the land, what else can be made of these new arrivals like the rest?