A Brief History of Plunder

Congo's Unwelcome 'Visitors'

A genocide is feared in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (D.R.C.) Ituri province, and the United Nations has just authorized the deployment of a French-led international intervention force—but this country’s troubles can be traced to its relationship with outsiders.

I shuddered when I read a May 20 story by the BBC’s Will Ross, “Fleeing D.R.C. with Tales of Horror,” in which the author states, “Allegations of cannibalism and mass murder are coming from Congolese civilians of the Hema ethnic group who have fled across the border into western Uganda.”

Ross goes on, “It is impossible to verify some of the more extreme claims, for example that the ethnic Lendu militia have eaten the hearts of Hema victims or worn their intestines as a grisly headdress.”

To say that I was horrified by this tale of savage ethnic cleansing is an understatement. I could not believe that such ghastly barbarism could occur in this millennium. But before condemning the Lendu as crazy, I remembered that not so long ago, Ugandans were horrified to find pictures of what Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels had done to victims in northern Uganda.

The LRA amputated limbs from victims and cooked them. I remember too the hell-fire carnage at Kanungu [on March 17, 2000], where approximately 1,000 people were brutally burned to death by cult leader [Joseph] Kibwetere and company, in an apocalyptic horror that shocked the world.

Reflecting on these horrendous atrocities, I realized that these are not isolated incidents. Gruesome images from the Rwanda genocide are still fresh in our minds. (Those who did not follow the events in Rwanda could watch the movie 100 Days to get a bitter taste of the pill.) In West Africa, Foday Sankoh’s atrocities in Sierra Leone shocked everyone when they were exposed in the award-winning documentary Cry Freetown.

Since it is not enough to simply dismiss the Lendu as mad, considering everything else that has happened in Congo, I suggest we take a look at the broader causes of the Congo debacle.

The war in Congo has its genesis from two mutually reinforcing factors: wealth and foreign intervention. Study the historical epoch in which the Congo Free State was born, and the whole problem becomes self-explanatory. The Congo Free State was born in an era when Africa was parceled out like a birthday cake by the imperial European powers. Congo was scrambled for and “won” by Belgium’s King Leopold, who beat the other powers in a cutthroat, winner-take-all contest dubbed, “The Scramble for Africa.”

That was not only the birth of the Congo Free State, but also the beginning of its problems. From the outset, King Leopold was ruthless in plundering the vast resources of Congo. He enslaved the Congolese in their homeland, subjecting them to forced labor, and meting out inhuman treatment on those who dared defy him.

Studies show that by the end of Belgian colonization, about 10 million Congolese had been killed. Note the pattern between the two mutually reinforcing factors that explain the plight of the Congolese. You have the vast wealth of Congo beckoning foreign intervention, and the Congolese bearing the brunt of it.

At the end of Belgian colonization enter Patrice Lumumba, the first and only democratically elected leader of the Congo. Sadly, democracy was killed in its infancy when Lumumba was assassinated (before even serving two years as prime minister) with the help of America’s Central Intelligence Agency. He died because in the Cold War, Lumumba was thought to be leaning to the Soviet Union and not the United States. Big mistake!

Enter Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wazabanga, a true client of the U.S. White House. Mobutu’s despotic leadership in Congo (then renamed Zaire) was significant for ensuring that Congo did not “fall into the hands” of the Soviets (remember the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara had tried to help Laurent- Désiré Kabila liberate Congo after Lumumba’s death). Mobutu’s (mis)rule also served the West by making sure it had a free rein in plundering Congo and acting as a conduit for arming Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). By the end of the Cold War, Mobutu had outlived his usefulness to the Western bloc but had set the stage for continuing conflict.

As the renowned scholar René Lemarchand put it in his paper “Patterns of State Collapse and National Reconstruction in Central Africa, 1999,” “The cancer that ate Mobutu’s state, like the one in his body, had its logic from within, albeit its impetus came from outside.”

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Rwanda and Uganda intervened in Congo for their own reasons, only to give Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Namibia an excuse to join them.

It is, however, interesting to note that as a catastrophe was unfolding in Congo, the United States was arming all the countries involved.  The direct consequence has been the above countries in turn arming local ethnic militias, under the guise of  “Empowering the Congolese”! But not before stashing away a bit of coltan, timber, gold, and diamonds from here and there in Congo. Unfortunately, with tribal hatred in the mix, the situation could not possibly get worse.