Since 1997, wars have claimed six million lives in the Congo, where life expectancy is 46 years. Yet this horrific situation receives little media attention in the west.

Per-Åke Westerlund reviews a book which lays a good foundation for a greater understanding of this conflict.

Congo: A History By David Van Reybrouck

Originally published by De Bezige Bij (2010)HarperCollins English edition due in 2014

Congo has had many names since the feudal Congo kingdom period. The Congo Free State 1885-1908 was owned by Belgium’s King Leopold. Belgian Congo existed 1908-60 (also called Congo-Leopoldville to distinguish it from the French colony, Congo-Brazzaville). Eleven years after independence in 1960, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko renamed the country Zaire. After Mobutu was overthrown, the country was called, officially, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC or usually just ‘the Congo’.

The Congo river delta was the centre of the slave trade to the Americas from 1500 to 1850. Four million slaves were taken from the area and all previous social structures were smashed. When the colonisation of Africa took off, King Leopold gained the support of the main colonial powers to take over this giant country as private property. Officially, Leopold was against the slave trade. In reality, he introduced a system of terror. The country was plundered first of ivory and then rubber. Leopold “used one state, Congo, to give his other state, Belgium, a new spark”, writes David Van Reybrouck in his book, Congo: A History.

The race for rubber led to the collapse of agriculture. Hunger was widespread. When Leopold handed over control to the Belgian state, Congo was divided up systematically. For the first time, residents were categorised as belonging to certain races and tribes. This system was also introduced by Belgium when it took over Rwanda and Burundi after the first world war. Stamping ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ in passports and documents led to a division that culminated in the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1995 – and to the subsequent wars.

Under Leopold, Congo also drew in thousands of Christian missionaries, not least from Sweden. These became a tool of colonial power, especially the Catholics: “Mission schools became factories for spreading prejudices about the different tribes”. Church schools censored everything rebellious, avoiding, for example, talk about the French revolution. While Christianity’s message of obedience was encouraged, critical religious movements suffered harsh repression. The preacher, Simon Kimbangu, was arrested in 1921. He died in prison 30 years later. His followers, the Kimbanguists, were displaced and persecuted, but are still a big movement in Congo.

With the discovery of Congo’s vast mineral treasures, the country was industrialised. The dominant mining company, Union Minière, ran its own totalitarian state apparatus in Katanga in the southeast, where copper, manganese, uranium, gold and other valuable resources were mined. Palm oil became the raw material of the soaps that laid the foundation for today’s multinational giant, Unilever.

The working class grew from a few hundred in 1900 to 450,000 in 1929, then to nearly one million in the second world war, when the mining industry boomed. Uranium from Katanga was used in the first atomic bombs. Congo became the second most industrialised sub-Saharan country, after South Africa.

But the conditions of the workers and poor were not part of this economic development. Discontent led to strikes and riots at the beginning and end of the war, with 60 miners killed in a mass protest in Elizabethville (now Lumbumbashi) in Katanga. Strike leaders were tracked down. Certain groups or tribes were singled out as ‘troublemakers’. It was part of the divide and rule strategy.

Those who worked during the second world war in the mines or in the service jobs that were created around industries, expected a change after the war. So did the soldiers who served with the ‘Allies’ in Abyssinia, Egypt and Burma. Racism, however, persisted. Africans could still be whipped in public, had to stand at the end of queues, and were banned from bathing facilities. Trade unions were illegal. Local elections were introduced in some cities, but any mayor was subservient to the Belgian ‘first mayor’.

Around the world there was an eruption of colonial revolutions and liberation wars. Britain, the Netherlands and the United States were made to relinquish India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Algeria and Indochina armed struggle continued against French colonial troops. In 1958, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to become independent.

“In 1955 there was still no national organisation that dreamed of independence”, writes Van Reybrouck. Five years later, the country was formally independent. The deceptive calm was broken in 1956 by rising social unrest. A freedom manifesto was put forward by the Association des Bakongo (ABAKO), originally a tribal organisation, led by Joseph Kasa-Vubu.

Two years later, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) was formed, with Patrice Lumumba as leader. Its goal was to liberate Congo from imperialism and colonial rule. The response was enormous. Lumumba visited the new state of Ghana, where he met the country’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah. On returning to Congo, 7,000 people gathered to listen to his report.

In January 1959, Congo exploded. The Belgian first mayor banned a protest meeting in Kinshasa, leading to riots. The army was used in full force, killing up to 300 and injuring many more. The unrest spread to Kivu, Kasai and Katanga.

Eventually it was agreed that the Congo should become independent on 30 June 1960 – a year in which 17 African states won independence. It was formal, political independence but the multinational companies were able to operate as before, allowed to act in accordance with Belgian law. Three days before independence, the Belgian parliament abolished Congolese power over the dominant Union Minière. All army officers and the highest officials were Belgian.

But hopes for real change were high and the MNC under Lumumba won the first elections. But regional parties also had great support: the breakaway MNC-K led by Albert Kalonji in Kasai, the Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) under Moïse Tshombe in south Katanga, and ABAKO in Bas-Congo. Kasa-Vubu became president, with Lumumba as prime minister.

Lumumba deposed

Congo, like other former colonies, was economically dominated by the old colonial power and multinational companies. The only way to really break this would have been with a democratic socialist policy including the nationalisation of the mineral wealth and resources. And, had it been equipped with a truly socialist leadership, the working class internationally would have given massive support. Congo, however, lacked a nationwide, democratic socialist movement among workers and the rural poor.

The Stalinist states, like the Soviet Union and China, had shown that a planned economy could make big progress, despite their oppressive, dictatorial rule. But neither Moscow nor Beijing wanted to support a revolutionary movement that was beyond its control. They preferred bourgeois regimes that they could deal with.

The crisis immediately after independence was not due to Belgium leaving the country too quickly, as Van Reybrouck seems to suggest. It was due to the lack of a workers’ movement with a clear programme. A new government was formed, but its adherents were volatile, its programme unclear. This was seized on by Belgium, which invaded Katanga with 10,000 soldiers within days. Officially, this was to protect Belgian citizens. In reality, it was to keep control over the mining industry. They encouraged Tshombe to declare independence, and Union Minière funded his rule.

Lumumba was in office for just two months, in a country in rapid decay. Thousands died in the fighting that accompanied the attempts by Katanga, diamond-rich Kasai, and Kivu to break away. Lumumba appealed to the UN for support, and to Nikita Khrushchev, who sent food, weapons and vehicles. The Congo crisis struck at the heart of the cold war between the US and Stalinist Russia. The US military needed minerals from the Congo, for example, cobalt for its missiles. In early September, he was deposed by Kasa-Vubu.

Ten days after Lumumba was ousted, the army’s chief of staff, Mobutu, conducted his first coup, supported by the CIA. Lumumba was placed under house arrest. The Belgian government and US president, Dwight Eisenhower, gave the green light for him to be murdered. After torture and transportation to Katanga, Lumumba was shot in front of local leaders, including Tshombe.

Lumumba was not an explicit socialist and lacked a strong movement and weapons. But he was seen as a radical freedom fighter, not only in Africa, and his supporters spoke of revolution. His unpredictability and the expectations he created frightened the imperialist powers. They had seen how events led to revolution in Cuba, even though the liberation movement there had lacked a socialist programme initially. US imperialism intervened to overthrow Lumumba, by using the CIA, and at the UN.

The Soviet Union and China, moreover, had no interest in backing revolutions, especially if they had the aim of developing genuine workers’ democracy. In fact, they did not even have plans for new Stalinist states. Only after regimes or guerrilla movements had abolished capitalism did Moscow and Beijing give their support, in order to bring them into their spheres of influence and, as far as possible, under their control.

The Mobutu dictatorship

The war to retake Katanga continued until the end of 1962, and was fought with the help of UN troops. It was during these battles that UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was killed in a suspicious plane crash in September 1961. Unrest and rebellion continued into the mid-1960s. A Maoist inspired rural rebellion in central Congo was put down. In Burundi, Laurent Kabila formed what were called ‘simba troops’, with strong anti-American and anti-Catholic rhetoric. For a short time, even Che Guevara participated in the guerrilla war, although he soon returned to Latin America.

The US and Tshombe in Katanga now supported the government in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) against the uprisings. Tshombe won elections in 1965, but was considered too unreliable by the US and western powers. On 25 November, came Mobutu’s second coup and this time he would stay as dictator until 1997.

Van Reybrouck describes how the Mobutu regime developed into a strange, brutal and corrupt dictatorship. While closely allied with the US and Israel, it also took many of its characteristics from Mao Zedong’s regime in China. Only indigenous names and music were allowed. The cult of personality was massive, with up to seven hours of musical tributes to Mobutu on television every day. In 1971, he renamed the country Zaire.

When the student movement rose up in Congo in 1968-69 – parallel to the student protests in Europe and the US – Lumumba was its hero. But it was crushed in a massacre in 1969. Three hundred were killed (officially, six!), with 800 sentenced to long prison terms.

Congo’s great agricultural potential was squandered and Mobutu had to import food. Inflation rose rapidly and the state borrowed up to a third of the budget in the 1970s. Like many other African countries, Congo ended up in the clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Their structural adjustment programmes imposed privatisation and cuts. Congo reduced the number of teachers in a short time from 285,000 to 126,000 – transforming its high literacy to the situation today, where 30% are illiterate.

In the late 1980s, protest movements against IMF policies and dictatorships arose across Africa. New political parties, associations and trade unions were formed. On 16 February 1992, priests and churches organised the ‘hope march’ in several cities in protest at the shutting down of a conference on democratisation. Over one million took part. Thirty-five demonstrators were killed in the repression. In 1993, Mobutu clamped down on any talk of democratisation and regained full control. Inflation exploded, reaching 9,769% in 1994. Mobutu was forced to introduce a five-million New Zaire note.

It was after years of dictatorship and worsening economic crisis, when all hope of change was extinguished, that ethnic violence erupted. Groups in Katanga demanded that immigrants from Kasai should ‘go home’. The same language was directed against Tutsis in the Kivus – called ‘banyarwanda’ (‘from Rwanda’). “In the 80s no one knew their classmates’ ethnic background, all that began in the 90s. My girlfriend was Tutsi, and I did not even know about it”, says Pierre Bushala in Goma to Van Reybrouck. He writes that the ethnic violence was “a logical consequence of land shortage in a war economy that served globalisation”. In Kivu, nationalist maimai militias were formed. They fought for farmland, control over villages and mines.

Six million dead

In 1994, the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis took place in Rwanda. Almost immediately, Rwanda was invaded and controlled by a Tutsi army led by the current president, Paul Kagame. Over two million Hutus fled, 1.5 million of them to Zaire/Congo. The old guerrilla leader, Laurent Kabila, and his movement, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Liberation du Congo (AFDL), formally led the Rwandans who were hunting Hutus. It became a war against Mobutu’s Zaire. Up to 300,000 Hutu refugees were killed.

After a short war, Kabila overthrew Mobutu and established himself as the new head of state in a country that was renamed Congo. But Kabila soon imitated Mobutu’s methods.

Kabila realised the regimes in Rwanda and Uganda had intervened for their own interests, and now broke with them. Rwanda invaded again, starting the second Congo war, in 1998. Six million have died as a result of the wars since then, most from disease and starvation. Many other countries have been drawn in, such as Angola, Zimbabwe and Libya on the Congolese side against Uganda and Rwanda. Van Reybrouck shows how the latter two exported large quantities of gold from the Congo during the war.

In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was shot dead by one of his bodyguards. He was succeeded by his son, Joseph, who has the support of the EU, US and China. In 2003, a peace agreement was signed, but fighting, mass rapes and massacres have continued, particularly in Kivu. The various forces constantly split away or are renamed as fighting continues for the same treasures: gold, other minerals and ivory. Currently, the most precious mineral is coltan, used in modern electronics. Van Reybrouck rightly calls this the “militarisation of the economy”, noting that “the war was relatively inexpensive, especially in the light of the amazing benefits that commodity exploitation brought”.

Is there any hope? Van Reybrouck describes Congo as a country on the verge of explosion. Congo’s state budget, for 60 million people, is smaller than the budget for the city of Stockholm with fewer than one million inhabitants. GDP per capita has shrunk from $450 to $200 since 1960. The United Nations Human Development Report, which measures such things as education and healthcare, places Congo as the fifth-worst country in the world to live in.

Today’s Congo is ravaged by the same raw looting capitalism as in the 19th century. Mine contracts can be gained by bribery or military control. New discoveries of oil and gas have again increased tensions on the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Chinese companies are building infrastructure to service the mines, which operate in the same way as the slave factories in China.

Congo will see a revolutionary development, but where the explosions lead depends on drawing conclusions from history – and from Egypt and Tunisia over the last two years. Socialist and democratic organisations must be built at record speed.

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