Images of men crouching with machine guns. Pictures of lifeless bodies in villages. Child soldiers, warlords, and massive carnage. Chances are, these are probably some of the first things you think of when you hear about the Congo. The DR Congo or Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be rife with human rights issues. The Congo is a world that seemingly eludes a solution, a place that holds one of the darkest eras of history and a country that is in a near constant state of war. Regardless of how much foreign aid is pumped in or the number of peacekeepers, the Congo keeps getting sucked into a never-ending state of chaos in despair. How did this happen? Who is to blame? And what possible ways could there be a solution? These questions plague human rights activists as it becomes exceedingly difficult to unravel the history of the Congo, the International elements that are at play, and the regional politics. Here, I will do my very best to answer some of these questions and hopefully illustrate a clearer picture of one of the most ravaged areas of the world.
The Shackles of Imperialism
It’s difficult to look at the Congo without acknowledging its tumultuous history under the Belgian leader, King Leopold. Popularized in the book King Leopold’s Ghost, the Congo under Belgian rule seems less like a plausible story from a history book and more akin to the dastardly plot of a Hollywood super villain. To explain, here is some background on what happened; Imperialism during the nineteenth century saw the rise of European powers conquering and annexing territories in order that they might gain more resources. The Belgian King Leopold desired to annex and effectively steal huge swaths of what would later become known as the Congo in order to satiate his imperialistic desires. Ivory and rubber were both resources sought after within the territory due to its need in global markets. Unfortunately, getting these resources proved to be rather difficult leading to incentives such as kidnapping, fighting, and whipping to help “promote” more resource retrieval. By the end of this period of imperialism an estimated ten million people were killed.
Tragedy in the Congo would not end at imperialism, as their misfortunes would only continue. Although there was a brief era of optimism during the period of independence in 1960, the hope of a better Congo vanished with international intervention. The promise of a new Congo started with Patrice Lumumba as the new democratically elected prime minister. Understandably against European and Western intervention, he expanded his policy to include a separation of Congo’s markets from Western control. The kiss of death for Lumumba was when he looked to the Soviet Union in providing help for his plans. America responded with a CIA operation (akin to some of the other CIA operations one of which I previously discussed about in my Iran article) that involved his assassination.
After this period of carnage, Mobutu seized power in 1965 and had a startling amount of things in common with the previous imperialist rulers. Interestingly enough, this man was considered a “friend” of the United States for helping lead the assassination attempt on the former prime minister. Effectively, Mobutu became the dictator of the Congo, ruthlessly murdering those who got in his way with the help of the United States. In fact, the United States gave over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid along with a personal present of an airplane with staff. It is estimated that since Mobutu seized a sizeable amount of the state’s profits he was worth an astronomical 4 billion dollars.
Transitioning to the Modern Day
In 1997, the anti-Mobutu rebels were able to successfully capture the capital and the country was renamed from Zaire (under Mobutu’s rule) to DR Congo. The troubles of the Congo only kept going as the new president, Laurent Kabila and his former allies caused a serious rift within the government. War broke out between Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (supporting Kabila) versus Rwanda and Uganda. Perhaps this is why many refer to the Congo as being the host of “Africa’s world war”. Constant clashes would reoccur, leading to a state of near anarchy in the DR Congo.
In April 2012 there was a mutiny from the Congolese army mostly composed of the Tutsi ethnic group. This is significant because they believe that they were not being adequately compensated during the conflict due to their ethnicity. However, others contend that the reason that they split from the military was because one of their leaders General Bosco Ntaganda was put on trial. Regardless of the reason, the group became known as “M23” in reference to a deal struck with a former rebel group called the CNDP signed with the Congolese government. As a result of their actions, over 800,000 people have been displaced and there have been growing fears of another regional conflict. There are also some allegations that Uganda and Rwanda are responsible for backing the rebels, which is something that they deny.
In 2013 the M23 were finally defeated by a conglomerate of UN and Congolese forces. Currently, the leader of this group, Bosco Ntaganda is still under trial in the ICC in The Hague for alleged war crimes. However, despite this progress there are still quite a few challenges that still face the Congo. Chiefly among these is the fact that much of the civil strife and violence within the past few years has gone unpunished. According to one Jose Maria Aranaz (head of the UN Joint Human Rights Office in Kinshasa), “There remains a wide gulf of impunity for serious violations of human rights”. Besides human rights, there exists some environmental concerns as well. Recently there has been an Oscar winning documentary about a national park in the Congo called “Virunga”. This park, which is the oldest in Africa, is teeming with wildlife (notably holding some of the few surviving silverback gorillas) is threatened by the oil company, SOCO International. In the documentary, the environmentalists were able to win against the overwhelming odds of both the militias and the oil company. However, it seems likely that the victory declared was a bit too premature as SOCO has vowed that it will not pull out of the UNESCO world heritage site. If SOCO was to drill and caused an oil spill, the results would be catastrophic to the wildlife and the human populace. One-estimate states that millions if not hundreds of millions would suffer from contaminated water.
Unfortunately, these are but a few of the problems that plague the Congo. Although there is some cause for optimism we still need to consider that corruption and human rights abuses are still very present in this country. However, it is interesting to note the role the international community is playing in the Congo and how they might be a variable that helps change its current situation. Ideally, the DR Congo will see a lasting peace but realistically history tells a very different story.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.