Can we save the Congo? By Ben Allen
‘Africa has the shape of a pistol, and Congo is its trigger’ – Frantz Fanon.
The part of Africa that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo has for centuries been a scene of strife, war and death. Few, if any regions of the world have witnessed such persistent tragedy and neglect. As the Kabila regime in Kinshasa slides back into decadence unparalleled since the days of the great embezzler Mobutu, the world continues to happily use Congo’s minerals. Even now, as rebel groups wage war in the east, people too easily neglect the plight of millions who do not live in freedom from fear or want. In this passage, I dare to ask whether humanity can save its own cradle.
To understand more of the Congo’s current blight we must refer to its past. There is no specific moment in time when things started to go wrong – and is hence why I call the Congo a ‘persistent tragedy’. Ever since the Bantu emigrated from North West Africa, displacing local hunter-gatherer communities further south, there has been strife. The Arab slave trade, operating from bases in modern day Tanzania and South Sudan decimated populations in the East. The Kingdom of Kongo was crippled by civil war and Portuguese intervention, soon followed by the European slave trade. History has not been kind to the Congo and its peoples.
However, most take the birth of its modern tragedy to be linked to the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, also known in German as the ‘Kongokonferenz’, or Congo Conference. Thousands of miles away from the heart of Africa the European powers decided the fate of people they thought to be beneath them, self-justified through anthropological beliefs in the superiority of Europeans over the ‘cursed sons of Ham’. The establishment of the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom of King Léopold II of Belgium marked a new era in terror.
The Belgian horror continued past Decolonization, culminating in the assassination of President Patrice Lumumba in 1961, derailing the newly independent state and paving the way for the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko. His kleptocracy lasted for over 30 years, until he was ousted from power in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide when Rwanda took the retreat of the Hutu génocidaires into East Zaire as pretext for invasion. Since then, we have witnessed the rise and fall of another regime, another regional war, over five million deaths and the descent of one of the most resource-laden nations in the world into the poorest country on Earth.
The mix of historical, colonial, ethnic and geographical legacies have left the Congo as, for want of a better term, a mess. Fighting continues in the Kivu and Ituri provinces to the East. Neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Angola all fund multiple rebel groups, acting under the guise of ‘political fronts’ that ‘justify’ themselves in the name of civil grievances. Though the international community has tried to respond, the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping mission has done little to quell the steady flow of casualties. It is obvious that the status quo is not working, so how can such a morass be penetrated?
The title of this essay asks what we can do, as citizens more fortunate than those born into the misery of the Congo. The truth is, I believe, not so simple. The answer is not massive military intervention, nor simply trusting the Kabila Government with more developmental aid – but instead a combination of factors, most crucially internal. To save the Congo, we must deal with it on its own terms, starting with its leaders.
At the advent of decolonization, a new generation of revolutionary leaders sprouted, often educated in the West and knowledgeable in world affairs and the conflicting ideologies of the Cold War. As men like Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Jomo Kenyatta led the continent away from its colonial bonds there truly was cause for hope. Yet, as the years passed, the hopes of the vast majority of Africans were broken, as revolutionaries betrayed their beliefs and succumbed to the corruption of power.
This systemic failure of leadership lies at the heart of Congo’s plight. Though the assassination of Lumumba was not the fault of the Congolese as such, the actions of Mobutu’s regime for over 30 years crippled the Congolese State. Embezzlement, nepotism and corruption were the words of the day, with Mobutu deliberately vying different branches of the state against each other, and keeping the army weak in fear of a coup. Even overseas, stories such as the Congolese ambassador to Japan selling off the embassy land and pocketing the money exemplify the metastasizing rot that is the leadership of the Congo.
When so many responsible individuals forsake their duties for personal enrichment or otherwise, it is clear that there cannot be much hope for the State. The people, supposedly gaining protection from the state in recognition of its sovereignty over them, are continually failed by the choices of these ever-fallible moral agents. The violence and intimidation that preceded the recent presidential elections are testimony to the insecurity of the national leadership and the poverty of respect for the rule of law. The message is clear: the old guard has to go, replaced by a new generation of leaders truly dedicated to the cause of nation building.
Furthermore, the international community has to get tough with the other countries in the region. Though sovereignty has often been a convenient shield for governments in the region to hide behind, the Congo has the opposite problem, with no effective control over its borders and militia roaming freely through its vast lands – many of which are unofficially supported by neighboring states. Indeed, the recent army mutiny and insurgency led by General Bosco Ntaganda known as the M23 movement has reportedly been supplied by the Rwandan Defense Forces, highlighting the vulnerability of the nation to external intervention.
Both Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda have to accept that the Eastern regions of the Congo cannot be used as a battleground for their own agendas. With the United States aiding Uganda in the capture of the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army officer Caesar Acellam, and the United Kingdom being highly successful in initiating tied-aid programmes with Rwanda, surely such leverage can be used to pressure the governments into reining in their support for political fronts. Until this happens, the Congo will never be truly secure.
Finally, the Congolese people must be empowered. For too long have the kleptocratic regimes of Lumumba, Mobutu and the two Kabilas crushed any hope of prosperity. For too long has the Congolese desire for democracy been trampled under the boots of those in power. For too long has fear ruled reason, driven by the terror of rape, murder and war. As citizens of the world we cannot tolerate this tragedy, and it is through pressuring NGOs, Human Rights Organizations and our own governments to remember the Congo that we can fulfill our responsibility to our Congolese brothers and sisters.
With better leadership, true recognition of Congo’s sovereignty and the empowerment of the Congolese people, there is a way to save the Congo. Though such events may seem far off and idealistic, they remain possibilities that are worth aspiring to, and goals that may be attained. For this, I dare to dream of peace, in the belief that the nightmare of its past will one day end, and lead the way to the true fulfillment of the Congo’s promise: a Democratic Republic of the Congo.