Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!
Undoubtedly you’ve heard of the Congo and most likely know that it’s located somewhere in Africa. However for most people- especially in the United States- their knowledge of the Congo is summed up in that single sentence. But… people usually get a feeling when thinking about the Congo, even though they know so little. It’s wild, packed with jungle, untouched by civilized man, enigmatic and dark. Blockbuster hits like Congo and outbreaks in the area of the dreaded Ebola virus – one of the (if not THE) most heinous viruses known to man – continue to portray the image of a surreal enchanted land. It is a region of the earth shrouded in mystery as well as misery. It is as if Heaven and Hell were forced to co-exist in one place with the most extremes of good, beauty, and bounty… as well as the most extreme of evil, death and deprivation. 700 years ago when the Divine Comedy was written, Dante passed a sign before he entered Hell: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Many could argue the sign might be more appropriate for the entrance to the Congo.
What is it about the Congo that captures imaginations? The Congo is similar to an ancient, decrepit, haunted house. Far away from the rest of humanity, up on a hill, with lightening flashing in the background and a”Beware” sign hanging crooked on the banging iron gate that leads on to the property. Of course there is one difference – the Congo is full of abundant beauty- which makes it all the more surreal.
Well first what exactly is the Congo? It’s actually a river in Southwest Africa. Just as Buzz Aldrin will never have the fame of Neil Armstrong the Congo River is eclipsed by the Nile River for the longest river in Africa. After the Nile though, no river in Africa comes close. And the second longest river in Africa happens to run straight through the second largest rainforest in the world. The River is so popular two countries were named after it – which makes it a little confusing for conversation. The country to the Northwest of the Congo River is known as the “Republic of the Congo,” or simply Congo-Brazzaville as that is their capital city which is perched right on the edge of the mighty Congo River. This country deserves a story all its own, but this entry is going to focus on the much larger country to the Southeast – the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” or Congo-Kinshasa (the capitals of the two countries sit directly across the Congo River from each other). It is this country that this entry focuses around because its history is unrivaled and it is soaked in blood.
The Congo River got its name from the old Kingdom of Kongo which has its origins as far back as 1400 and lasted up until 1914 – or at least thats what Wikipedia says. I’m admittedly no expert on early Congo history but it does seem the Kingdom was relatively sound until it came in contact with the Europeans who began using them as slaves turning their own kingdom on itself. Considering the resulting temperament of the region hence, it is reasonable to wonder how many innocent lives could’ve been saved if the “civilized” white Europeans and Americans would’ve greeted the natives they met as simply another culture to learn from. What I mean by that is this:
The year is 1885 and European ego has ballooned to epic proportions as whole nations are making claim to owning the entire continent of Africa – absolutely with no regard to natural or native boundaries. This is something important enough to stop and look at real quick – just so we don’t underestimate what a truly global issue this is. This map of Africa is about 30 years too late but this is the same basic idea – it was just a free-for-all land grab with absolutely no consideration towards the native population. This may ring some bells of similarity in America. There was serious cultural damage done from this white European display of prideful ignorance. I’m not pointing any fingers as all the culprits and initial victims are long dead and anyone who still is living in those days is clinging to a dying past. There can be some direct blame laid, as those who initiated the use of such brutal force were directly involved – and in 1885 one of the largest private properties known to man was acquired – and it happens to be the single blue area in the African map – right in the center.
There once was a King of a small European country who had a terrible problem. As a good King should he wanted his country great, and he racked his brains night and day trying to come up with a way to make his country great. And finally his eureka-moment came and an epiphany had been realized. He thought about it – where could he get more stuff for his country without bothering his immediate neighbors? And then it dawned on him – Colonies! The idea probably made his heart flutter near the ceiling. It made perfect sense – the King probably hit his palm to his forehead asking why he didn’t think of it sooner but there was still another problem that he didn’t anticipate. When he proposed his idea to Congress and his subjects there was virtually no interest. You see – this small European Country was Belgium and the King was none-other than King Leopold II. The people and government of Belgium wanted nothing to do with colonies in an age where democracy was beginning to flourish and the importance of the King was slowly eroding away. But King Leopold II was not deterred, he made a private company, had the area around the Congo River surveyed, and in 1885 all the other greedy countries recognized the Congo Free State as owned by only King Leopold II and nobody else – it is why the Congo is split in half at the river, he ‘gave‘ the northern half to the French for sovereignty of the much larger south. You see – he tricked his own subjects in to thinking he was just going to survey the land when in reality he was simply trying to grab an entire country as his sole property – and he succeeded with bribes.
As a private block of land 1/4 the size of the United States the King went straight away to using it to create a profit. Seeing as no Europeans were living in the Congo Free State King Leopold II absentmindedly declared the entire land as “vacant.” And thus the arduous anguish-ridden history of the people of the Congo began. The cruelty of the first European colonists in the Congo Free State is noteworthy. King Leopold II was serious about making sure the “vacant” land turned him a profit – in any form necessary. If natives were encountered it was essential to use them for forced labor – slavery. Ivory which cost innocent animal life and rubber which was collected via slavery were the two main exports of King Leopold’s II new land. King Leopold II even allowed rival slave traders run parts of the Congo Free State.
Back in Belgium the King kept a tight lid on things – but not tight enough. His people were mad at the debt he had created by investing so deeply into this African colony he tricked everyone about acquiring in the first place. On top of that rumors were being spread about the brutal rule he had over the colony. After all – very few people who went there rarely came back, most were not allowed to leave the country. But politics crept up on Leopold and he was forced to let an independent group assess how he ran the country. And in 1908 there was international outrage towards the King and his forced labor – even the United States condemned it- slavery was apparently last century news (at this point it was only acceptable to restrict equal rights). Thusly the Western World virtually appointed the country of Belgium the new ruler of the Congo Free State to tone down the massive human rights abuses – and thus the Belgian Congo was born (which is why that is the name on the above map).
The Belgian people were not happy with their King during his reign and in 1902 he was almost assassinated. When he died in 1909 he was booed during his burial parade. I do not know the extent of the cruelty the King was responsible for and I don’t think anybody will ever know for sure (one of those eerie sayings people always say when countless have been murdered). I’ve read figures as high as 10 million innocent lives were taken under the brutal dictatorship that surpassed the brutality that even “regular colonies” employed. In 2005 a statue of King Leopold II was erected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the capital of Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) for historical purposes, by the time the sun rose the next morning it had been removed.
For more information on Leopold’s rule check out the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as this seems to be the authority everybody points to (though fiction the book is largely based on what the author saw while in the Congo). But believe it or not King Leopold II and his creation of the Congo Free State is only the background of the tale I want to tell.
I find it hard to convey the complexity surrounding the Congo’s situation without mentioning the province of Katanga. During Leopold’s rule they were a modern African Kingdom that held their own against both Leopold’s men to the north as well as the encroaching British from the south. A Kingdom had arisen around the same time as Leopold’s men were entering the Congo from the West. It was known as the Yeke Kingdom and its leader was known as Msiri. Msiri was not a particularly benevolent leader but I can’t help but be impressed with the native attempt at demanding independence in a way that was every bit as economically brutal as Leopold. Being at the heart of the African continent they were an ideal trading post which produced slaves and copper. Their regional influence grew so large that the Kingdom quickly shared a sense of independence from the European encroachers. Despite the sense of unity Leopold’s men killed Msiri and took Katanga for their own profit – classic Leopold style. However this Kingdom seemed to have infused the area with a sense of brutal independence that ran through the decades.
Independence and the Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba
The Belgian Congo, ruled by the country of Belgium, did not carry on the brutal rule of their King but instead the more socially acceptable forms of discrimination rife with colonies those days. Katanga proved to be a mineral rich area of the Congo and the Belgian’s profited nicely from Leopold’s greed. While primary schools apparently were built in abundance a stark absence of secondary or higher education was found. And still, even though no longer run by Leopold, the country kept its borders as closed as possible to retain ignorance and protect from independent influence. The Africans were encouraged to get service jobs they weren’t allowed to have the higher paying jobs that would support a country. All of this kept the unwanted, bastardized, adopted Congo child in a non-threatening and profit-producing state (much like todays genetically modified pigs – helpless independently, bountiful for the ones who made it that way).
But by the time the late 1950’s occurred the natives of the Congo became increasingly more demanding about Independence as word leaked of other African countries becoming independent. The logistics of Independence had become nightmarishly large in size. The complete lack of higher education would leave a country helpless to care for themselves in a modern world now broadcasting information across oceans and flying fighter jets. Yet the native Congolese were becoming violent and the Belgian government had lost almost all favor – faced with no other option in January of 1960 Belgium promised independence in June of the same year. The total number of university graduates was 30, only 136 completed secondary education, and the country only had 600 priests to help tend to the countries needs – no doctors, no secondary school teachers, no army officers. With Congo’s native culture ravaged by Belgium and its leaders during the last 70+ years of occupation and forced to live under “civilized” order the Congolese sat at the eve of their Independence in complete ignorance on what it takes to run a “civilized” nation. The only history they had really known of a “civilized” nation was that of a very pushy and unpleasant country – which they were about to get rid of (or so they thought – there is little civilized action in a civilized world).
Five days before independence a non-executive president and Prime Minister were elected – Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba respectively. Both were leaders in the Congolese demand for independence. While the new King of Belgium – King Baudouin – came expecting to hear praise for his great Uncle – King Leopold II – he was greeted by a blasé president and a vehement prime minister. Lumumba chose his words with justifiable passion:
“We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night because we were ‘niggers’… We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have seen that this law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. We have seen the terrible suffering of those banished to remote regions because of their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled within their own country, their fate was truly worse than death itself… And finally, who can forget the volleys of gunfire in which so many of our brothers perished, the cells where the authorities threw those who would not submit to a rule where justice meant oppression and exploitation”
Each word was undoubtedly justifiable and thus the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was born, independent from imperial rule, and alienated by their lofty oppressors. Immediately there were problems. The army started to get vocal about their low wages and began to riot, Lumumba immediately blamed the Belgian’s accusing them of inciting rebellion doing little to address the actual problem at hand. While the Belgian’s did keep the overhead jobs from the Congolese it was Lumumba himself who demanded the 6th month plan to independence instead of the Belgian’s proposed 4 year plan. Mutiny quickly became rampant and whites were beaten, raped, and insulted. A mass exodus of the white population quickly fled in the thousands and many of the Congolese feasted on their first taste of lustful bigotry and oppression – it was their turn to inflict the harm on the whites. During this time many of the Congolese quickly converted to everything they’ve ever hated about the Belgian rule. Of course the Belgian’s have left no other model of rule around leaving disaster inevitable.
As Lumumba rushed about his new duties taking care of this national crisis while refusing any aid from the Belgians, a sly politician named Moise Tshombe declared the mineral rich Katanga (remember Katanga?) an independent state, adding one more thing for Lumumba to handle. Katanga quickly became a unified unit at the earliest of the DRC’s independence. Lumumba, having nowhere to turn, looked towards the United Nations (UN) to help and within days foreign troops were maintaining public safety and civilian task forces were created to run public services. Of course at this point Belgian troops had also intervened to ensure the safety of their ex-patriots and this in no way pleased Lumumba.
Lumumba insisted that the UN expel the Belgian troops and the UN refused to intervene figuring the Congo needed all the help it could get. Infuriated Lumumba demanded the UN remove Belgian troops or he would invite the Soviet’s to intervene. It’s 1960. Lumumba happened to press the one button that would possibly get the United States even marginally interested in a remote African backwater – they called Commie! And the United States saw this as a very serious threat because a year previously a revolution had just taken place off the tip of Florida and a young Fidel Castro began his rule of the small country of Cuba. The DRC could be another country that could fall to the dreaded rule of communism and so Lumumba was rushed to Washington where the CIA attempted to persuade him not to make such a rash decision. By August the United States was calling Lumumba “a Castro or worse,” “irrational,” a “mad dog” and “psychotic.” The UN called Lumumba crazy, threatening, demanding, irrational and claimed he acted like a child. Within two months of independence the United States and UN were completely fed up with Lumumba’s rule and seemed more than happy to let the communists deal with him.
In fact we get a rare glimpse into how powerful politics really can get. President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to “eliminate” Lumumba. I’m not joking. “There was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds and the meeting continued,” Johnson recalled. Belgian leaders rife with embarrassment came to similar conclusions: “The main aim to pursue in the interests of the Congo, Katanga, and Belgium, is clearly Lumumba’s elimination definitive.” With the Western World attempting to manipulate the potentially malignant Soviet country and Katanga attempting to secede using military might and an army that has mutinied Lumumba’s options were thin but he continued to attempt to manage the country showing no signs of letting go. To add to Lumumba’s poor image a recent military expedition to Kasai ended with hundreds of Baluba tribesmen murdered and 250,000 displaced refugees. UN Soldiers looked on with strict orders not to use weapons aside for self defense.
What about Kasa-Vubu – the non-executive President? What was he doing during all this time? Kasa-Vubu had quickly grown accustomed and comfortable with his new life of luxury and was not in any hurry to stir any political trouble. But when approached by the U.S., the Belgians, and fellow Congolese Kasa-Vubu was virtually forced to act – but not before Lumumba did – and he quickly accused Kasa-Vubu of treason and dismissed him as president.
Lumumba’s end came from an unlikely source – from a trusted personal aide that Lumumba promoted to army commander – his name was Joseph Mobutu (left). Supported by the CIA, UN, and many frustrated Congolese citizens the 29 year old Joseph Mobutu declared that he was neutralizing all politicians and assuming power until the end of the year. The 35 year old Lumumba quickly disappeared in to hiding.
On December 1st, 1960- 6 months after he became the first acting Prime Minister of the DRC- Lumumba was found crouching in the back of a pickup and arrested. After he was thoroughly beaten he was sent straight to Leopoldville (the capital later renamed Kinshasa) where Joseph Mobutu ruled with UN and U.S. support. And in that tropical December of 1960 along the muddy banks of the Congo River somewhere in Leopoldville Patrice Lumumba lay at the mercy of Joseph Mobutu. A former minister claimed to have seen Mobutu spit in Lumumba’s face and declare: “Well! You swore to have my skin, now it is I who have yours.”
The Death of Patrice Lumumba
You did know he was going to die, didn’t you? It’s common knowledge to not expect a happy ending in Africa and Lumumba’s death, unfortunately, is not exceptional compared to the ends of many African’s that dare to toil in African politics. In fact it might not even be worth talking about if it wasn’t so scandalous and if the resulting aftermath wasn’t so powerful -
Earlier I spoke of Lumumba killing hundreds of Baluba tribesmen as well as displacing 250,000 refugees. Well after a month of being detained it was decided that Lumumba and two of his colleagues be transported to a different city – Elizabethville. The guards picked for this transportation were Baluba – Baluba that were ready for revenge. The entire 6 hour flight was filled with unimaginable beatings and when the plane landed and the torture should have ended (should it have started?) there were Katangese soldiers and Belgian officers waiting for him. They took up the beatings where the Baluba soldiers left off and transported them to an empty house. You see – Elizabethville is located deep in the Southern Congo – in Katanga (remember Katanga?). Tshombe, the man who declared independence while Lumumba was in charge, still kept Katanga in an autonomous rule from the rest of the Congo and was supported by the Belgians. Tshombe and Belgian police commissioner Frans Verscheure were in charge of the detention of Lumumba and his colleagues and spent the afternoon taunting and beating Lumumba further.
Tshombe and Verscheure eventually got tired of torturing Lumumba and went home to get drunk. Tshombe’s butler noticed that his employer came home that evening covered in blood. By 10 P.M. many were drunk enough to have murder on there minds. Lumumba and his colleagues were never to see another sunrise – and they probably didn’t want to. Hauled 30 miles out of town the three men were ripped out of the pickup truck to face open graves in front of them.
“Yes,” Verscheure replied. And that night – January 17, 1961 – a group of drunken Katangese soldiers and Belgian officers murdered 3 men (Lumumba being the last) who spent the day being tortured. Then they were buried. As sobriety started to settle in panic began to engulf the group and cover stories started to be spun. It was the Belgians that worried particularly as what had just occurred would be found entirely unacceptable to the Western culture in which they so belonged. A political prisoner was in their hands the previous day and now they had no way of accounting for him. The following night after the diabolical deed had occurred some Belgians dug the cadavers back up, took them 120 miles away, hacked them up, and dissolved them in a vat of sulphuric acid. Then their bones were ground up and scattered on the return trip to Elizabethville so as to lose all connections with their cold blooded murder.
Nevertheless, this event was witnessed by too many people and the secret was not kept. The murder of Patrice Lumumba made him into one of the most famous political martyrs of modern times. The Congolese were vehement towards the Belgian’s for continuing to meddle with their independence and murdering their first leader. In addition this news was one of the few maniacal secrets the Congo had released to the world and staged protests occurred across the globe in over 30 cities. The support behind Lumumba came from the concept that he was just a poor guy trying to free his country from colonialism and for that simple reason – murdered – and the country that just “gave” them independence was responsible. Belgium was globally chastised – which I imagine, in some way, is exactly what Lumumba would want his death to do – hurt the image of those who had put him and his people in such a fetal state. Now we know Lumumba could not blame all of the misfortunes on Belgium, for he definitely created his fair share of oppression and impossible demands… but I can’t help but wonder – with the way Belgium treated the Congolese, no matter how the transition phase occurred (6 months OR 4 years), and no matter WHO was put in position of power – whether the Democratic Republic of the Congo was just set up to fail.
Mobutu assumed power of Leopoldville with the avid support of the U.S. and UN but was not the favored leader in the country. The Soviet Union was aiding a Northeastern uprising (red), Tshombe still was attempting succession of Katanga in the Southeast aided by the Belgians still (green), and in the Southwest diamonds had been found in the area of Kasai and the locals began to guard the area from the rest of the country – the Belgians also meddled here (blue). Mobutu, in short, was only in charge of the Western portion of the country and the capital (yellow). Most of the rest of the country started to divide itself.
By 1964 Katanga had failed to become an independent state and Tshombe became acting Prime Minister of the entire DRC. That same year a revolt occurred in the Eastern (red) portion of the map and Tshombe had to recover half the land of the country he had previously tried to secede from. Mass executions began of the Congolese people who were deemed “intellectuals” or “counter-revolutionaries.” It was this section of the country that supported Lumumba the strongest and they began executing the “counter-revolutionaries” at the foot of Lumumba statues. The United States and Belgium were in panic, if the revolution succeeded communist Lumumba supporters would cover the country leaving only what is vile and distrustful to U.S. and Belgian interest. The two countries supplied the Western half of the country with combat aircrafts, transport planes, counter-insurgency experts and technicians. The DRC was undoubtedly a pawn in the global chess game of Democracy vs. Socialism (leaving only despotism in the wake). More confusion, killing, torture, and power struggles occurred in the decimated country until the Eastern Soviet rebellion was managable. All in all an estimated one million people had died during the rebellion.
By 1965 Mobutu had officially declared himself president (a popular thing military heads were doing all over Africa at this time). Personally I don’t understand how any man could take the position Mobutu did but he seemed to become severely hardened after the chaos of the previous 5 years. Dissidents were quickly eliminated. Mobutu instilled public hangings and brutal treatment of those who did not completely support him which quickly stabilized the country. One must truly look at the situation and legitimately ask whether if Mobutu did not take these actions if another million would’ve died. Of course it’s rhetorical as we’ll never know, but what we do know is a little more on how the United States played a role in this very real and nightmarish mess:
The United States and its Relationship with the Congo
“General, if it hadn’t been for you the whole thing would have collapsed and the Communists would have taken over,” President Kennedy was quoted as saying to Mobutu in 1963 about his initial assertion of power.
“I do what I am able to do,” Mobutu responded while asking for military equipment, training, and parachute training for himself. The President granted his request and gave him a command aircraft for his personal use and a permanent US Air Force crew to go with it to boot. Also he was kept on the CIA payroll and was paraded around as an exotic and powerful leader by those in the United States government.
In 1970 Nixon praised Mobutu and told him “there are things we can learn from you.” On top of that Nixon pushed for more investment in the country. By 1974 the U.S. and Europe had over $2 billion (2,000,000,000) invested in the country celebrating Mobutu – a dictator the likes of which the world has only rarely seen – as the appropriate leader to manage the country of their “investment.”
I hate to bring U.S. involvement in on the history of an African country but it is obvious from the above facts that the United States government were far more involved with the politics of the DRC than they probably should have been or care to openly admit. The people of the United States were ignorantly unaware that the leader of a remote African country was zipping around in a tax-paid jet with a tax-paid crew and a tax-paid staff and was being injected with tax-paid cash. Morally the concept of a leader of a country being on another country’s payroll is just another Westernized form of stunting a culture and country of people. While the United States certainly did not acknowledge the intricate details of the situation in the Congo they blanketly placed them in a category of “Potential Soviet ally” and insisted on menacing in the countries very internal and bloody business. Of course the Soviets were no better grubbying their fingers in the Congo pot as well aiding the stir of an uprise that cost one million lives.
The United States brought shame upon themselves as a country becoming so worked up at Lumumba calling for Soviet help. If you remember country’s total graduates of both higher education and secondary education totaled less than 200 in 1960. What honest threat would a jungle nation with a handful of people educated on the “civilized” world that was ripe for civil war cause if they had become communist? Logic says none at all. And if democracy was really their goal why did they support a military dictator which was neither socialist nor democratic? He was despotic!
In an age where the prevailing argument of American policy is “We were noble enough to free the Iraqi people from a terrible dictator,” it goes completely ignored that the United States had supported harsh military dictators for decades (including Saddam originally). As I argued in my entry on The Bush Administration with another harsh military dictator – Samuel Doe – the United States has never been interested in “freeing people” or “democracy” so much as it has been interested in strict obedience. And Mobutu provided just that.
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga
Just as we’ll never know what Michael Jackson would be like without gross amounts of fame we will never know what Joseph Mobutu would’ve been like without gross amounts of power. As the economy started to tentatively increase in the 1970’s Mobutu started to let his ego expand. After all the previous ruler couldn’t even rule for 6 months and he had ruled it for almost a decade with progress. He often began to be seen wearing a leopard-skin hat. On top of that he had decided to change his name in 1971 from Joseph Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (the title of this section) which meant something along the lines of “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Not exactly modest nor really encouraging. It was also during this time Leopoldville (the capital) became Kinshasa, Elisabethville (where Lumumba met his torturous end) Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville (where the 1964 rebel revolt took place) became Kisangani. Lastly Mobutu decided that the name Democratic Republic of the Congo was outdated and changed the name to Zaire. Today many of your decade-old maps still have the Democratic Republic of the Congo labeled as Zaire as it continued to be named such until 1997.
Another dicatatorial action Mobutu took was creating a single party to eliminate political opposition. In case you were ever interested in what the trademarked official way of removing all political rights from the masses – it is the creation of a single party. This way things are simple – they become your way… or the rape, torture, abusive, deprivation, prison way. And the opposition party is usually preoccupied with one of the listed things if you know what I’m saying. So he started a single party and, of course, it was the duty of the party to follow, as he deemed it, “Mobutuism.” The concept behind it was basically that the belief of sharing power is absurd and having only one leader is the most important thing – and what that leader says goes or else punishment will ensue. Mobutu had become as oppressive as the Beglian colony was by taking on this paternal position for his people.
Also this is known as something – Mobutu was creating a cult of personality. The name changes to himself and the country, the creation of a single party, naming things after himself – all of these things are signs of when your ego can no longer bathe in the Pacific Ocean anymore. From this point on nobody was allowed to have a European name in the country and priests baptizing anyone with a European name will receive a 5 year jail sentence. European suits were banned and fawning over the “Saviour of the People” (his title, not mine) was encouraged. In fact songs and dances were constantly being put on for him. Places where he lived and grew up became national pilgrimage places or places of “high meditation.” His staff began calling him a prophet. A former prime minister – Nguzu Karl-i-Bond – later wrote in his memoirs the following about Mobutu:
“Nothing is possible in Zaire without Mobutu. He created Zaire. He fathered the Zairian people. He grew the trees and the plants. He brings rain and good weather. You don’t go to the toilet without the authorisation of Le Guide. Zairians would be nothing without him. Mobutu has obligations to nobody, but everybody has obligation to him. As he said to me on August 13, 1977, in front of three witnesses: ‘Nguz’, there’s nothing I have to do for you; on the contrary, I have made you whatever you are.'”
And the American government still supported him.
Having satiated himself with fame Mobutu turned his head toward fortune to devour. With the simple ease of just vocalizing it Mobutu seized a massive amount of foreign businesses. In a simple decree he acquired 2,000 businesses and redistributed them to friends and family. Mobutu himself was the boss of plantation conglomerate with over 25,000 employees. Mobutu virtually owned the country – not dissimilar to his Belgian predecessor. During the 1970’s it was estimated that one-third of total national revenues was in one way or another at his disposal. Mobutu immersed himself in all aspects of business in his country bloating himself with wealth while his country slowly slipped back in decline. Whether it was copper, cobalt, diamonds, banking, stocks, business ownership, and surely much more Mobutu siphoned the profit guiltlessly for his arbitrary whims. In the 1980’s the average individual on the Forbes 500 list made about $400 million a year. Mobutu was estimated to be making $5 billion making him one of the richest men in the world at the time.
And the American government still supported him.
The consequence? National disaster. Mobutu could not handle all of the capital he had acquired making himself rich making Zaire’s budding economy begin to slowly rot. As poverty spread from the mismanaged businesses greed enveloped anyone with any power. Teachers and hospital staff went unpaid for months. It was Mobutu who helped coin a new form of government in which Zaire was a leading example – the term was a kleptocracy – klepto commonly know as someone who commonly steals – so a kleptocracy is a form of government that commonly steals. People with all levels of power took more than their fair share leaving the masses with little else but poverty. It came to a point where nothing could be accomplished without a bribe. It is at this time that we can see the Congolese people have become indistinguishable with their oppressors as corruption permeated the country turning neighbor on neighbor for a petty level of power.
“If you steal, do not steal too much at a time. You may be arrested, Yibana mayele – Steal cleverly, little by little.”
This is a documented quote directly from Mobutu himself. While corruption was on the minds of the leaders the country was impoverished. Medical staff, teachers, and other workers stopped working because they were receiving no wages. Those who did receive wages were getting little more than 10% of their value in 1960 (their independence). Hunger, disease, and malnutrition were the product of the greed. Mobutu modeled the practice of many ruthless African dictators. The first step is to gorge on as much profit from your country in any way you please. The second step is to invite foreign investors to gorge on the money they bring as well. The third step is to comply with foreign inquiry to missing funds until they try to get you to stop gorging, then ignore them and wait to see what they do. And this is exactly what Mobutu did, threatening the lives of those who came to his country to monitor fair business practices. Mobutu constantly was shifting his friends and enemies to make sure nobody ever got too close.
I stress this so many times because this is a clear cut case where the United State blatantly and flagrantly ignored the concept of democracy and freedom for the sake of convenience. The United States only saw the Congo one-dimensionally. The Congo was a block of land in Africa that was not allowed to supply its wealth to the Soviet Union – and that’s it. If the nation dove in to despotism, debt, greed, despair, torture, wars, and suffering that was acceptable so long as they were not supplying their wealth to the Soviet Union. In this regard the political term for him was a “friendly tyrant.” In case that doesn’t make sense I’ll gladly break it down for you. Mobutu is still a tyrant and does all the terrible, horrible, awful things a tyrant does to his own people – however – he is friendly towards us, which makes us feel safe, so we give him money for doing that to keep him that way. That is what the term “friendly tyrant” means. How much money did the United States give to Mobutu? Between 1965 and 1988 the United States gave Mobutu $860 million of taxpayer money. Mobutu maintained friendship with the United States administration after administration. Into the Reagan and Bush Administration Mobutu was still solidly not helping the Soviet Union in a Cold War gone lukewarm. The suffering was obvious, the only unity maintained was through Mobutu’s iron fist of greed, and keeping him in power curdled the tense situations as they began to root.
I bring all this up to ask the philosophical question – is it right for one nation-state to put a leader of another nation-state on their payroll? Does this not undermine the very responsibility of a leader? Where is this leader’s loyalty when he is being paid by another country? Who could possibly argue that a leader can stay loyal to his country while on the payroll of another? The United States and the Soviet Union created so much global tension out of an ego issue it reverberated negatively around the world – the Congo being one of the worst affected. Taxpayer money went for decades to a man whose only job was to suppress, and he was praised for it:
“I have come to appreciate the dynamism that is so characteristic of Zaire and Zairians and to respect your dedication to fairness and reason. I have come to admire, Mr. President, your personal courage and leadership in Africa.”
“Zaire is among America’s oldest friends, and its president – President Mobutu – one of our most valued friends. And we are proud and very, very pleased to have you with us today.”
Both of the above are direct quotes from President George Bush I (There is something eerily familiar about having to use Roman Numerals for identification of a specific leader and its correlation with oppression). The history of the United States and Mobutu is simply unacceptable behavior if it were happening in America, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason (so this excludes discrimination and hate-mongering) why this should be happening because of Americans elsewhere. It would be as if one high school superintendent paid off another high school superintendent to make all their students and staff submissive to him, which may include robbing them, not paying them, refusing them any decent medical attention, refusing to have any autonomy whatsoever… all so the original superintendent can feel like he’s doing a good job eliminating potential (not actual even yet!) competition. From Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush I all the presidents supported Mobutu and supplied him with cash to continue his plundering and oppression – it was little other than that by any standards at all – and Bush says those complete false positive things about him. The feeling was mutual however with Mobutu sharing positive feelings on George Bush I himself:
“As regards George Bush I’ve met him thirteen times. We know each other from way back. He was in charge of the CIA and knew Zaire’s problems backwards. He received me at his home in Maine with his mother, wife, and children and grandchildren. I met him again recently at the funeral of Emperor Hirohito. He is an intelligent, open and sensitive man, with strong convictions.”
I find these quotes so essential because they are documented facts. There was absolute friendship between a dictator who many would largely agree was worse than Saddam Hussein, yet even at this time Bush was fighting that very man for being a ruthless dictator. The hypocrisy is blatant and the fact that this is not acknowledged as a historical lesson goes to show that there is a strong level of national oppression within the United States let alone what type of oppression the government encourages outside of the country.
When the Soviet Union fell there was little reason to keep Mobutu on the United States payroll and his reputation was catching up with him. The United States began to distance herself from Mobutu until eventually the government denied Mobutu a visa into the United States. No longer was he welcome less than a decade after the breakup, one of the United States “oldest friends,” perhaps Bush meant “oldest tools.” In fact – the only one to speak up for Mobutu anymore in America happened to be Pat Robertson, the famous televangelist (of all people), giving an argument for Mobutu to visit the United States. Though Pat Robertson has done a good job covering his tracks there have been quite a few accounts claiming that Mobutu allowed him to mine diamonds in his country, which is probably the reason for their forged relationship. Robertson seems a man willing to profit from anything – religion to an oppressed nation – regardless of moral character.
France and the Rwandan Genocide
In a small country a fraction of the size of Zaire along its exotic Eastern border a conflict was occurring. A group known as the Tutsi were about to be murdered in such large amounts the word genocide had to be pulled out of the closet before anything was seriously done about it. The Tutsi, though a minority group, tended to be wealthy and hold positions of power. The Tutsis had an aristocracy and enjoyed a higher style of living than their Hutu counterparts. The Hutu were the majority in this country known as Rwanda and some Hutus felt indignant over this Tutsi rule. Rwanda and Burundi have had ethnic tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi stemming back to the 1960s. Political leaders have been assassinated, executed, and murdered by Hutu and Tutsi alike. The Tutsi people were exiled for over 30 years creating one of the largest refugee communities in Africa. The Tutsis who remained in Rwanda (while the exiles planned for their return) were forced to carry an ethnicity card, given quotas determined by the Hutu government, Tutsi women were not allowed to be married to Hutu men, and the leader of it all – Juvenal Habyarimana – kept a photograph of a Tutsi hut in flames in his presidential mansion.
But now it is the early 1990’s and the Tutsi had earned their way back in to Rwanda but not without continued ethnic tension. Habyarimana was not willing to share the power with the returning Tutsi and began to stir up dehumanizing hate in which only the most desperate and lowly of people do. Hutu supremacists began organizing death squads and murdering the Tutsi in cold blood.
As all this was going on next door Mobutu was immersed in troubles of his own. After 30 years of rule Mobutu had little to show for it. Since 1988 the economy had shrunk by 40% and his money was worthless. Per capital gross domestic product in 1993 was $117, about 65% lower than in 1958 – before independence. Mobutu’s old stealing grounds were in decline and people across the world had begun to wise up to Mobutu’s destructive, deceitful, ignorant ways. Copper, cobalt, diamonds and gold all were mismanaged, not being produced, or being smuggled. Mobutu had reaped what he had sewn. Distrust permeated through every level of government and when cohesion looked possible Mobutu incited ethnic tensions just like his neighbor, Habyarimana, to the East. But the worst of it all was that he had virtually no foreign friends that could provide him with his insatiable desire for wealth and global leverage. The United States wouldn’t talk to him anymore, the World Bank stopped funding him as they saw $9 billion sink into the murky depths of the Congo never to reappear, it really looked as if it were only a matter of time before Mobutu met the fate of his predecessor – Lumumba.
Enter France. First it was Belgium who could not help but get their fingers dirty in Africa, followed by the Americans, and now the French saw the Congo as a part of their imperialist vision. If one country asserted more dominance on the continent of Africa than any others – it would be France. France was very diligent in not only maintaining but spreading the Francophone culture. To France Africa was divided into two sections – Francophone Africa (map on left) – and then everybody else. France didn’t really regard Africa as a totally separate culture or continent from their own – they regarded Africa, literally, as their own backyard. To them defending Francophone Africa was defending France – it was defending France’s backyard. And what was France defending Francophone Africa from? Why Anglophone Africa of course – the British influence could not encroach.
Treating a continent of people like a backyard once again shows the immaturity Africans had to deal with when encountering their European counterparts. Everything from the French language to French influence were of the highest priority in Francophone Africa- everything else coming second – and I mean everything. Jaques Foccart, the leader authority of French policy on Africa for 40 years and met Mobutu personally, had explained France’s interest on the topic of Zaire:
“[Zaire] is the largest country on francophone Africa. It has considerable natural resources. It has the means of being a regional power. The long-term interest of France and its African allies is evident.”
No longer was Zaire considered a country with desperate people and a flat-lined economy in dire need of compassion and stability with a ruthless leader. It was viewed simply as a potential area of profit and if France continued to support its leadership – whoever it was – they can benefit from any economic or regional power gained from it. However unfortunate for the French what was brewing in the region was not potential profit but genocide. In fact France supplied Habyarimana with troops which he used to repress his opponents (Mobutu also had supplied Habyarimana in the past with troops and weapons). Rwanda was also part of the precious francophone empire and acknowledging the genocide that Rwandan Hutus were facilitating would not look good for France. But the crisis continued to grow, Tutsis continued to be slaughtered and the West, especially France, was slow to react. When Habyarimana was assassinated in April of 1994 the genocide took full effect.
For Mobutu though he had found a new purpose – a new way to manipulate power again. The Rwandan crisis was getting out of hand and Mobutu gladly opened the border to his country for refugees to come spilling in. However, this time, the refugees were not Tutsi – they were Hutu. The whole reason the crisis began in Rwanda was because Tutsis were demanding to return to the government that exiled them 30 years prior. The Hutu elite used dehumanization, discrimination, and then outright murder to refuse the Tutsi entrance back in to their original country of residence. So while the Tutsi continued to push southward militarily – triumphantly taking back the country in which they originally belonged – while Hutus cowardly murdered civilian Tutsis and fled the country claiming Tutsi created genocide- not the actual Hutu created genocide that was occurring.
As the Hutus poured in to all of Rwanda’s bordering nations international outcry reached a new level. Images of Hutus exiling themselves from the country turned in to the images of the holocaust. Indeed hidden within this traveling band of refugees were the actual people directly responsible for the blood-lust atrocities. As CNN streamed the images of the Hutu refugees the hearts of people across the world went out to them even though some were facilitating the genocide.
When Belgium wanted to send in troops to stabilize the situation it was France who refused it. When a regional meeting set up to discuss Rwanda was going to be in “anglophone” Tanzania both Mobutu and France blocked the move. Meanwhile innocent civilians were being murdered and raped in the street. Both Mobutu and France held out their power in an orgy of greed for power and wealth. It was from the Hutu refugee camps inside Zaire that facilitators of the genocide safely plotted their next blood-spilling scheme.
The Congolese Wars
With all the political greed in the region the locals were getting overwhelmed with the refugees and ethnic tensions began to flare between the locals and the refugees. Due to Mobutu helping out the Hutu genocidaires the new Tutsi-instated government decided to attack the genocidaires and march all the way west to the capital of Zaire – Kinshasa – and remove Mobutu from power. At this time in 1996 Mobutu was in ill health, had no money, and could not afford a military to defend himself. The rebellion started in the East at the Rwandan border and then spread West slowly. Mobutu watched as his country began to dissolve in front of hi eyes. Province after province joined in on the rebellion with Mobutu virtually powerless to stop it – even Katanga joined in. This was known as the First Congolese War.
The last time the East Congo started rebelling it was 1965 and the United States was supplying Mobutu with all he needed to suppress the uprising. In fact, I did not mention this earlier, Fidel Castro and Cuba even got involved. Having personal vendettas against American imperialism in Cuba, Castro sent Che Guevara to the Eastern Congo to meet a man named Laurent-Désiré Kabila who claimed he had an army to Che to train. Che was a professional guerrilla soldier ready to train an uprising for the good of the people. Che was disgusted to meet an unmotivated army with an unmotivated leader that demanded money and put in little effort. The revolution Che had planned was a disaster and Che headed straight back to Cuba. About 30 years later it was again, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who the Tutsis trusted to take over the Congo. It was this man, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who Che said on his return to Cuba:
“He let the days pass without concerning himself with anything other than political squabbles, and all the signs are that he is too addicted to drink and women”
Che also claimed Kabila lacked any “revolutionary seriousness. So what a surprise it might have been to Che (had he not been murdered himself later on in life) to see that it was indeed Kabila (with major help from Tutsi Rwanda) that ran Mobutu out of the country. Mobutu escaped with little more than his frail life. After 32 years of playing ruthless dictator of possibly the most saddest country on Earth Mobutu fled on a plane that being riddled with bullets – never to return. As the remainder of Mobutu’s army made it across the Congo River to Congo-Brazzaville in 1997 the leader of the months-long assault, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, assumed leadership and returned the name back to the original (though confusing) name of independence: the Democratic Republic of Congo.
If genocide and a war wasn’t enough to deal with in a single decade a second war was quickly ready to break out. The Second Congolese War has been the largest conflict since World War II and also Africa’s largest war involving 8 nations. Though Kabila could have never taken over Kinshasa without the help of the new Tutsi Rwandan government Kabila was short in patience when Rwanda tried to control the Congo. Kabila made sure to thank them and then curtly made them leave. Shortly thereafter fighting flared up and the Rwandan and Ugandan government started to feed off the Northeast parts of the Congo plundering their wealth. Other nations got involved on both sides and things did not significantly change until 2001 when Kabila was assassinated. Immediately his son – Joseph Kabila was instated. By 2003 Uganda and Rwanda withdrew and the war was officially over.
Of course Rwanda is still bitter and continues to support rebel action within the borders of the Congo. And these shallow actions continue to perpetuate the corrosive and rotting culture of violence the citizens of the Congolese have been forced to endure since its inception and almost completely due to international stimulation. Joseph Kabila’s leadership is still in its infancy. Certainly his task is daunting and unlike his father or any of his predecessors Joseph Kabila is described as a shy man. Perhaps a leader without an ego can help unite the country and it is true that he is attempting peace talks with the Rwandan Tutsi rebels. Unfortunately it was only August 2007 when rebel and government forces fought in the province of Kivu displacing almost a million people. Is it possible that Joseph Kabila will be able to restore even the most basic safeties to the country without keeping the citizens in a fetal state? I certainly don’t know but I hope the best of intentions and the wisest of choices are guiding him.
So why did I bring up this long disastrous history of a nation nobody cares about unless they live in it? For a few reasons:
- Some people attribute Africa’s problems to race. Many people seriously believe that skin color affects intelligence even in the slightest. I found the history of the Congo to be typical to the history of many African colonial nations. Unprepared for independence and mettlesome once independence is achieved African leaders, especially in the case of the Congo, have a hard time not being used like a pawn. In this case we saw the first serious mistreatment of people occur by a white European leader. The history of the Congo is one of the infinite amount of testimonies that no one race is superior to any other.
- Many of the people and countries involved with the Congo were bolded upon their first mention in this entry. This is to show how Congo’s strife-ridden history has little to do with internal affairs, though there can be improvement on all ends. The Congo’s story is a testament to the theory that Western powers have direct influence with the most poverty-stricken and strife-ridden areas on the planet.
- Specifically the United States befriending this ruthless tyrant, Mobutu, for decades because of his obedience and yet in the same breath call Saddam out as being a ruthless dictator. The United States has a hard time recognizing its mistakes and befriending and paying Mobutu was one of them. The Congo’s story is a testament to the idea that the United States only looks for obedience in a foreign leader as opposed to serving “freedom” to the citizens – and to use that as an excuse to be extra dubious.
- To bring attention to a region of the world that is constantly ignored by telling its fascinating, if not gory, history.
Normally I link more references than I did in this entry and a lot you must take my word on to believe. Why should you take my word for it? Because virtually everything I’ve written was paraphrased from the book listed below, The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith which is probably one of the most comprehensive looks at Africa and its history since independence. I strongly urge anyone to read it who wants to know why civilization has not been as kind to all parts of the world as it has been to the West. I would love any more information that is insightful to read on the Congo and I encourage comments on this entry
The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith – excellent book.