Democratic Republic of the Congo

Behind Congo’s misery

Print edition : October 23, 2020

February 11, 1961: Outside a building housing a Belgian consular office and the Associated Press in New York, a protest against Lumbumba’s disappearance in the DRC. Later, it became known that he had been murdered in January 1961 with the connivance of the Belgian and U.S. governments. Photo: Jacob Harris/AP

Mutilated Congolese children and adults (c. 1900-1905) in the Congo Free State (now the DRC). Millions of Congolese were forced to collect rubber from vines for their colonial bosses. They suffered human rights abuses, including amputations, if they failed to meet production quotas and for other colonial offences. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Patrice Lumumba in 1960. The first legally elected Prime Minister of the DRC, Lumumba represented the anti-colonial forces and insisted on a self-sustained economy. Photo: AP

King Leopold II of Belgium. Conservative estimates indicate that more than 10 million Congolese were murdered between 1885 and 1908 when he had direct charge of Congo.

President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (as the DRC was know from 1971 to 1997) with French Cooperation Minister Roger Galley in Paris on May 23, 1978. Mobutu became President through a bloodless coup in 1965 and ruled for 32 years of dictatorship with the support of Western powers. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The instability and structural dependency created by the European colonisers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the suffering of the Congolese went through during the more than hundred years they spent under the direct rule of King Leopold II and as a formal colony of Belgium are discernible even today.

Theories of development up to the middle of the 20th century glorified the European model of development, suppressing critical and alternative perspectives, with the intention of pushing it as a trustworthy model for decolonised countries to follow and get integrated with the international political economy. But the dependency theory that developed in the 1950s busted the myth of the superiority of the European development model, with the Latin American experience exposing the structural linkages of exploitation even after the end of colonial rule. As rightly observed by Walter Rodney, the late Guyanese historian and political activist, the underdevelopment of Africa went hand in hand with the development of Europe. By imposing a capitalist political economy over their communal economy with the aim of exploiting their resources, Europe made the African countries dependent on it. Such dependency continues, keeping the resource-rich African countries poor and conflict ridden.

From the early 15th century, with the emergence of scientific modernisation and technological superiority, Europeans viewed the wealth of resources in Africa as an object for their exploitation by whatever means. Owing to the international economic crisis in the beginning of the 1870s, European capitalists were looking for new areas to exploit for resources and labour. Between 1870 and 1900, the whole African continent was colonised except for a few countries

Belgium colonised Congo; Rwanda and Burundi came under its yoke because of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The colonial memories of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the suffering the Congolese went through for more than a hundred years are discernible even today. From 1885 to 1908, the year Congo became a formal colony of Belgium, it was a private estate under the direct rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. The number of Congolese who died in genocidal massacres during this period outnumbers the death toll of the Holocaust, but the country has got very little empathy.

Free State of Congo

Congo possessed an abundance of copper, gold, diamonds, rubber, cobalt and other natural resources, which attracts European rulers and corporations even today. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, the European colonial powers gave King Leopold II the exclusive right to privately manage the territory of Congo, which was 80 times bigger than Belgium. According to Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998), Leopold leased different areas of Congo to Belgium corporations, which paid him 50 per cent of their profits.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a surge in the demand for rubber, and an alternative way of producing rubber from the latex of large vines in Congo was discovered. Rubber collection from vines requires a lot of hard labour as it is intensive and dangerous work. Wielding automatic rifles, the colonial army forced millions of Congolese to collect rubber from vines to fulfil the production quotas. Congo became a huge labour camp, where a large number of men and women were sexually exploited and killed. To prove that the bullet of a cartridge had been used to kill someone, a soldier had to show as evidence the amputated part of a limb or the head or any other body part. The skulls of Congolese people became decoration material for some Belgium officers. When control over Congo shifted to Belgium in 1908, King Leopold had almost all the records of his brutal regime burnt.

Conservative estimates show that more than 10 million Congolese were murdered between 1885 and 1908. But Belgium was a victim at the end of the Second World War, and as a result the genocide in Congo did not attract much attention. Many mining corporations, which started their operations during the Leopold regime, continued with the exploitative activities under the direct rule of Belgium.

Belgium’s brutal rule

The oppressive colonial rule treated the Congolese as second-class citizens without any role in decision-making and kept them in poverty by exploiting their natural resources. The United Mines of Upper Katanga controlled more than 70 per cent of the economy of Belgian Congo by exploiting cobalt, copper, tin, uranium and zinc. According to Hochschild, cobalt extraction in Katanga represented 75 per cent of the world’s entire production. Even now, more than 50 per cent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC. When Congo became a formal colony of Belgium, the United States expanded its strategic cooperation with the Belgian government to get unlimited access to Congo’s mineral resources. Congolese mines supplied uranium to the U.S. when it made its first atomic weapons, which were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

After 1920, there was a big boom in mining activities, and a huge population of Congolese relocated to the Katanga province to meet the labour demands of the growing mining industry. Cash crops were forcefully introduced to many provinces, and whenever the cash crops failed, many people moved to the areas where there was mining. The whole economy of Congo was oriented towards the demands of the international market, making the population dependent on the colonial economic project.

Through their missionary activities, religious institutions played the softer role of ideologically making the Congolese docile by advising them to cultivate humbleness and an industrious nature. The big international corporations and the Belgium government exploited the valuable resources of the Congolese people and made them impoverished and divided among themselves. As in the other colonial projects throughout the world, the investments in infrastructure were made with the intention of exporting the minerals. Huge investments were made in Congo’s mining industries during the colonial period, but the level of human capital at the time of independence in 1960 was dismal. There were no African army officers, just 3 Africans in the civil service and only 30 African university graduates. Independence was granted in response to the political unrest in the country, but there was no intention to leave the precious natural resources for Congo’s national development. As Edward Said said in Orientalism, in order to exploit Africa’s resources the colonial powers created the theory of racial inferiority of Africans and treated them in an uncivilised manner, humiliating and persecuting them. African people and their culture were always projected in a crass manner in Western societies. The Belgian government carried out such cultural inferiorisation to dominate the Congolese consciousness in a systematic manner.

‘Human zoo’

The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels in Belgium, had been in the news for a controversy over its glorification of Belgium’s colonial rule in Congo without any critical perspective until it was closed for renovation in 2013. The display of naked statues of Africans alongside those of well-clad Westerners with a placard that read “Belgium is Bringing Civilisation to Congo” reeked of a sense of racial superiority. The museum was reopened to the public on December 2018, with its administration claiming to have made modifications to give a different perspective on colonial rule in Congo.

The museum was initially set up as a temporary exhibition in 1897 with a “human zoo” in it comprising an African village set-up with real Congolese men, women and children behind a fence. To stop visitors from throwing food articles inside the fenced area, a board outside it said: “The blacks are fed by the organising Committee.” Seven Congolese died after being brought to Belgium, and a demand to build a memorial for them near the Tervuren estate is still on.

In 1958, while celebrating the victory in the Second World War, Belgium constructed another African village, this time at the Brussels World’s Fair. Again, Africans were standing behind the fence like zoo animals, and visitors threw bananas and other food items to them. Such racial constructs in the form of paternalistic attitudes, which still continue, never allowed any independent political opinion to question the superiority of Western powers or their exploitative intentions.

Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba was one of the victims of the high-handedness of the Western colonial powers. The first legally elected Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo in June 1960, Lumumba represented the anti-colonial forces and insisted on a self-sustained economy without any outside interference. His beliefs stood clearly opposed to the politico-business interests of European powers and the U.S. The Belgian government sidelined Lumumba as a communist even though he was a popularly elected leader, and mercenary troops under the tutelage of Belgium illegally entered the territory of Congo to protect its mining interests. On January 17, 1961, the 36-year-old Lumumba was murdered in the secessionist Katanga region with the connivance of the Belgian and U.S. governments. In 1965, Joseph Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko), a military officer who was involved in the Lumumba murder, became President of the DRC through a bloodless coup and ruled for 32 years of dictatorship with the support of Western powers.

Finally, in 2001, an all-party commission of Inquiry of the Belgian government acknowledged Belgium’s role in Lumumba’s murder. Further declassified CIA documents revealed its attempts to kill Lumumba as they feared Congo might join the communist block under him. In 2002, the Belgian government apologised and offered a $3.25 million fund to promote democracy in Congo. And in June 2018, a square in Brussels was declared Patrice Lumumba Square.

Present times

The instability European coloniser created in the DRC persists to this day, with political unrest and division rampant among the different groups fighting to control the country’s precious natural resources. The structural dependency of the DRC on the international market during and after colonialism is still visible. Congo is potentially one of the richest countries in the world as it is estimated that it has more than $24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.

The DRC is still the world’s largest source of cobalt and colton (used in smartphones, computers, and so on). But the Human Development Index for 2019 ranked the DRC 179 out of 189 countries. According to World Bank data, only 43 per cent of households in the country have access to drinking water and only 20 per cent have access to sanitation, and in 2018, 72 per cent of the population was living in extreme poverty, that is, surviving on less than $1.90 a day. The literacy rate among the adult population is only 67 per cent, and the country’s health indicators are pathetic.

Still the U.S., Canada, England, Belgium and China play an important role in exploiting the minerals from the DRC. In 2011, the DRC ratified a double taxation treaty with Belgium, projecting that country as the hub for doing business in the DRC. Political independence has not changed the economic structural dependency that the colonial powers created long ago, forcing the communal economies of Africa to forcefully adopt a capitalist economy and supply goods to the international market. The Western powers give their former colonies the easy solution of electoral democracy but continue to intervene and divide society and exploit the resources. The educational curriculum in Belgium and the DRC still glorifies colonisation as a positive intervention for development without any critical perspective. The crisis in the DRC is due to the historically laid structures of dependency, and those who question them are to be murdered just as Lumumba was.

All the colonial powers need to relook at how ruinous colonisation was and its continuing effects in a critical manner. To remember Lumumba, we have to again voice his ideas regarding self-sustaining economies in Africa without outside interference. The present hierarchical relation between the erstwhile colony and its colonisers is further contributing to the underdevelopment of the DRC as Walter Rodney outlined in his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).

Venkatanarayanan S. teaches political science at Christ University, Bengaluru. He was the 2018 CICOPS (Centre for International Cooperation and Development) Visiting Fellow at the University of Pavia, Italy. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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