The past few years have seen a remarkable change take root in Africa. Thanks in no small part to an increase in foreign investment (especially from China), economic growth is finally happening. New businesses are opening up, middle classes are growing, standards of living are rising, and a pan-African market is taking form. War, dictatorship and anarchy are in retreat, and confidence and optimism in the future are growing. The outside world is taking increased interest, and more ambitious infrastructure projects are in the works. Africa is being spoken of less and less as a place in need of help and therapy and more as a continent of the future, of population growth, vitality and economic potential.
This post is, alas, not about that Africa. It’s about the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
DISCLAIMER: This post, and this blog, is intended for ordinary audiences with minimal prior exposure to foreign affairs. Those with substantial knowledge of Africa, or even those who’ve previously read something about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, might roll their eyes at the cliches and stereotypes in this article. I apologize if my frankness causes offense and do not intend to be patronizing.
The Congo is the name for a vast jungle in the heart of Africa, stretching from the mid-Atlantic Ocean to the Great Rift Valley separating it from the savannahs to the east. It’s the world’s second-largest jungle, drained by numerous rivers, with the Congo River the most prominent. Its thickness and obscurity have earned the Congo the nickname “the dark heart of Africa” — but there are other factors behind that nickname.
For the most part, the Congolese were scattered across the jungle, eking out an existence from the teeming wildlife in the forests and the rivers; a few kingdoms, like the country’s namesake, the Kongo, traded ivory, gold and slaves to Europeans (in the Atlantic) and Arabs (in the east). Then in the 1800s, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, two British explorers, charted the waterways of the region, including the course of the Congo. (Stanley famously discovered Livingstone when he got lost for years in the African interior.) These groundbreaking expeditions filled in a blank space on world maps and shed a flashlight into a region outsiders barely knew anything of. They also paved the way for Europeans to conquer it.
Belgium’s King Leopold II had a personal interest in getting African territory and commissioned Stanley to take another trip down the Congo to buy land from the locals. Eventually he had enough territory to set up the “Congo Free State” covering most of the jungle — and got recognition of his land-grab by the other colonial powers. In the name of protecting the Congolese from the ravages of Arab slavers, he drafted them into massive work gangs to plunder the forests of their ivory, rubber and wood. Working in sweaty, exhausting conditions, treated with hatred by their overlords, and murdered or maimed for not meeting quota, the Congolese suffered immensely — some say on a genocidal scale — during Leopold’s rule.
To Europe’s credit, Leopold’s brutality eventually provoked international outrage and a concerted counterattack to Leopold’s PR campaign portraying his colony as a civilizing mission. Pressure from the British House of Commons led to the colony being transferred to Belgium as a whole — the first time international pressure provoked a change of government over human rights issues, and at a time when abuses in the colonized world were generally ignored or glossed over. Belgium ruled more humanely and actually developed the country, providing it with railroads, a riverboat service, hotels, clubs, schools, hospitals, and mines to tap into the Congo’s rich mineral wealth. The Belgian Congo became one of Africa’s richest countries, but almost all of the wealth flowed into white pockets. Congolese were excluded from the colonial administration, business management, the nicest hotels and restaurants, and even city streets after night. Most of the populace continued to live in poverty and worked under harsh conditions.
Independence came in 1960, as it did for much of Africa. For the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and you have to call it that to distinguish it from its neighbor, the much smaller Republic of the Congo), it meant continued Belgian sovereignty over the army. The army didn’t appreciate that, and rebelled within a week of independence. The new country quickly dissolved into chaos, with soldiers pillaging Belgian communities, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba mostly siding with the rebellion, and the south splitting away with Belgian support. A five-year civil war chewed up the nation, which saw Soviet and UN intervention, Lumumba put up against a tree and shot, the new government split over how to deal with the Soviets, a large-scale Communist rebellion in the east, and the UN Secretary-General dying in a helicopter crash. It all ended when Joseph Mobutu, a general, took power in a coup, the rebellions and secessions having been quashed.
After all this bloodshed and confusion, Mobutu’s rule was a respite. Frustration with Belgium’s role in the “crisis” led to a backlash against European culture, and Mobutu renamed the country “Zaïre,” its cities names like “Kinshasa” and “Kisangani” and himself “Mobutu Sese Seko.” Kinshasa flourished under Mobutu’s regime as a center for African art, music and dance, with its soukou rhythms catching on across the region in the ’60s and ’70s. But Mobutu himself was a greedy dictator, enriching himself and his circle with government funds and starving the nascent state of necessary expertise. He ruled capriciously and tyrannically and plundered so much that his form of government has been called a “kleptocracy.” Zaïre’s infrastructure decayed and its formal economy collapsed, forcing most Zaïreans to get by with barter and odd jobs.
Mobutu ruled for decades, but by the ’90s Zaïre was clearly a failed state, with remote areas drifting away from government rule and agriculture entirely. Discontent with Mobutu’s misrule and neglect smoldered. All that was needed to bring down his regime was outside stimulus, and this was provided in 1994 by the Rwandan Genocide. That horrible catastrophe, sparked by caste enmity, is a topic for another post, but it ended with the Tutsis (the victims) expelling the Hutus (the perpetrators) into Zaïrean territory. The Hutus set up a new base of operations in eastern Zaïre and plotted a comeback. Alarmed at this imminent threat, and faced with support for the Hutus from Mobutu, Rwanda sponsored a Tutsi rebellion in Zaïre that fed off the economic collapse and ethnic grievances in the east to fan a nationwide revolt that spread like brushfire, finally ousting the government in Kinshasa in 1997.
It was a hectic, violent, confused time, generating plenty of refugees and an international humanitarian crisis. But Zaïre hadn’t seen the worst of it yet.
The newly renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo instead sank into what is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s World War” but should probably just be called the Great War of Africa. Whatever you call it, it was the greatest war since World War II. Rwanda, joined by its neighbors Uganda and Burundi, wanted to maintain leverage over the new regime, especially since its old foes, the former Hutu army and a militia called the Interahamwe, were still at large. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, countries south of the Congo, pitched in on the government’s side to help contain the chaos. They failed; instead, the Congo became a vortex of competing militias and armed groups fighting each other and pillaging the population. It was a throwback of sorts to the 30 Years’ War that ravaged Germany in the 1600s: foreign armies carrying out vendettas and paying back old debts on Congolese soil, interethnic conflict, slaughter, rape, theft, destruction, internal displacement, and collapse of social order and political systems.
The outside world beyond Africa mostly wrung its hands, looked and acted concerned, and hoped for peace, without really intervening or even bothering to pay attention. The UN, to its credit, intervened early on, and its peacekeeping force grew to become the largest UN deployment in the world. The war technically ended in 2003, when a peace agreement saw foreign armies leave Congolese soil and the Hutu militias disarmed, but in reality it carried on into the 2010s. In recent years the primary militias haunting the eastern Congo have been the M23 movement, a group of disgruntled Tutsi former soldiers; the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the biggest remaining Hutu group; and the Mai-Mai, local militias which arose to protect the beleaguered locals from the other marauding armies but which ended up menacing civilians themselves. The Congolese army and even the UN have not been exempt from plundering and murdering innocent victims either.
The chronicle of the Congo is a bleak, miserable affair, and it’s understandably left a lot of foreign correspondents depressed and questioning the nature of humanity. Throughout the last 2 decades’ violence the central government has decayed further, and corruption, although scaled back from the titanic scale of the Mobutu era, still plagues the Congo. Crime is pervasive in the cities, getting around the country is time-consuming and dangerous (the riverboats are left over from Belgian days and the airplanes are outdated Soviet models), most Congolese struggle to make ends meet and find enough food to get through the day, and ethnic divisions fester. 17 years after Mobutu, the Congo remains a failed state, and the World Bank, Belgian Technical Cooperation, UN, World Health Organization, medical NGOs, and churches perform many of the normal duties of government, like building roads, hunting down rebels and containing disease.
But on the other hand, the security situation is improving. After a concerted UN push in concert with the Congolese army, the M23 rebellion was defeated last year. The DFLR and ADF (a Ugandan rebel group) remain in the east, but that area is now more peaceful than it’s been in a long time. The rest of the country is at peace. Rwanda has scaled back its unhelpful involvement. Tourism is flickering in the eastern mountains (where it basically died away entirely during the war). Mining, oil exploration, and dam building have picked up, mostly thanks to foreign interest. Train service is slowly expanding.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is slowly recovering from the ravages of its decades-long war and the east is no longer the savage free-for-all it used to be depicted as. But the country still has a long way to go to catch up with some of its African neighbors.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo will long endure as a stain on the world’s conscience. Over 5 million, mostly civilians and mostly children, died during the protracted war around the turn of the millennium from starvation, disease, and impossible living conditions, while the rest of the world decided to focus on small, white Kosovo instead. It’s a complicated and difficult story, which partially explains the skimpy coverage it gets in the news media, but the indifference shown to the Congo’s plight is emblematic of the hypocrisy Westerners show to humanitarian crises.
As I have tried to make clear, the Congo has a sordid past of slave raiding, exploitative colonialism, neglect, dysfunctional civil society, corruption and rampant violence and looting. Combined with its formidable geography — it’s one of the largest countries in Africa and there are natural barriers like thick forest, high mountains and turbulent rivers — this makes it hard to be optimistic about its future. Some have seen it as a metaphor for the darkness at the center of the human heart. (Joseph Conrad references are obligatory when writing about the Congo.) I think it’s evident that Belgian misrule and exploitation retarded Congolese institutions and the chaotic development of the country after independence set them on fire and pushed them off a cliff, leaving only tribal ties and the so-called “law of the jungle”: do what you have to to survive.
Can the Congo turn the corner? It’s hard to say. Optimism after the peace accords in 2003 proved unfounded when multiple sides went back on the agreement and Rwanda continued to manipulate forces from afar. Something like 80% of the country (basically everything outside of Kinshasa, the eastern war zone, and along the Congo River) is completely ignored in foreign media, leaving me quite ignorant of what the situation for an ordinary Congolese would be like anyway. I will say that the Congo has huge advantages and attractions: fertile soil, fantastic wildlife, awe-inspiring scenery, a mystique garnered from classic novels and a reputation for being a wild frontier land, tin, gold, copper, cobalt, and uranium deposits, forceful rivers, great music. It is one of Africa’s premier countries in terms of size, influence and location; it certainly dominates central Africa. Its history is therefore probably the biggest wasted potential on Earth. Africa may be on an upswing, and its future may be bright, but until the Congo can become a normal country — that is, not like western Europe or anything, but at least functioning, with a tolerable standard of living and decent infrastructure — I can’t consider Africa as fully leaving its former status as the World’s Ghetto behind.