Is the Congo Truly Hopeless?

The words “Democratic Republic of the Congo” (DRC) often spark thoughts about war, genocide, famine, poverty, and bloodshed. The DRC has been the site of one of the largest wars in human history, and this war has been blamed for the massive amounts of poverty and low development in the Congo. The origins of this war, however, go back much deeper than just rebels in 1996. In addition, while many people (especially westerners) view the DRC as a bloody, hopeless wasteland, the 24 trillion dollars worth of natural resources, as well as Chinese investment, offer a significant source of hope for the future.

The Colonial Era

    The bloodshed in the Congo first started in 1885, with the establishment of the Congo Free State, which was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium as part of a pact to “develop” the Congo. Originally a massive rainforest teeming with natural resources and a huge native population, the Congo soon became the site of horrific brutality, genocide, and crimes against humanity. King Leopold almost immediately ignored his stated goal of development, and instead conscripted nearly the entire population of the Congo into slavery, turning it into a 40 million strong slave plantation. With the discovery of abundant rubber resources in the Congo, Leopold soon set nearly unreachable production quotas. Villages who failed to meet production quotas often had people taken at random and shot by the Gendarmerie. In order to prove that ammunition wasn’t being wasted, Leopold order the Gendarmerie to cut off the hands of their victims-and if ammunition was wasted, the Gendarmerie would cut off the hands of the living, in order to hide their misuse. An estimated 10-15 million people died in the Congo Free State-some to the Gendarmerie, some being worked to death, and some dying of disease. Regardless, this massive toll was anywhere from ⅕ to ⅓ the population of the Congo Free State.


Word about the situation in the Congo eventually got out among the citizens of Europe, and mass protests followed, forcing King Leopold II to hand over the Congo Free State to the Belgian Government. Following this handover, the situation in the Congo improved significantly. Access to healthcare, education, and infrastructure improved, and the horrific human rights abuses were brought to an end. At heart, however, the Belgian Congo was still just a colony, and colonies have wealth extracted from them. This was still true for the Belgian Congo, and standards of living didn’t improve much. However, the Congo underwent a huge boom in copper and diamond mining, and supplied the uranium used for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In addition the Congo supplied thousands of troops to fight the Nazi tide in World War II.

    After the continental destruction in Europe wrought by the second world war, a wave of nationalism swept across Africa. Riots, protests, and demonstrations swept across the Belgian Congo in 1959. After a failed Belgian attempt to create a puppet government, the Belgian Congo gained independence in 1960, and was renamed to the Republic of the Congo. Almost immediately, a large crisis erupted, as the weak (but democratically elected) government struggled to hold onto power. Quickly, the situation devolved into a proxy conflict, fought between Soviet backed rebels and the government. In order to avoid a full blown civil war, a Congolese Colonel, Joseph Mobutu, led a coup d’etat (backed by the US), kicking the Soviets out and uniting the Republic of the Congo once again. However, this move would only lead to more war and chaos down the line.

Joseph Mobutu

    Mobutu quickly consolidated power, and banned all political parties except for his own, and routinely purged officers he suspected were turning on him. Mobutu also renamed the country to Zaire, and built a cult of personality around him-in 1975, the media was banned from mentioning any name except his own. Mobutu took over foreign businesses, and gave those businesses to his friends or himself- the definition of cronyism. From this, Mobutu managed to pocket around a billion dollars for himself. Mobutu also rented out a Concorde supersonic jet, which he used for shopping trips to Paris, and he built amassive palace for himself in his own personal city, which he also built. His total net-worth was anywhere between 4 and 15 billion dollars, despite rampant inflation and debt in Zaire.

Nevertheless, Mobutu was also vital to building a national identity for the Congolese people. Mobutu invested in massive public works projects, such as the Inga dam, and he was able to greatly strengthen the economy by investing in Copper production. Mobutu also balanced the military on ethnic lines, ordering that no more than 25% of the military force come from a single ethnic group. Mobutu’s army was one of the most stable in Africa, and his army helped to counter communism in Chad and Angola.  He invested money into cultural renaissance programs, and drastically increased a sense of nationalism and national pride. He also further developed the vast mineral resources of Zaire, and used them to fund the construction of hospitals and schools. In 1990, with western backing coming to an end as the Cold War came to a close, Mobutu ended the ban on other political parties and formed a coalition government. The seeds of his end, however, had already been planted in nearby Rwanda.

The Rwandan Civil War and Genocide

In 1990 in Rwanda, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) begun an uprising against the Hutu led government, after Ugandan Tutsi refugees returned to Rwanda following years of ethnic tensions. With Ugandan backing, the Tutsi attempted to overthrow the Hutu government in Rwanda, and Paul Kagame quickly led the RPF into a full on Guerilla campaign. In 1994, the Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down by the RPF over Kigali, and the Hutu government and militias retaliated byperpetuating one of the worst genocides in human history. Anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered mercilessly. Hutu citizens were incentivized with money and food to report and kill Tutsi neighbors. In addition, anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Tutsi women were raped, contributing greatly to the spread of AIDS. All of this occurred in just 100 days-making it more brutal on a day by day basis than even the Holocaust. All the while, the United States did nothing. If theUnited States had intervened, it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. After the disastrous intervention in Somalia, however, the US chose to stay out of Rwanda.

The chaos that the genocide created allowed for the Tutsi RPF rebels to seize Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and ended the civil war. Pasteur Bizimugua, a Hutu, was appointed President of Rwanda. However, he was merely a figurehead for Paul Kagame, a Tutsi. Fearing retaliation by the Tutsi government, around two million Hutu fled into Zaire. These Hutu camps waged cross-border warfare with Rwanda and killed additional Tutsis, pledging themselves to the goal of destroying the new Rwandan government.

Africa’s World War

Mobutu’s regime in the Congo began to weaken, and rebel groups in the Eastern parts of the country, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, began to spread their influence. Meanwhile, Rwanda, angered with Mobutu’s inability to stop the Hutu as well as desire to create a puppet regime in the Congo, formed the AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo) along with Kabila’s rebels, and Uganda and Burundi. The AFDL invaded the Congo in October of 1996, and rapidly toppled the weak regime by 1997, taking Kinhasa (Zaire’s capital) and installing Kabila as president, and renaming Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwandan forces destroyed Hutu camps, and killed thousands of Hutu people as retaliation for the Rwandan genocide. Overall, around 100,000-250,000 people died in the war, many in Hutu camps.

Laurent-Desire Kabila was expected to be a pawn of the Rwandan government-after all, Rwanda played the biggest role in installing him into power. Kabila, however, brought little real change. Like Mobutu before him, Kabila was extremely corrupt, and he cracked down on any opposition. He also hired Mobutu’s former minister of information to help build a personality cult around himself, just like Mobutu. In short, Kabila brought very little real change. Kabila also turned on the Tutsi who helped bring him into power, and exploited anti-Tutsi sentiment for popularity among his people, and in 1998, Kabila called for all foreign soldiers to leave the country. As a result, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi turned on Kabila.

This resulted in the massive “Second Congo War”, also known as “Africa’s World War”. In 1998, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and started supporting various (often Tutsi) rebel groups. Unlike the first Congo war, however, the DRC government and Kabilahad foreign support-namely Zimbabwe, Angola, Sudan, Chad, Namibia, and Libya. After an initial offensive, the rebels were halted by the pro-DRC coalition, resulting in a bloody stalemate after around a month. This was largely due to Kabila’s support dramatically increasing-Congolese civilians viewed the war as a foreign invasion, and the population rallied around Kabila. In addition, Angola and ZImbabwe had rather competent militaries, which were able to repel the foreign offensive, but were not able to fully drive out Rwandan and Ugandan forces. As a result of this stalemate, armies from both sides began to plunder resources from the Congo. Angola and the DRC began oil drilling, and Zimbabwe occupied several diamond mines. The Lusaka Agreement, which was meant to stop the fighting, did nearly nothing, as countries went to war over the resources in the Congo. In the city of Kisangani, the 3rd largest city in the DRC, Ugandan and Rwandan forces fought with one another, killing around 1,000 people. Rebel forces also fought each other for control of resources, and the eastern half of the DRC was turned into a lawless, chaotic warzone.

In 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and his son, Joseph Kabila took his spot as leader 8 days later. Nevertheless, heavy fighting continued. Rwandan backed rebels mutinied against Rwanda for control of resources, and inflicted serious casualties on Rwandan forces. As a result, Rwanda (at this point the only foreign actor remaining) signed a peace deal with the DRC in 2002, and the war officially came to an end in 2003. Around 350,000 people died due to the fighting between 1998 and 2001.

The war in the Congo did not stop with the Rwandan peace deal. Instead, the bloodshed continues. There are over 30 different armed groups within the DRC, and the eastern portion of the Congo is still a bloodbath. Hutu and Tutsi militias are slaughtering one another, and the legacy of the Rwandan genocide continues. Hutu extremists fight Rwandan backed rebels, and no end to the conflict appears in sight. The UN peacekeeping force, even though it is the largest in world history, simply can’t accomplish anything in the vast, unconnected wilderness, and in total, anywhere between 2.7-5.4 million people have died since 1996 due to war, famine, and disease.

Is there hope?

    Among many westerners, much of Africa is considered to be a war-torn, desolate wasteland, and this holds true to the Congo as well. The war, after all, is still ongoing, and the HDI (Human Development Index) of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was an abysmal 0.304 in 2012. Malaria and other tropical diseases are brutal, and infrastructure, healthcare, education, and other human services only exist in any form in the capital city, Kinshasa.

    However, there is hope for development. This hope comes predominantly from the People’s Republic of China. China has greatly expanded trade relations with the DRC. While previous powers who influenced the Congo (Belgium and Europe) simply took resources, China is different. China drills for oil and minerals, and in return, they build roads, railways, and improve infrastructure. Around 250,000 Chinese have moved to the Congo, and many of them provide vital services-electronics shops, restaurants, and pharmacies.  

    China hasn’t been operating on a “natural resources for infrastructure” policy in just the DRC. China has made billions of dollars in loans to African nations, and built a new, four billion dollar rail-link in Kenya. The data doesn’t lie: 63% of Africans have a positive or very positive view on Chinese influence in Africa, according to a 2016 poll. In addition to new infrastructure, China has brought cheap products to Africa, such as affordable cars and mobile phones. China is rapidly gaining influence and allies in Africa.

    From both a developmental and logical perspective, the United States needs to get involved in Sub-Saharan Africa, via foreign investments. While Obama celebrated US companies investing 14 billion dollars in Africa, China invested 75 billion dollars. If this continues, the United States will rapidly lose allies and friends to China. If China continues to play the long game in Africa, America will find itself on the losing end of the global economy.

America must begin to take Africa seriously – as a trading partner and a place to do business. We cannot afford to continue to view Africa as simply a place where dreams go to die. Africa is the market of tomorrow, and if America must not continue to ignore Africa.

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