If there were ever a contest for “Unluckiest African Nation”, the one currently known as the Congo Democratic Republic would have to rank very high (or low, as the case may be) in such a dubious competition. As Africa’s second-most spacious country, the Congo DR is one of those places which, depressingly, come under the category World’s Potentially Richest Places – and it does indeed contain some of our planet’s richest seams of diamonds, cobalt and copper. The problem is that the country’s rulers across the ages have seen it not as a place to develop and turn into a modern, advanced society, but rather as a treasure-house to be plundered, and to hell with the consequences. What’s more, while the Congo as an independent state has had more than its fare share of bad rulers, the trend started (as such trends usually do) with the original foreign overlords.
Amid the euphemistically named “Scramble for Africa” during the 1880s, the first sovereign to get his mitts on the rich Congo basin was King Leopold II of Belgium, who, not content with being just another boring European constitutional monarch, saw in central Africa the chance for a personal, private kingdom of his own, in which he would not have to pay obeisance to elected politicians. For Leopold, the Congo was a chance to become colossally rich on the area’s burgeoning rubber trade – but the way in which he made his millions was shocking even to people who essentially had no problem with the idea of colonialism itself. In the words of BBC reporter Colin Blane, ‘even by the standards of the day, Leopold’s attitude to his colony was ruthless and exploitative‘. Essentially, under Leopold’s direction, slavery was effectively re-introduced to what was risibly called the Congo Free State: the indigenous population of his colony were directed to mine rubber for the King, with their families used as hostages, and if they resisted, or failed to meet Leopold’s targets, they would suffer mutilation and loss of limbs. No fewer than 3 million Congolese peasants died as a result of the King’s shocking methods – though some estimates have put the death toll as high as 5 million or even 10 million.
Eventually, reports of what kinds of horrors were going on in the heart of Africa in the name of a European monarch got out, with no less a figure than the Habsburg emperor Franz Josef calling Leopold “a thoroughly bad man” (and when the ruler of Austria-Hungary, of all people, calls you that, you know your star has sunk as low as it possibly can). The resulting scandal forced Leopold to sell his private colony directly to the Belgian government, but the Congo continued to be treated as a treasure-house by the Belgian authorities, with little if any attention given to improving its infrastructure or preparing it for eventual independence. When independence was granted in 1960 it was done in a horrifically rushed and ill-thought-out fashion, with the Belgians effectively panicking when confronted by various nationalist groups demanding self-government. The result was the first in a series of bloody civil wars in which various regional and global powers would get involved, two of the country’s rulers would be murdered, and a UN Secretary-General (Dag Hammarskjoeld) would die in a still-unexplained mystery plane crash.
Inevitably, perhaps, it would take a strongman to emerge in order to bring order to such chaos, and in 1965 that strongman came in the form of the Congolese army chief Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu (with the crucial backing of America’s CIA, of course). Under his rule the Congo became a highly centralised state, and most opponents were co-opted through patronage and subtle nationalistic propaganda. Those who refused to play ball faced jail, or torture and execution. Six years after Mobutu seized power, he had the country renamed Zaïre (derived from the Kongo language word for “river”), and embarked on a faux-nationalistic campaign, supposedly aimed at eliminating all European influence in the country. Families were urged to use native African names when having their children baptised – any who used European names would be imprisoned. Place names were changed, too: for example, the capital Léopoldville (named in the former Belgian king’s honour, of course) was renamed Kinshasa, and Stanleyville (after the explorer Henry Morton Stanley) became Kisangani. Even the head of state himself had a personal go, renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko (short for Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which in the Kongo language translates as “The warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all-powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest”. Its one of those titles among politicians that surely cannot be parodied…)
Mobutu’s campaign (called authenticité – authenticity) was faux-nationalistic, because the dictator himself had no qualms about accepting (and usually pocketing) Western money through loans and aid grants. Millions of dollars’ worth of foreign investment, originally intended for infrastructure projects, somehow found its way into his Swiss bank accounts. Indeed, of all the seemingly interminable list of ignoble African rulers, Mobutu was by far the biggest looter of all, getting away with siphoning off around $5bn of his country’s wealth. According to Transparency International, he was topped in the league table of Third-World corruption only by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (in 2nd place) and Mohamed Suharto of Indonesia (in 1st). All the while, of course, his country suffered and his people starved or struggled along in desperate poverty. Yet, as long as Mobutu continued to make the predictably convenient noises about combating communism, he could continue to enjoy American support, and so get away with his crimes. So comfortable did he feel that he even shamelessly admitted to a reporter in 1977 that ‘Everything is for sale: anything can be bought in our country.’
The end of the Cold War saw the beginning of the end, not just of Mobutu, but also of the Zaïrean state that he had built up. Moves were made to permit other political parties alongside his own, but he balked at allowing free presidential elections, and it didn’t take long for resistance to his rule to build up. The fallout from the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which the ruling regime in Kigali fled the country and set up camp as refugees along Zaïre’s eastern frontier, proved to be the catalyst for the civil war that would bring Mobutu down. Already terminally ill with cancer, he left his country for Morocco on 17 May 1997, never to return.
The new president was Laurent Kabila, the leader of the victorious Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADFL) opposition, and also a former gold-smuggler and brothel-keeper. Any hopes that his announcement that the new country would henceforth be called the Democratic Republic of the Congo would herald serious change political change were very soon dashed, as promised free elections kept on being postponed. Even worse, Kabila fell out with his former Rwandan and Ugandan allies, sparking off another civil war, in which there was also intervention from neighbouring Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. This war, scandalously under-reported by the Western media (could it be that it was because the war was in Africa, and the various TV channels judged it to be not that interesting to Western audiences…? Or am I being too cynical or PC there…?) would claim around 5 million lives across the region, among them that of Kabila himself, as he was assassinated in January 2001. As befitting a country with the words “Democratic Republic” in its title, Kabila was succeeded his son, Joseph, who is still at the helm in Kinshasa, and who has repeatedly promised to hold free elections there – though, as with his father, he has also repeatedly announced the “postponement” of such elections. The latest announcement on this subject was that a national census would be needed before elections can be held. You can’t help suspecting that there will be quite a few more “postponements” in years to come…
Twenty years after the fall of Africa’s richest and most corrupt dictator, the sad story that makes up the history of the Congo continues to play out – though, as the writer Michela Wrong reminds us, it is a story in which a lot of actors, not just Mobutu, and not all of them just Congolese, had a hand:
Yes, Mobutu was brutal, ruthless and greedy. Possessed of the instincts of the neighbourhood thug, he knew only how to draw out the worst in those around him. Most disastrous was the fact that he lacked the imagination, the sustained vision required to build a coherent state from Belgium’s uncertain inheritance. But if Mobutu traced a Kurtz-like trajectory from high ideals to febrile corruption, he did not pursue that itinerary alone, or unaided.