The Democratic Republic of Congo: 2005

The Congo Free State, the Belgian Congo, Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are just some of the names a country in the heart of Africa and the size of Western Europe has taken in recent years. We were told not to go there. Congo is not safe. In 1998 eight tourists were kidnapped by Congo rebels. Would we listen? Afraid not. We visited for only a short while but in that little time I came to know of the country’s troubled past. And present. Shall I tell you?


It was the American correspondent, Henry Morton Stanley, who first successfully navigated the Lualaba and Congo rivers to the Atlantic Ocean in 1877. It was an epic journey of nearly 2000 miles, through equatorial forests along uncharted waters. Along the way, the expedition suffered from disease, desertion, drowning, and attacks by Africans, including an ambush by thousands of cannibals. Of course, he was no saint. He was ruthless, in point of fact, attracting harsh criticism from the British public as well as other explorers for his methods. He later returned on behalf of King Leopold and worked for five years, constructing a road from the lower river to Stanley Pool (where the river became navigable) and obtaining treaties with local leaders.


The Congo territory was acquired formally by the Belgian King Leopold at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 (in which European powers came together to carve up Africa – not a single African person attended the conference). He made the land his private property and named it the Congo Free State. During Leopold’s colonial rule, he accumulated a vast personal fortune from ivory and rubber through Congolese slave labour; 10 million people are estimated to have died from forced labor, starvation, and outright extermination. It was policy for the Force Publique (an army) to cut off the limbs of the natives as a means of enforcing rubber quotas. A 1904 report written by E.D. Morel and our own Roger Casement on the Congo spurred international protests which resulted in Belgium taking over administration of the Congo in 1908. Congo remained a colony until agitation for independence forced Brussels to grant freedom on June 30, 1960.


After a turbulent five years of political and social instability, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965. A one-party system was established, and Mobutu declared himself head of state. He nationalized much of the economy, barred religious instruction in schools, decreed the adoption of African names and changed the country’s name to Zaire. Relative peace and stability was achieved, but Mobutu’s government was accused of human rights violations, repression, a cult of personality and excessive corruption. Mobutu’s disastrous policies drove his country into economic collapse while he siphoned off millions of dollars for himself. In 1984 he was said to have four billion U.S. dollars, an amount close to the country’s national debt, stashed away in personal Swiss bank accounts. He owned a fleet of Mercedes vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while many of his people starved. Mobutu’s rule earned a reputation as one of the world’s foremost examples of kleptocracy and nepotism. When Rwanda invaded the country to flush out extremist Hutu militias, rebels took the opportunity to overthrow Mobutu and Laurent Kabila was installed as president.


In 1998, Congolese rebel forces, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, gained control of a large portion of the country until Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops came to Kabila’s aid. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder its natural resources. The war claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition.

In 1999, a peace agreement, the Lusaka Accord, was signed by all six of the countries involved, as well as by most of the rebel groups. After years of talk, a transitional government was formed in 2003. A new constitution was adopted in 2005 and there will be a referendum to ratify it in 2006. But the threat of civil war remains and fighting continues: hundreds of civilians were massacred in Ituri.

DRC is in a bad way. When we visited, the people were more ragged than any we have seen so far. We met an Australian traveler whose bus had been attacked en route to the Ugandan border by a militia in the area. While she was untouched, everyone else on the bus was “beaten senseless” and two men were kidnapped. “Those poor people,” she said. “This is the only road open to them. They have no choice but to travel it.”

DRC’s vast mineral wealth has long wreaked havoc on the lives of the Congolese and sadly, this is still the case. Rather than enriching the local people, it only fuels further conflict. Human Rights Watch documents massacres, arrests, torture, forced labour and summary executions by various armed groups involved in Gold. It seems that ethnic militias, armed Congolese factions, the governments of neighbouring countries and international companies all turn a blind eye to appalling brutality in their scramble for gold.

The government has no control over large parts of the country. The east in particular, is said to be a human rights disaster area with “soldiers and combatants targeting civilians, killing, raping, and otherwise injuring them, carrying out arbitrary arrests and torture, and destroying or pillaging their property.” In 2005, The Crisis Group said that 1,000 people were dying every day from war-related causes, including disease, hunger and violence.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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