Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is located in central Africa and shares borders with nine other countries: The Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Angola. The vast natural resources of the DRC, including diamonds, gold, coltan, cobalt, copper and timber, have contributed to a history of colonization, exploitation and violence, resulting in one of the most disastrous conflicts in the history of modern Africa.

King Leopold II of Belgium began colonizing the DRC in 1878, and established the Free State of Congo. Leopold used the forced labour of Congolese to exploit ivory and rubber, thus accumulating a vast personal fortune. It is estimated that ten million people were killed in these labour camps. The DRC did not gain its independence until 1960.

Joseph Kasavubu was the first elected President of the DRC. He had earned prominence during pre-independence struggles as head of an organization Aboko, of Bakongo people. As President, Kasavubu was engaged in a power struggle with Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was also the president of the Congolese National Movement. Kasavubu had Lumumba ousted with the help of Colonel Motubu, and he was later killed by CIA agents and Belgium mercenaries.

In 1965, Army Chief Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko led a successful coup against Kasavubu’s government and proclaimed himself President. Mobutu was a nationalist leader, and in 1975 he changed the country’s name to Zaire. With the help of Western intelligence and military funding, he established a one-party state and held a tight grasp on power until 1991, when he was forced to give some power to the opposition. Throughout his rule, Mobutu transferred state resources into his personal coffers, bleeding the country dry.

Laurent-Desire Kabila was a supporter of Patrice Lumumba. Following Lumumba’s death, he launched an unsuccessful revolt in South Kivu with Che Guevara. Kabila subsequently formed the People’s Republic Party and established a mini-state in South Kivu. In 1996, Kabila succeeded in toppling Mobutu’s government, but his own rule was short-lived. In 1998, Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded the DRC, and three years later, Kabila was assassinated. Like his predecessor, Kabila was accused of corruption and exploitation. Laurent-Desire Kabila’s eldest son Joseph was sworn into the presidential post after his father’s death. To date, he has attempted to reconcile government and rebel forces and to uphold the Lusaka Accord.

Since King Leopold’s time, military, business, and political leaders have consistently abused their authority to exploit the DRC’s immense supply of natural resources such as gold, diamonds, and coltan. This abuse of power has resulted in civilian deaths, rape, torture, the use of child soldiers, and child labourers. Many foreign countries have contributed to the propagation of the conflict in the DRC by supporting the different forces. Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe supported Kabila, while Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi supported rebel forces.

In the period from 1885 to 1908, a number of well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. These atrocities were sometimes collectively referred to by European contemporaries as the “Congo Horrors”, and were particularly associated with the labour policies used to collect natural rubber for export. Together with epidemic disease and a falling birth rate, these atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the population. The magnitude of the population fall over the period is disputed, but it is thought to range from one to 15 million.

After the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, the European powers allocated the Congo Basin region to a private charitable organisation run by Leopold II, who had long held ambitions for colonial expansion. The territory under Leopold’s control exceeded 1,000,000 square miles (2,600,000 km2) and, amid financial problems, was ruled by a tiny cadre of white administrators drawn from across Europe. Initially, the colony proved unprofitable and insufficient with the state always close to bankruptcy. The boom in demand for natural rubber, which was abundant in the territory, created a radical shift in the 1890s—to facilitate the extraction and export of rubber, all “uninhabited” land in the Congo was nationalised, with the majority distributed to private companies as concessions. Some was kept by the state. Between 1891 and 1906, the companies were allowed to do whatever they wished with almost no judicial interference, the result being that forced labour and violent coercion were used to collect the rubber cheaply and maximise profit. A native paramilitary army, the Force Publique, was also created to enforce the labour policies. Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection could be killed and entire villages razed. Individual white administrators were also free to indulge their own sadism.

Despite these atrocities, the main cause of the population decline was disease. A number of pandemics, notably African sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza and amoebic dysentery, ravaged indigenous populations. In 1901 alone it was estimated that half-a-million Congolese had died from sleeping sickness. Disease, famine and violence combined to reduce the birth-rate while excess deaths rose.

The decapitation of workers’ hands achieved particular international notoriety. These were sometimes cut-off by rogue Force Publique soldiers who were made to account for every shot they fired by bringing back the hands of their victims. These details were recorded by Christian missionaries working in the Congo and caused public outrage when they were made known to the public in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States and elsewhere. An international campaign against the Congo Free State began in 1890 and reached its apogee after 1900 under the leadership of the British activist E. D. Morel. In 1908, as a result of international pressure, the Belgian government annexed the Congo Free State to form the Belgian Congo, and ended many of the systems responsible for the abuses. The size of the population decline during the period is the subject of extensive historiographical debate, though there is a general consensus that it cannot be considered a genocide.