LE ROI DU ZAIRE
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the heart of sub-Saharan Africa.
I’ve been fascinated with the country since I was in college. West Central Africa was the largest supplier of slaves to the New World. 5.7 million slaves were brought to the Americas from the Loango Coast in what is now Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. 1 out of 4 slaves brought to British North America came from West Central Africa.
This was the epicenter of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
In the very center of the region, the Congo River bursts into the Atlantic Ocean. The current from the river is so powerful it travels more than 50 miles offshore. It is the world’s deepest river and the second largest river in Africa. It is second only to the Amazon River in Brazil by discharge of water.
The Portuguese explorer Captain Diogo Cão was the first European to arrive in the region. He discovered and sailed up the Congo River in 1482. On his second voyage, Cão made it to Yellala Falls in 1485 – 175 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, which is just up the river from Matadi – the first in a series of cataracts that make the Lower Congo River unnavigable. These cataracts stretch on for another 220 miles until they reach the Stanley Pool where Kinshasa is located. The Congo River is only navigable from the Atlantic Ocean to Yellala Falls and then from Kinshasa for 1,200 miles into the interior.
The Congo River was the largest river ever seen by a European until the discovery of the Amazon. It is only navigable though for 175 miles into the interior. Europeans didn’t make it past this point until the 1880s when dynamite was used to cut a path for a railroad through the Crystal Mountains.
In a country the size of Western Europe, which would stretch from Paris to Moscow, no European made it beyond that point until the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley crossed Africa from east to west in 1877. In other words, European exploration of the vast majority of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was blocked for nearly 400 years by the cataracts on the Lower Congo River and devastating African diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and river blindness.
Consider the significance of this: by the 1880s, Australia and New Zealand had been settled, California had been a state for over thirty years, Canada had achieved dominion status, and Argentina was a thriving independent country. Meanwhile, Central Africa was still a blank spot on the map of the world. Aside from Antarctica, the interior of Central Africa was the most unknown place in the world to Europeans. The African tribes who lived deep in the interior were left alone to become Wakanda.
Captain Diogo Cão and the Portuguese couldn’t make it past these obstacles.
They did make contact though with the Kongo Kingdom which dominated the Atlantic coast in what is now the far western Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Angola.
The story of the next three centuries (1500 to 1800) is Portuguese slave traders operating in the region and buying slaves from the Bakongo in exchange for various commodities. More Bakongo were brought to the New World than any other black ethnic group from sub-Saharan Africa.
The British abolished slavery and the Royal Navy suppressed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 19th century. Most of these Portuguese slaves captured in Angola and Congo ended up Brazil though which was the last major country in the New World to abolish slavery in 1888. Many were brought to the American colonies in the 18th century particularly to South Carolina where they were 40% of slaves.
The vast majority of the Democratic Republic of Congo was unaffected by the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Bas-Congo region of the country is smaller than Great Britain.
The slave trade in the Congo Basin was done on African terms because of the diseases and the geographic obstacles. It was Africans who enslaved other Africans deep in the interior, transported them down rivers no European had ever seen to Stanley Pool, marched them around the 220 miles of cataracts that were impassable to Europeans, and finally brought them to the coast where they were sold to the Portuguese and later the French at Matadi and Cabinda. In addition to this, the Columbian Exchange introduced New World crops such as cassava, manioc, and corn to the Congo where they quickly became staples in areas deep in the interior which were unknown for centuries to Europeans.
Europeans finally arrived in the interior of West Central Africa in the 1870s in the age of the telegraph, railroad, and the Maxim gun. Henry Morton Stanley’s account of his exploration of the Congo, Through The Dark Continent, which was first published in 1878, was an international bestseller. In case you are wondering, Africa was called the Dark Continent because even in the late 19th century it was still so savage and backward and poorly known to the rest of the world.
The British explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley were the first Europeans who arrived in the interior of the Congo. They found illiterate tribes of spearchunking cannibals who practiced agriculture, who a voodoo-like religion and some iron tools. Central Africa’s relative backwardness to Western Europe long predated the start of European colonialism in 1885.
In his search for the origins of the Nile River, David Livingstone entered the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo from around the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. He discovered the Lualaba River which is the major source of the Congo River. Henry Morton Stanley set out to trace the course of the Lualaba which he navigated through the equatorial rainforest down the Congo River and all the way to the Atlantic through the Crystal Mountains in 1876 and 1877.
Tippu Tip was with Stanley for part of the journey. We’ve already seen how he had carved out a vast slave trading empire in what is now the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Scramble for Africa began in the 1880s.
Henry Morton Stanley went back to the Congo supported by King Leopold II of Belgium. He earned the nickname Bula Matari while blasting a road through the Crystal Mountains to connect Stanley Pool with the Atlantic Ocean. The Congo Basin is navigable for thousands of miles inland from Kinshasa.
The city of Léopoldville was founded on the south bank of Stanley Pool which was named in honor Stanley. The Belgians set out navigating the Congo River and its tributaries in steamships where they set up stations by the side of rivers throughout the interior. Stanley negotiated treaties with local African tribes and that was used as the basis for King Leopold II to lay claim to the region which was recognized as the Congo Free State at the infamous Berlin Conference.
The character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an ivory trader at the most distant station in the heart of the rainforest in the Congo. Kurtz goes native on the frontier and becomes a savage. He is worshiped as a god by the local African tribes before he dies of a disease which is presumably malaria. The character Marlow sets out from Léopoldville in search of Kurtz.
The Congo River dominates the country.
Why didn’t a great African civilization rise in the Congo Basin? The Congo River drains a 4 million square mile area. It is nearly 3,000 miles long. It was long protected from Islamic incursions from the north and east by a nearly impenetrable rainforest. It has dozens of tributaries which flow toward Stanley Pool which Europeans immediately turned into arteries of commerce with their steamboats.
CONGO FREE STATE
From 1885 until 1908, the Congo Free State was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. The horror stories about King Leopold II and red rubber – the export of which began in 1890 – are fairly well known thanks to Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, which alleges that 10 million people died in the Congo Free State, and is most popular book on Amazon about Africa. This allegedly took place in a country the size of Western Europe, most of which was still an unexplored impenetrable jungle, which at that time had hardly any roads and infrastructure, where there were at maximum about a thousand Europeans, most of whom were sickened by malaria like the fictional Kurtz.
It is true that rubber was exported from the Congo Free State. It is also true that the Congo Free State drove Tippu Tip and the Zanzibar slave traders out of the eastern Congo in the Congo Arab War. There was a great international outcry about it at the time in Britain – the biggest human rights campaign since the abolition of slavery – which led to King Leopold II turning over the Congo Free State to Belgium.
This is such an important a subject we will return to explore in greater detail. In the meantime, it is worth noting that the rubber was only collected in certain portions of the equatorial rainforest. The southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is dominated by the savanna. The eastern part of the country near the Great Lakes are highlands that have a climate comparable to that of Switzerland.
Very few African colonies were profitable to Europeans. In fact, most of them were worthless and were only acquired out of geopolitical rivalry with other European nations. In places like Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, the main crop was peanuts. In all of their colonies, Europeans were eager to collect local taxes to offset the costs of administration.
As was the case with slavery, the atrocities of the Leopold era were largely inflicted by Africans on other Africans, but the international outcry was so great that the Belgian government took over the Congo in 1908. Thus officially began the era of Belgian colonialism, which was relatively peaceful and uneventful and lasted until 1960. During a mere 42 years, the Belgians introduced every aspect of the modern world from cities with sewers and running water to electricity and factories. They built roads, railroads, airports, schools, hospitals, etc. The leap forward in terms of science, technology, and living standards introduced by the Belgians was staggering.
The early 20th century under Belgian colonialism was a Golden Age for the Congo and many elderly Congolese still today look back at it in awe in light of the nightmare that followed. While Europe and Asia were torn apart by World War I and World War II, Central Africa was relatively prosperous and peaceful. It was an era of economic growth, rising living standards and advances in education. Slavery was extinguished. Cannibalism was outlawed and suppressed. Christianity was introduced. Trade was booming. Public health initiatives rolled back diseases like malaria. This was the rule in Africa under “colonialism” from 1900 to 1960.
The Belgian Congo’s real wealth wasn’t in the ivory or rubber collected in the 19th century in the equatorial rainforest. It was in Katanga, the far southern region that was annexed in 1884, which is one of the most mineral rich areas on earth. In addition to copper and uranium there were major deposits of It had one of the world’s largest deposits of copper along with zinc, cobalt, tin, gold, wolfram, coal, manganese, tantalum, and coal. When the wealth of Katanga was discovered, it was described as “a geological scandal.”
When Europeans first arrived in Katanga in the late 19th century (this is a province in the far south of the Belgian Congo), they found a sparsely populated savanna. There was no indigenous mining industry. There were just a few tribes living in mud huts on top of the world’s greatest concentration of mineral wealth.
The Belgians built three major cities in the Congo during the early 20th century – the capital Léopoldville on Stanley Pool in the far west, Elisabethville in Katanga in the far south and Stanleyville on the cataracts and great bend in the Congo River in the east.
In 75 years, Congo made the leap from illiteracy, cannibalism, and mud huts to railroads, airports, and hydroelectric power plants. It hadsbeen at peace with itself and its neighbors through most of that entire period while the rest of the world tore itself apart in the World Wars. Now, we are on the precipice of independence from Belgium, the rise of liberal democracy, racial equality and the end of white supremacy in 1960.
This is how David Van Reybrouck describes the mood in Belgian Congo in Congo: The History of a People:
“The first government of Congo inherited from Belgium a well developed infrastructure: more than fourteen thousand kilometers (nearly 8,700 miles) of rails and more than 140 kilometers (about eighty-seven miles) of highways and streets had been built; there were more than forty airports or airfields and more than a hundred hydroelectric and power plants and there was a modern industrial sector (Congo was world leader in industrial diamonds and the world’s fourth largest copper producer). In addition, a start had been made with general health care (three hundred hospitals for natives, plus medical centers and birth clinics) and the country enjoyed an extremely high degree of literacy (1.7 million primary school pupils in 1959) – achievements that were truly striking in comparison with other African countries.”
The run-of-the-mill Congolese, on the other hand, was enjoying it immensely. He believed that a golden age was on its way, that Congo would become prosperous from one day to the next. That, after all, was the promise made him in the dozens of pamphlets circulating around the country. Almost all the parties were making promises that could never be kept, promises that were sometimes grotesque, sometimes downright dangerous.”
The year is 1960 and the Congolese are getting into the spirit of liberal democracy on the precipice of independence:
“When independence arrives,” an Abako broadsheet read, “the whites will have to leave the country.” That was definitely not one of the conclusions of the round-table conference “The goods left behind will become the property of the black population. That is to say: the houses, the shops, the trucks, the merchandise, the factories, and fields will be given back to the Bakongo.” Little wonder then, with such inflammatory texts, that farmers in Bas-Congo expected nothing short of boundless liberty: “All laws will be abolished, we will no longer have to obey the traditional chieftains, nor the elders, nor the officials, nor the missionaries, nor the bosses ….” In that longing for a sudden, radical turnabout one heard echoes from the days of Simon Kimbangu. Independence itself became a sort of messianic moment that would bring with it “life, health, joy, good fortune and honor.” Kasavubu and Lumumba, both of whom had spent time in prison, grew to become prophets and martyrs. In Kasavubu people saw the resurrection of the king of the old Kongo Empire, while dynamic Lumumba was compared to the Sputnik satellite! Simple people looked forward to nothing less than a cosmic turnabout. Employment and taxes would disappear.”
The Congolese imagined a vast redistribution would take place:
“Some of them even assumed that, from then on, “the black will have white boys” and that “everyone will be allowed to pick out a white woman for themselves, because they will be left behind and redistributed, just like the cars and other things.” A few hucksters took advantage of that naivete and began selling white people’s homes for the trifling sum of forty dollars … Gullible souls, not realizing they had been swindled, knocked on the doors of white villas to ask whether they could come in and take a look at their new property. Some of them even asked to inspect the woman of the house, because they had just paid twenty dollars for her as well.”
In 2010, disaffected Congolese would ask Reybrouck questions like “How long is this independence of ours going to last, anyway?” and “When are the Belgians coming back? After all, you’re all uncles, aren’t yout?
“What seemed like a reactionary standpoint at the time was a widely heard lament in Congo in the year 2010, a lament prompted by all the recent misery. Many young people blamed their parents for having demanded independence at all costs. On a street in Kinshasa, someone once asked me: “How long is this independence of ours going to last, anyway?” As a Belgian, I had heard it countless times: “When are the Belgians coming back? After all, you’re our uncles, aren’t you?”
In June 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo was granted independence from Belgium. Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister and ruled the Congo for six months as the country collapsed into total chaos.
After stirring up a Cold War proxy war in Central Africa between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lumumba was assassinated by a CIA and Belgian backed execution squad. President Dwight Eisenhower personally ordered his execution and Allen Dulles funneled money to Lumumba’s political rivals to have it arranged.
Raoul Peck’s 2000 film Lumumba explores the short and eventful reign of Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the beginning of the six year period of anarchy that would come to be known as the “Congo Crisis.” The chaos of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the British and French abandonment of White colonials in Kenya and Algeria played a major role in instigating the secession of Rhodesia from the British Empire.
Within days of Lumumba’s rise to power, the Force Publique mutinied against its White officer corps and began to rape, torture, and murder European civilians, especially the Flemish who were particularly resented by the Congolese. Lumumba responded to the crisis by dismissing General Émile Janssens, insulting the Belgian ambassador and by Africanizing the Force Publique which was renamed the Congolese National Army.
Belgium responded by dispatching paratroopers without Lumumba’s authorization to evacuate the Belgian and European civilians who were under attack by Congolese radicals. Within a month of independence, 26,000 of the 29,000 Europeans that were present in Congo’s three largest cities when the experiment in liberal democracy began fled the country.
More eventful than the rape and massacre of European civilians was the secession of Moise Tshombe’s Katanga and Albert Kalonji’s South Kasai as chaos swept across the new country under Lumumba’s erratic leadership. Katanga and South Kasai were the two richest provinces of the Congo and the epicenter of the Belgian owned mining industry which contained most of its copper, gold, uranium, and diamonds.
In 1959, Congo was producing (mostly in Katanga and South Kasai) 10 percent of the world’s copper, 50 percent of the world’s cobalt, and 70 percent of the world’s industrial diamonds. Congolese uranium was used in the Manhattan Project. The mineral wealth of the country was harnessed by Belgian corporations which produced the revenue stream which allowed the Belgian colonial government to pacify the cannibals and savages in the country and bring peace, prosperity and civilization to Central Africa.
The prosperity brought to Katanga was appreciated by Moise Tshombe whose region was close to the Belgians and seceded from Lumumba’s government to escape from the chaos, incompetence, and White flight brought down upon the country by this communist sympathizer. Lumumba made an ultimately fatal mistake when he requested Soviet intervention in the Congo to suppress the secessionists in Katanga and South Kasai.
Coming in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959, the American government was infuriated when a Soviet airlift assisted Lumumba’s Congolese National Army in its brutal conquest of South Kasai and invasion of Katanga. Thousands of Baluba tribesmen were massacred in South Kasai and the Congolese National Army raped, murdered and pillaged its way through Northern Katanga before it was repulsed by the Belgian-led Katangan gendarmerie.
Under American pressure, President Joseph Kasu-Vubu removed Lumumba as Prime Minister for his arbitrary and destructive leadership and for plunging the country into a civil war. In response, Lumumba denounced Kasu-Vubu before the Congolese parliament and announced he was removing him as president. The United States and Belgium sided with Kasu-Vubu while the Soviet Union sided with Lumumba and his supporters.
The Democratic Republic of Congo fractured into four disputed regions with South Kasai and Katanga in the south maintaining their independence and the supporters of Kasu-Vubu and Lumumba splitting the country into the west and the east. It was at this point that Joseph Mobutu, who Lumumba had made Chief of Staff of the Congolese National Army, stepped forward and announced that he was neutralizing all politicians and taking over the country for the rest of the year.
Mobutu placed Lumumba under house arrest for his own protection. The United Nations warned him to stay there for his own protection. Determined to reach his own Marxist supporters in Stanleyville in the eastern Congo, Lumumba left Léopoldville hidden in the back of a Chevrolet taking his house servants home for the night. He was captured halfway there in Kasai by Mobutu’s government troops.
As Lumumba’s supporters consolidated their power in Stanleyville and the eastern Congo, Mobutu and his American and Belgian supporters refused to release him out of the fear that he would escape to the east and set up a communist regime that would be dependent upon the Soviet Union and China for its survival. Ultimately, they decided to send Lumumba to Moishe Tshombe’s Katanga where like “delivering Satan to the Jews” he would be quickly executed.
After his arrival in Elisabethville, Lumumba was tortured and forced to eat his own speeches in public. He was physically beaten by Tshombe and taken out into the Katangan woods and shot by a Belgian-controlled firing squad for being a communist and an enemy of the state.
Peck’s Lumumba closes with a scene of Mobutu Sese Seko in power as the Great Helmsman of Zaire. A devout and lifelong student of Machiavelli and a CIA asset for decades, Mobutu claims the memory of Lumumba and describes him as “a hero of the Congo” before the international press after ordering his execution.
David Van Reybrouck covers the Simba cannibals in Stanleyville during the Congo Crisis who were taken out by South African mercenaries
“Mama Lungeni saw the rebels come to town. In early August of 1964 they took Stanleyville. The stronghold of Lumumba and Gizenga was theirs once more. They went in search of those who had squandered independence.”
“Evoulues, intellectuals, and the rich became the brunt of their attacks. Around the statue to Lumumba, some 2,500 “reactionaries” were murdered. The Simbas cut out their hearts and ate them, to keep the dead from coming back. Other cities, too witnessed their extreme cruelty. “Butter, butter!” they shouted in Tshombe when a machete split an enemy’s skull and the brains ran out. Babies and children were taken from their parents and laid in the burning sun for days, until they died.”
“In Kasango they disemboweled a few elderly people and forced bystanders to eat their intestines. In addition they were pronouncedly anti-American, anti-Belgian, and anti-Catholic. The American consul at Stanleyville was forced to tread on the American flag and eat a piece of it. Anyone carrying an object with “MADE IN USA” on it ran the risk of being slaughtered. It became a game to set the beards of Belgian missionaries on fire and then extinguish the flames with a beating. Many of the Simba had a background in the secret Kitawala cult, which had always been prominent in eastern Congo. They bitterly hated white people. Any number of nuns at the missions were raped and murdered; missionaries were sometimes tortured and then butchered.”
In a continent dominated by Big Man rule, Mobutu Sese Seko was the biggest man in Africa, the Louis XIV of the Congo. He was idolized by the people as “The Great Helmsman,” “The Guide,” “The Leopard,” “Founding President,” “Field Marshal” and “The Father of the Nation.”
Mobutu’s face was on the cover of almost every newspaper. His personality cult was on the currency, ashtrays, and official letterhead. The daily television news broadcast would begin with Mobutu emerging godlike from the clouds to be greeted by dancing and singing Zaireans. Arguably, Mobutu’s ascent to greatness was the most remarkable black story of the twentieth century, as was his tragic downfall.
Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was born the son of a cook and a hotel maid in Équateur province in the Belgian Congo. He was from the Ngbandi ethnic group, a warlike Central Sudanese tribe, that had settled along the Ubangi River in the far rural north of Congo and the Central African Republic.
After a brief stint in the Force Publique, Mobutu became a journalist in Léopoldville where he became acquainted with the Congolese évolués who were active in cercles opposed to colonial rule. He met Patrice Lumumba there and joined his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) which was one of the largest nationalist parties clamoring for independence in 19690.
By 1960, Britain and France had thrown in the towel and were launching their African colonies as independent states. Belgium was left in an untenable position and fearing an Algerian-style war and under pressure from the United States and the NATO allies was forced to grant independence to the Congo.
Patrice Lumumba and other Congolese nationalist leaders were invited to Brussels for a roundtable conference on independence. Mobutu attended the meeting as Lumumba’s personal secretary where he seems to have been recruited by Belgian intelligence. Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minster of the Republic of Congo and his brief rule was a total disaster. Lumumba stirred up a proxy war between the United States and Soviet Union which brought about his gruesome murder.
Lumumba’s assassination set off five years of chaos known as the Congo Crisis. The Simba cannibals took over the Eastern Congo and held 1,300 European and American hostages. Belgian paratroopers rescued the hostages and White mercenaries were hired to fight the Simbas and reconquer the country.
In 1965, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who Lumumba had made head of the armed forces in 1960 seized power in a military coup d’état on the grounds that the politicians had spent five years ruining the country and would be given a five year time out. Both the Western powers and the Congolese people were relieved that stability had been restored and the chaos had subsided.
So what happened when a native African was given absolute power in Africa’s richest country?
- Mobutu’s consolidated power in a one party state based on a cult of personality with fabulous titles like “Great Helmsman” and “The Guide.” Ideologically, his revolutionary movement was “the repudiation of capitalism and communism” and was “neither right nor left nor center.”
- Mobutu’s authenticité campaign which involved tearing down the European statues of Henry Morton Stanley and King Leopold II, renaming the country and its major waterway Zaire, renaming the major cities to Kinshasa, Kisangani, and Lumumbashi, banning Christian and European names and finally renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga or “head rooster with access to all the hens in the henhouse.”
In Mobutu’s words:
“Authenticité is the realization by the Zairean people that it must return to its origins, seek out the values of its ancestors, to discover those which contribute to harmonious and natural development. It is the refusal to blindly embrace imported ideologies. It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, with its mental and social structures.”
- Zaireans were forbidden under authenticité to wear Western clothing. Men were required to wear an abacost uniform (French for “down with the suit”) that resembles a Maoist tunic. Zaire’s new flag was a black fist grasping a flaming torch.
- Mobutu’s “Zairianization” program, the economic counterpart to “authenticité,” involved nationalizing European owned businesses and seizing European assets in Zaire, and redistributing them to a new social class in Zaire that came to be known as the “Grosses Legumes,” or the Big Vegetables. The Big Vegetables were given plantations, businesses, and industries built by Europeans and Asians. They had no idea how to manage them and Zaire’s economy fell off a cliff from which it never recovered. Zairianization and Authenticité were followed by Zaire setting an African record for the importation of Mercedes-Benz cars.
Michela Wrong on Zairianization:
“Mobutu began a process of “Zairianization”: those small- and medium sized businesses, plantations, and trading companies still in the hands of foreigners, a few thousand enterprises in all, were expropriated and given to his faithful followers. From one day to the next, Portuguese restaurant owners, Greek shopkeepers, Pakistani TV repairmen, or Belgian coffee growers saw the work of a lifetime disappear. At the head of their company came a Zairian from the president’s circles who usually had no sense of how to run a business. In the best of cases he allowed the original owner to work on as manager and came by each month to collect the profits. In the worst cases, he immediately emptied the till and sold all the stocks on hand.”
- Mobutu built a $500 million dollar palace in his ancestral village of Gbadolite that has been called the “Versailles of the Jungle.” His son-in-law estimated that Mobutu and his entourage would run through 10,000 bottles of Laurent Perrier pink champagne a year. Gbadolite was one of two international sized airports in sub-Saharan Africa (Le Vieux’s Yamoussoukro was the other) that could accommodate the supersonic Concorde jet that Mobutu and family would charter for shopping trips in Europe and America. Mobutu would charter Concordes and Boeings to Gbadolite like a normal person would order pizza from Papa John’s. He would have a hair stylist flown in from New York. His daughter’s wedding cake was flown in from France.
- Mobutu extorted $9 billion dollars in foreign aid from the IMF and World Bank which was stolen and redistributed in all sorts of ingenious ways to his own family and the Big Vegetables. Erwin Blumenthal, a German banker from the Deutsche Bundesbank, was put in charge of the Bank of Zaire and resigned in exasperation with the systematic corruption, fraud and embezzlement.
- Mobutu and the Big Vegetables plundered and destroyed the Belgian copper mining industry in Katanga and the diamond mining industry in Kasai.
- Mobutu’s created a kleptocracy, the institutionalization of a government based on theft, that came to pervade the whole culture and was known by the euphemism “Article 15,” or “help yourself.”
In her book In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong tours Congo and interviews all kinds of people that adapted to life under Mobutu Sese Seko: a social class called sapuers that retreated from the world of politics to become the world’s most unlikely fashionistas, gangs of polio victims that scamper about Kinshasa like spiders and dominate the river trade, the Kimbanguists who are the Congolese version of the Mormons, a fantasist who lives in his house in Bas-Congo and gathered a mass following by proclaiming himself King of the Kongo.
In the early 1990s, Zaire’s economy deteriorated to the point where there were two mass riots by the army that were so destructive that they came to be historical mile marker known as “avant le premier pillage” and “après le deuxième pillage.” When there was nothing left to steal and the IMF and World Bank finally cut him off, Mobutu inflated the currency to the point where 50,000 zaire notes were being issued the year before his downfall.
In the end, Laurent Kabila’s rebels supported by Uganda and Rwanda advanced from the east and took over Kinshasa. Dying of prostate cancer, The Leopard lifted off in his jet from Gbadolite as his own private security force tried to shoot him down. The rebels sacked his Gbadolite jungle palace and his villa in Kinshasa where thousands of pampers for incontinent men were found floating among the ruins.
Michela Wrong on the Mobutu era in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
“Flicking through the pages was like travelling to another world. Blessed with the glorious unselfconsciousness of a time when colonial shame seemed inconceivable, the author proudly paraded a port full of cranes, factories turning out cloth, a modern railway network and ‘one of only two gyrobus transport systems in the world’. Kinshasa, it was clearly, had once been a veritable Milton Keynes. If it was only four years before independence, there was little sense of a nation being prepared to take destiny into its own hands. Instead there were photos of Congolese obediently bowed over lathes, typewriters and microscopes as white tutors gave them instructions. On one page a Belgian housewife taught local women how to run a kitchen, on another, black chefs in white aprons demonstrated their skill in producing Belgian patisserie.
Before and after … the photographs showed jungle bulldozed to form a city street, oxen making way for cars of the 1950s, a model Congolese family relaxing in a spotless lounge, sipping tea as they listened to the radio. But a vital chapter was missing. Now. That would reveal the wheel turning full circle: the jungle growing back through the potholed tarmac, running water tainted with sewage, neighbourhoods without electricity, walking replacing the car.
I knew these streets, these roundabouts, these buildings. But I had never seen them so tidy. Here was the high-rise building now converted into the Memling Hotel. But where were the streetsellers who usually gathered outside it, with their selections of cigarettes, boiled eggs and cola nuts? Where were the house high piles of rubbish, the polio victims in their tricycles, the begging albinos blistering in the sun? Could this really be the same city?
Feeling lost in this unfamiliar world of order, symmetry and seemingly unquenchable hope, I pored over each photograph, looking for some hint of the chaos to come. And then, halfway through my perusal, I was pulled up short. There, on page 144, was a photograph of a policeman directing traffic on one of the boulevards. His uniform looked neat, his gauntlets were a spotless white. But looking closely at his face, I could swear he was wearing gold-rimmed, slanting sunglasses – pimp’s sunglasses, sinister trademark of the secret policeman and presidential guard, the torturer possessed of arbitrary undefined powers. Now there, in that tiny, telling detail, was the country I had come to know and love.”
The Congolese were granted their independence in 1960 without a fight. Compared to the wars in Algeria or Vietnam, it was handed to them on a silver platter. The inept leadership of Patrice Lumumba soon embroiled the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Cold War and the country broke apart and descended into chaos. Europeans abandoned the country and the economy nosedived. The Congo Crisis lasted until 1965 when Mobutu Sese Seko took over a reunified Congo as president in 1965.
From 1965 until 1997, Mobutu presided over the rotting corpse of the Congo, which entered a period of long term economic decline. Mobutu’s Congo was propped up by the US and the World Bank because it was pro-Western and surrounded by Soviet satellites in the Cold War like Tanzania, Angola, and Congo-Brazzaville. This was an era of absurdities where Mobutu would appear on television descending from the clouds and where Congolese were required to were the abacost costume and abandon their Christian names in the great return to pre-European “authentic” Congolese culture.
The First Congo War and Second Congo War (1996 to 2003) which was the sequel to the Rwandan genocide and resulted in the ousting of Mobutu left millions of people dead. In Africa’s World War, child soldiers devastated the eastern region of the country. It was all started by the Rwandan genocide and the flight of millions of Hutu refugees to Congo after 1994. By the end of this period, the Democratic Republic of Congo had sunk to the absolute bottom of failed states on the UN Human Development Index. Today, Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world after fifty years of independence and probably the worst place on earth to be a woman.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the most common type of natural disaster is the rape crisis caused by AK-47 toting black militias. The eastern Congo is “the rape capital of the world.” It has been named “the worst place on earth” to be a woman. There are 48 rapes every hour, 1,252 rapes a day, over 400,000 rapes a year.
To put this in perspective, 29 out of 1,000 Congolese women are raped every year. In the United States, 0.5 out of 1,000 American women are raped annually. Thus, a Congolese woman is 58x more likely to be raped than an American woman. In North Kivu and South Kivu, which are the epicenter of the Congolese rape crisis, 67 out of 1,000 women have been raped at least once – 7 percent of the female population. Children and teenagers are the most popular targets. The intense scrutiny of the issue by women’s rights groups has revealed that the rape of men and boys is almost as widespread.
The rape crisis in the Congo isn’t just an unusual spike in the total number of rapes: it is rape as a weapon of war, rape as a type of torture and sadism, rape combined with sex slavery, and the mainstreaming of rape as a lifestyle in the social context of the collapse of the state.
Recent studies have shown a more complex picture of rape in the Congo. In 2008, 38 percent of rapes in the Congo were committed by civilians. In 2004, less than 1 percent of rapes in the Congo were committed by civilians. There were also more total rapes in Équateur which is 1,500 miles from the Kivus.
From 1996 until 2003, a staggering 5.4 million people were killed in the First Congo War and Second Congo War. The violence between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda spilled over the eastern border into North Kivu and South Kivu and culminated in the toppling of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
The Congo Wars were the most destructive conflict since the Second World War. In terms of the pure savagery of the fighting, there is nothing in Europe quite comparable to it. Even the Red Army’s sweep across Germany and Hungary wasn’t as bad. The callousness and brutality of those years has become so deeply embedded into Congolese culture that the atrocities have continued for years after the war.
Over the last 58 years, Léopoldville (now “Kinshasa”) has undergone the most extreme form of climate chang anywhere on the planet. This city which used to be known as “Kin La Belle” (Kinshasa the Beautiful) has been transformed into “Kin La Poubelle” (Kinshasa the Dump).
10 million Congolese are now jammed into a city that was built by the Belgians to accommodate less than 200,000 people. The Western principles of urban planning have been thrown out the window. The whole city has become a mountain of garbage where open sewers run through the streets.
The garbage is piling up in the streets, the jungle is overtaking highways, the rail system has broken down, the roads are collapsing into sinkholes, the mines have collapsed, the factories are rusting, the currency has been destroyed, law and order has collapsed, hotels, schools, and hospitals are being abandoned, banking and credit are almost gone. The Democratic Republic of Congo is Wakanda come true where the noble savage is returning to the state of the nature where Henry Morton Stanley found him in 1877.
David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People ends on a tour of Guangzhou in China which has become the manufacturing capital of the world. As the West declines, Congo is being drawn into the economic orbit of China, which has taken over and revived the mining industry in Katanga and which is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. The Chinese don’t care about human rights abuses and Congo’s future is likely to be one of long term economic domination by East Asia.
In 2007, the Democratic Republic of Congo struck a $6 billion deal with the Chinese to develop their national infrastructure in exchange for access to Katanga’s unparalleled mineral reserves which are worth more than $50 billion. Empire of Dust is a documentary about the Chinese attempt to build a 300 kilometer road connecting Kolwezi with Katanga’s capital, Lubumbashi, formerly known as Elisabethville.
The road was originally built by the Belgians in the 1950s but was neglected and has deteriorated since independence like the rest of Congo’s infrastructure. The Congolese were incapable of maintaining it. The documentary shows how frustrated the Chinese become with the laziness, incompetence and thievery of the Congolese. In Africa, even the most simple tasks become extraordinary challenges for Chinese engineers.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is an independent country.
The Belgians aren’t coming back. Henry Morton Stanley’s statues were toppled decades ago. Gbadolite, the jungle palace of Mobutu Sese Seko, The Leopard of Zaire, now lies in ruins. This independence thing might come to an end one day though if China continues to grow more assertive.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a land of fabulous riches: foreigners have come to the Congo for slaves, then ivory and rubber, then copper, then uranian and oil, now diamonds, gold and coltan. It has enough arable land to feed all of Africa several times over, the world’s greatest bounty of minerals, over a quarter of the world’s potential hydroelectric power and a vast surplus of labor. Unfortunately, the one thing it has always lacked is a population that has the capacity to maintain a civilization.