What could have been…
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a nation seemingly summarized by three words- what could have been.
It could have been a regional superpower in Africa, a cornerstone of regional stability. It could have been a hub for natural resources, with its seemingly infinite mineral and material wealth creating a modern economy. It could have been a center of technology and industry, using its resources to improve the lives of the Congolese people.
Instead, it is none of these things. The DRC has careened from crisis to crisis, disaster to disaster, and inept leader to inept leader, the quintessential manifestation of the ‘Resource Curse.’ Perenially at or near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, it is one of the poorest nations on the planet, with devastating rates of maternal mortality, poverty, and diseases long since eradicated elsewhere.
It could have been so much more. And it still can be. But before it does, it’s important to know how Congo has come to where it is today…
The Royal Treatment
Not long after the first Europeans began exploring the area, Leopold II, King of Belgium, staked a massive claim in the heart of the African continent in 1877, claiming the territory that would eventually become the DRC as his personal property. For 31 years, Leopold’s forces systematically pillaged and destroyed the territory in a seemingly unstoppable quest for rubber, minerals, timber, and more. Following public pressure, Leopold turned the territory over to the nominally ‘democratic’ rule of the Congo Free State, administered by the Belgian government. Little changed, other than the name. By the time independence came in 1960, tens of millions of people had been killed, mutilated, and separated from their families, with the products of their labor appearing as palace trimmings in Brussels, tables and chairs in Bruges, and jewelry in Antwerp.
To learn more about this era, we suggest King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
A Fleeting Liberation
On May 23, 1960, Patrice Emery Lumumba, a former postal worker, traveling beer salesman, and later head of the Congolese National Movement (MNC) party was elected as the first Prime Minister of the newborn Democratic Republic of Congo. In a powerful independence speech, Lumumba seemed to link the liberation of the DRC with that of the entire African continent, and was seen as a hero among many Congolese. Despite the initial sense of jubilation, things quickly turned sour, with an army rebellion within days of the declaration, and the province of Katanga seceding from the country less than two weeks after independence. Lubumba sought aid from the Soviet Union to help contain the rebellion, leading to political maneuvering that culminated in a coup in September 1960, bringing Joseph Mobutu to power. Lumumba was arrested by troops loyal to Mobutu in December 1960, forcibly transferred to Katanga Province, beaten and tortured by Katangan (and Belgian) troops, and executed in January 1961. The death of Lumumba would speed Congo’s descent into the abyss.
To learn more about this era, we suggest watching Lumumba
“The all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph”
Following the overthrow of Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu began a systematic consolidation of power, and turned the DRC into an autocratic one-party state for more than 30 years. In a quest for authenticité, he renamed the country Zaire, changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, and developed a cult of personality transforming him into a god-like figure, an invincible warrior, and father of the nation. His lavish lifestyle and corruption have become legendary- stories abound of the Versailles-like palaces in the Congolese jungle, the shopping trips to Paris on the Concorde, and the embezzlement of more than $4 billion dollars. Mobutu presided over a disintegrating husk of a country; the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and his subsequent involvement, would eventually lead to his downfall in 1997; he died less than a year later in exile in Morocco, with a new civil war well underway. Despite his excesses, some Congolese remember Mobutu fondly, as what would follow him was so much worse…
To learn more about the Mobutu era, we suggest reading In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, by Michaela Wrong
Mobutu’s deposition would come at the hand of Laurent-Desiré Kabila, head of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, a supporter of Lumumba, and a one-time follower of Ché Guevara. Kabila led his forces to Kinshasa in mid-1997, following failed negotiations with Mobutu, and quickly suspended the constitution and returned the country to its original name of the DRC. Following the gross excesses of the Mobutu era, Kabila was seen by many in the West as representing a new generation of African leader. While certain positive steps were made to stem corruption and impunity, authoritarianism and human rights abuses continued to occur, and critics quickly claimed that Kabila was little different than Mobutu. Many of his allies, including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame turned against him in the midst of the ongoing civil war. On January 16, 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, with the assassin shot as he was attempting to flee; 135 people were eventually arrested with 64 sentenced to prison.
To learn more about the DRC under Laurent and Joseph Kabila, we suggest reading Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, by Jason Stearns
The Kabila era continues
Joseph Kabila, Laurent Kabila’s son, was named as president 8 days after the assassination of his father. At 30 years old, he was the youngest world leader, and had virtually no preparation for the role, despite a series of military promotions under the presidency of his father. After attempting to negotiate peace with various rebel factions, Kabila pushed a referendum in 2005 that passed a new constitution, and was elected to his ‘first’ term in 2006. Subsequent elections in 2011 were violently contested in many areas, including Kinshasa, amid allegations of massive electoral fraud. While Kabila has pushed the development of infrastructure and services in many places, these advances have come with allegations of massive corruption and self-enrichment, as well as a crackdown on freedom of expression and many civil liberties. In January 2015, following an attempt to postpone the 2016 presidential elections (in which Kabila was constitutionally barred from running), protests erupted at the University of Kinshasa, leading to the deaths of more than 40 protestors. Despite the end of his mandate in December 2016, Kabila remains in power, having claimed that conditions were not in place to hold credible elections. A power-sharing deal negotiated by the Congolese Union of Catholic Bishops appears on the brink of collapse, and the situation remains extraordinarily tense.