Democratic Republic Of The Congo

A short history of the Democratic republic of the Congo from colonization to the present day.

In the tragic history of European colonialism in Africa, few stories match the horror inflicted in what is today called The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). A cycle of atrocity introduced by King Leopold II of Belgium in the late nineteenth century has flared up increasingly in recent years and resulted in what some commentators are calling "Africa's Great War" with up to twelve armies representing nation states and rebel groups using the country as their battleground.

The Congo region of central Africa was one of the last regions of the world to be "discovered" and mapped by Europeans during a famous expedition undertaken by Henry Morton Stanley with the economic support of the Belgian Crown. In spite of this, it is estimated that two-thirds of the population perished during Leopold's short twenty-three year rule from 1885-1908. The cruel conditions prevailing in what was then called the Congo Free State were so great that they even offended Europe's other colonial powers who eventually forced its end. In 1908 the Belgian parliament took over the administration of the area and renamed it the Belgian Congo.

The period of direct Belgian rule was marked by its "paternalism" with the Congolese viewed as "children" incapable of even basic decision making.[1] When independence was reluctantly granted to the colony in 1960 a young, charismatic leader named Patrice Lumumba became its first (and only) freely elected president only to find the moneyed Belgian minority were deserting the country in droves. Lumumba's own military mutinied and the country descended into chaos.



There were just four years of chaotic democracy (during which Lumumba was assassinated) before a military coup took place and General Mobutu Sese Seko came to power promising to restore order and using the army to crush a secessionist rebellion in the Katanga region of the country. During this time the Belgian colonial presence gave way to a subtler French one. In the early nineties Mobutu and his ruling circle cynically exploited "ethnic-cleansing" in the once rebellious Katanga region against the minority Kasai.[2] These tactics would later be used in another former Belgian colony, Rwanda, during the genocide perpetrated by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi minority, which would have profound consequences for the entire Congo region. France stood by Mobutu until the bitter end, both diplomatically and militarily. He was finally toppled in 1997 by a combination of fiscal crises, his own army's pillage and a civil war and brought the country's most recent leader, long-time guerrilla Laurent Kabila (and Katangan), to the presidency. Any Congolese who thought their suffering had finally come to an end were quickly disappointed.

The genocide in Rwanda had spilled over into the Congo in the form of thousands of refugees, among whom could also be found members of the Interhamwe and other organisations directly implicated in the killings in that country and who seem to have been helped into Congo by the French.[3] The Tutsi led coalition in Rwanda and the government in Uganda provided support to Kabila's forces who had been waging war unsuccessfully against Mobutu for over twenty years. The Rwandans believed that Mobutu and his French allies were selling arms to Hutu extremists in the camps which would be used against them at a later date.[4] After achieving victory Kabila found himself facing an awful reality: the often heavily-armed Hutu refugees were becoming a significant force in the country and could at any time propel it into chaos if the Rwandans chose to use the Congo as their proxy battlefield; a situation already occurring on the border between the two countries. Rwanda began to back a Tutsi-based rebellion in the country and called on their ally Uganda for help, which country entered the war thinking that it could easily be won.[5] Initial rebel successes were dampened by the entrance of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia on the side of Kabila, who called the rebellion a foreign invasion. The United Nations has been negotiating with the disputants[6] but Western countries remain silent concentrating on the Middle East peace-process, Bosnia and other, more "strategically important" locales.

By actively and often violently retarding the educational opportunities of the Congolese and not at least developing institutions which would outlast their rule, the Belgians must carry some of the guilt for what is occurring in the region today. This responsibility should be shared by the French who armed and supported Mobutu, a man who carries the distinction of being one of the most ruthless despots in the century of Joseph Stalin and Hitler.

To read the articles footnoted here please check the feature story links.

1 Rene Lemarchand. "The Congo Free State." Encyclopedia Britannica.

2 Bill Berkeley. "Zaire: An African Horror Story." The Atlantic Monthly, April 1993.

3 Stephen R. Shalom. "The Rwanda Genocide." Z-magazine, April 1996.

4 IBID. Z-magazine

5 The Economist. "A Hard War to Stop or Win." The Economist Magazine. December 5th, 1998.

6 The Economist. "The War is Dead. Long Live the War." The Economist Magazine. July 17th, 1999.

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