Posted on June 29, 2018
Comments Off on The Democratic Republic of Congo Independence Day
… Time for a change?
On 30th June, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo celebrate 58 years since independence from Belgium in 1960. But for many there appears little to celebrate.
The refusal of incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, to step down after his two-term constitutional limit expired in 2016 has sparked violent clashes between pro-democracy activists and government security forces in a country already plagued by a multitude of militia. According to the UN there are in fact over 120 militant groups active in the country and 60% of the fighters are children. Conflict has ravaged the DRC since independence and it is often easy for western observers to point fingers and suggest that perhaps colonialism wasn’t that bad after all. But it is in fact the very process and reality of colonialism that began this cycle of violence and perpetuates it today.
The scramble for Africa from about 1881 onwards would see European control of the continent grow from about 10% in 1870 to 90% by 1914. The Belgian monarch Leopold II had designs on turning his nation into an empire and upon reading the explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s book ‘Through the Dark Continent’ (1878) decided the region of the Congo River basin described by Stanley would make the perfect place for his own colony. Henry Stanley is famous for finding missing British adventurer David Livingstone. However many also know him as a man who owned a 6 year-old slave whom he renamed Kalulu, and according to fellow explorer Richard Burton, “shot Africans as if they were monkeys.”
Leopold II contracted Stanley to first take control of the land, which he did by means similar to the colonisation of North America, in which local leaders would ‘lease’ land to the Europeans only to discover later that it had in fact been sold. Next Stanley built up the infrastructure of what was called the Congo Free State (1884) for the purpose of extracting rubber, which for centuries had been a highly prized resource in Africa, extracted and processed by the locals of the Congo River basin and was now prized by Europeans.
The Congo Free State was essentially a huge slave plantation. King Leopold had total authority over the lives of Africans in the Free State. Failure to meet one’s rubber quota was punishable by death and disobedience punished by whippings and mutilations. In the first 20 years of the Free State it is estimated 10 million men, women and children died as a result of Leopold and Stanley’s brutal regime (this was about half the population of the region).
By 1908 through a process of conquest, theft and murder the Free State had taken control of what was now called Belgian Congo.
The artificial borders and brutality of colonial rule should have left the people of the Congo basin little to work with in the fight for freedom but the post war period would usher in hope in the form of Patrice Emery Lumumba.
Born in 1925, Lumumba became active in the postal workers’ union before helping to form the Movement National Congolais (MNC), a party designed to unite the entire country regardless of tribal or religious affiliation. A vociferous advocate for independence, Lumumba was imprisoned for a short period when riots broke out in 1959, but popular support saw him released as Belgium became increasingly aware that their control of the country was nearing an end. In the general elections held in May 1960, Lumumba and his allies won 41 of 137 seats in the National Assembly. When independence was declared on 30th June 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the DRC. By this point it had become clear to the world that Congo had more than rubber to offer. The nation’s vast mineral wealth including gold, diamonds and uranium had drawn the attention of the United States, among others.
In fact Congolese uranium was used in the Atom bombs which the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It was Lumumba’s socialist leanings and desire to use the nation’s natural resources to enrich her people rather than foreign powers and corporations, which meant his days were numbered. Less than 7 months after independence, Lumumba’s internal enemies backed by the CIA and Belgium had split the country into several factions. Lumumba begged the UN for support to put the country back together but was ignored. In 1961 a US-backed coup led by Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko took power and arrested Lumumba. He was tortured and quickly killed.
The murder of Patrice Lumumba is often called Congo’s original sin and it is here that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s modern tragedy begins. Having seized total control, by 1965 Mobutu would stay in power until 1997 (renaming the country as Zaire in 1971). Mobutu had no desire to invest in his people and encouraged foreign companies to exploit to the fullest extent the nation’s natural wealth, using the profits from these deals to line his own pockets (independent researchers calculate he stole at least $5 billion as at 1997). He was in turn overthrown by Laurent Kabila, who was himself murdered by one of his bodyguards in 2001 only to be succeeded by his Son Joseph Kabila several days later. Joseph Kabila remains in power today but the country is once again restless for change.
As well as natural wealth in forests, plentiful water from the Congo River basin and a temperate climate, the nation also boasts mineral wealth of an estimated $24 trillion (gold, diamonds, coltan (used in mobile phones) tin, manganese, lead, zinc and uranium. Yet the country is poor and it’s not just corrupt leadership that is to blame. The International Peace Information Services estimates that 57% of Congolese gold miners work with an armed rebel group present. International corporations regularly buy minerals obtained from such sources, not only exacerbating the problem but cheating the nation out of tax revenue. Billions in revenue has been lost due to the activities of some of these foreign companies. In reality the majority of profits made from mining in the DRC are used to perpetuate armed conflicts and to line the pockets of local officials and politicians and the foreign companies. Most citizens, 63% of whom live below the poverty line, are harmed by the effects of the wealth that should benefit them.
Life is bleak, but that is exactly why ACT started working in the country in 2016.
Katanga province in the south east of the country is particularly restive at this moment in time. But it is here that ACT has chosen to start making a difference. In partnership with the Lighthouse School near Lubumbashi (see below). We support a number of fatherless children and orphans who otherwise would not be able to afford schooling. The Lighthouse School has not been spared in the recent escalation of violence. In 2017 a mob stormed the buildings leaving one security guard dead. Armed robbery is rampant and the security forces who should be protecting the people are themselves intimidating locals and looting. It is in places and circumstances like these that the work ACT does is of most importance.
It is only the beginning of our work here. But the fact that despite these difficult circumstances children still wish to learn and adults are still willing to support them is a testament to the human spirit.
With your support our work can help make a difference to a child. Help us do more by donating here.