By Diana Katabarwa
Rarely has interference by a former colonial power in the affairs of a newly independent African nation resulted in such long term devastating consequences that span over 5 decades. Today the Democratic Republic of Congo is a war-ravaged country, which despite its stupendous mineral wealth of cobalt, gold, diamonds, copper, tantalum and a host of other mineral ore deposits, forests and rivers that have the potential to generate 44,000 MW of electricity, the Congolese population is languishing in poverty, there are no highways leading outside the capital to the far-flung regions beyond, no railways to connect one region to the other, no airports worth the name, no transportation infrastructure, no telecommunication infrastructure, no public services and no health sector. The dysfunctional government is unable to secure the country’s borders and cannot provide security for the population.
It has become the norm for Western ‘’experts’’ on Central Africa, human rights groups and Western media to author articles blaming Rwanda and Uganda for DRC’s predicament but never referring to the role played by Belgium, the former colonial power, in setting Congo on the path of failure immediately after the attainment of independence in June 1960 and continuously pulling the strings in Congo for the next five decades. Neither do the ‘’experts’’ offer any explanation as to why despite funding for humanitarian interventions reaching an average of USD 1.7 billion annually, DRC is unable to turn a catastrophic situation around the way Rwanda was able to do after the genocide in 1994.
On 11 July 1960, eleven days after Congo attained independence, Belgian mining interests determined to continue with their colonial exploitation of Congo enlisted 6000 Belgian troops to back Moise Tshombe when he declared himself the Prime Minister of Katanga province rich with gold, copper and uranium. Belgium helped create the Katanga Gendamerie, a military force whose core consisted of hundreds of European mercenaries including the notorious white South African Major Mike Houre.
On 14 July 1960 the UN Security Council in response to Congo’s Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s request, adopted Resolution 143 calling upon Belgium to remove its troops from Katanga. However when the UN troops arrived in Congo, UN Secretary General Hammarskjold objected to the deployment of the force to subdue the Katanga rebels stating that the secession of Katanga was an internal Congolese matter. Disagreement over the mandate of the UN force continued throughout its deployment in the Congo.
In August the autonomous State of South Kasai was proclaimed. Patrice Lumumba requested for help from the Soviet Union to subdue Katanga and Kasai and the Soviets responded by airlifting Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC) troops and military equipment into Kasai. Lumumba seeking Soviet help greatly angered US President Eisenhower and plans to get rid of him were set in motion by the CIA. The CIA sent Sidney Gottlieb, its top scientist (under the code name ‘‘Joe from Paris’’ to Congo with deadly biological toxins to use on Lumumba but this particular assassination plot was unsuccessful.
On 5 September Congo’s President Joseph Kasa-Vubu dismissed Prime Minister Lumumba. The UN closed all Congolese airports under their control in order to stop the Soviets from airlifting Congolese troops to Kasai. On 12 September Chief of Staff of the Army Joseph Mobutu arrested Lumumba but he was released by troops loyal to him. On 14 September with US, CIA and Belgian support, Mobutu seized power temporarily, suspended parliament and the constitution and rearrested Lumumba.
On 17 January 1961 Lumumba was sent to Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) capital of Katanga where he was publically beaten and later tortured and executed by firing squad led by Belgian mercenary Julian Gat.
On 21 February the UN Security Council passed Resolution 161 which demanded the expulsion from Congo of all Belgian troops and mercenaries. On 28 August the UN force began to disarm Katangese troops and arrest all foreign mercenaries. The Belgian Consul in Elisabethville thwarted the UN operation by persuading the UN officials that Belgium would complete the operation. This turned out to be a trick as only regular Belgian officers left the province but the mercenaries remained and many mercenaries who had been expelled by the UN force were brought back to Katanga by Belgium through Rhodesia.
On 30 December after four months of military campaign, the Congolese Government army recaptured South Kasai ending the South Kasai secession. In December 1962 the UN launched Operation Grand Slam in Katanga and by January 1963 Elisabethville was under full UN control and the secession of Katanga ended.
In October 1963 a Lumumba inspired rebellion was began by fighters who resented the exploitation of Congolese resources by the government and its foreign masters. These fighters led by Soumialot in Kivu and the Mulele in Kwilu formed the Simba Rebellion with an aim to topple the government. The rebels attracted support from the Soviet Union. By September 1964 the government responded to the insurgency. South African mercenary Mike Houre surfaced again and recruited one thousand white South African and Rhodesian fighters and the US and Belgium lent their support to crush the rebellion.
The Leftist leaders in the African continent were outraged by white mercenaries and neocolonial Western powers intervening on behalf of the regime so they openly supported the rebels. Some of these leaders were Ben Bella of Algeria, Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and especially Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. As the Congolese government waged war against the Simba rebels, the mercenaries burnt down villages, sprayed villagers with bullets and threw phosphorous hand grenades burning the victims to terrorize and instill fear in the rebels. By December 1964 the Simba rebellion had been crushed with the help of Belgium, the US and other Western nations.
On 25 November 1965 Joseph Mobutu seized power in a military coup from President Kasa-Vubu. Mobutu had the political and military support of the West. He went on to establish a one party state and banned all political organizations except his own Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR) whose membership became obligatory to all Zairians. With Belgian, French and US support he went on to rule DRC for three decades, his dictatorial and corrupt regime sank Zaire’s population into further poverty while he amassed a personal fortune of USD 5 billion. Under his rule infrastructure decayed and public services were run down. According to the World Bank, 64.7% of Zaire’s budget was reserved for Mobutu’s ‘‘discretionary spending’’.
From 1965 to 1991, Zaire received more than USD 1.5 billion in US military and economic aid. In return, US multinational corporations got a huge share of Zaire’s abundant minerals. In addition to getting a share of Congolese wealth, the US used the country as a base to attack the left-wing MPLA government in Angola after it took power in 1975.
As the cold war came to an end in the 1990s so did US, Belgian and French support for Mobutu. He was ousted in May 1997 by the AFDL forces and fled into exile in Morocco. His request to travel to France for medical treatment was refused and he died in Morocco four months later,
The new regime under Laurent Kabila had an immense task as Mobutu and his cronies had ruined the country. Since 1998 the economy had contracted by 40%. The foreign debt stood at 141% of GNP and interest repayments were two thirds of the total government expenditure in 1991. Less than 2% of the annual budget was spent on health and education, public services had completely collapsed and agriculture and infrastructure were neglected. The whole economy was oriented to the interests of Western imperialism.
Laurent Kabila could have mobilized the population to break through this economic impasse. He could have involved workers and peasants in the drawing up and implementation of a reconstruction plan as was done in Rwanda after the Rwanda Patriotic Front captured power. He could have started a massive programme of public works. He could have nationalized the key sectors of the economy to enable them to be planned in the interests of the masses. He could have started social projects like schools and hospitals. He could have introduced measures to control the export of wealth. In this way Congo could have kept its independence from imperialism and placed the interests of the population as priority. But instead Kabila tried to rally the support of imperialism and made deals with mining companies such as American Mineral Fields, Anglo American and Belgian companies such as Texaf, George Forrest International, Petrofina and Union Miniere. On 12 May 1997, Tenke Mining announced that it had signed a deal with Kabila confirming the terms of a contract the company had previously signed with Mobutu’s government in November 1996. At this point, Kabila had not yet taken power!
Kabila resorted to the methods of his predecessor and showed that he had no hesitation in stimulating ethnic divisions in order to hang on to power. After his assassination on 17 January 2001 (on the same day that Lumumba had been executed forty years earlier), Joseph Kabila was hastily installed as president.
Joseph Kabila’s thirteen year rule is characterized by a failure to solve the problem of FDLR militias in the East, failure to curb rampant corruption, failure to provide basic social services, failure to develop infrastructure, failure to provide security and further impoverishment especially of the rural population. The Congolese army is poorly trained, undisciplined and poorly paid. It earns a living by robbing and terrorizing the population. As a result numerous ethnic militia groups have sprung up and provide protection to their communities against the national army.
To resolve DRC’s problems would require a leader who understands that the search for internal political accommodation must be placed way above the interests of outsiders especially the former colonial power Belgium and France who have their own never ending interests in the DRC. On a recent visit to DRC the Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said ‘’I think the Congolese authorities went beyond what is possible…’’ ‘’We cannot ask the Congolese and I hope they do not do, to reintegrate into the army people who rebelled once, twice, three times..’’. A constructive approach would have been to advise the DRC government to address the deep rooted underlying sources of conflict and respect agreements signed in the Kivu provinces.
International conventions and a permanent peacekeeping force give the illusion that a state called the Democratic Republic of Congo exists, but in reality the government in Kinshasa has no power outside of its external boundary. The DRC failed as a state because of post- independence interference in its internal affairs by Belgium and other Western powers and because successive governments have done nothing in the interests of their people.
Given the country’s huge size, ethnic and resource conflicts, embedded corruption and weight of history, there is ambiguity on whether the DRC should continue to function as a unitary state with a weak central government that has no coherent plan for resolving the underlying issues or whether the better option would be to formalize functional decentralization.
Should the people of DRC continue to live under the existing extreme dysfunctional arrangement which provides neither security nor the basic essentials of life for the country’s long-suffering population or should this gigantic entity be broken up into more manageable states which might provide the catalyst to enable DRC’s people to finally take charge of their destiny wrestling it from foreign interests and their Kinshasa compradors?
Posted by Tom Ndahiro from here