If there is one place in the world that really puts first world problems into perspective, it’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC.) This sprawling African country, covering 2.345 million km² (905,409 sq miles) making it the 11th largest country on the planet, comes with a horrifying past, a present that is slightly better than said horrifying past, but not by much, and a painfully uncertain future.
To make the story of the Congo that much worse, it’s blessed with the kind of natural resources that should have made this country one of the most prosperous around, but the exact opposite has happened, with nearly 80% of the country currently existing on $1.90 or less per day.
This is a country that has been exploited both internally and by powerful foreign nations for nearly 150 years – creating one of the most tragic tales anywhere on the planet.
The Democratic Republic of Congo
This mammoth country lies roughly in the middle of Africa and its size means that it borders no fewer than 9 different countries and includes a limb-like extension that runs west to the Atlantic Ocean, giving the country a tiny seaboard. It’s slightly bigger than the combined size of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, but with much of it mountainous or the kind of thick forest you wouldn’t necessarily go out for a short stroll in.
It includes the Congo rainforest, the second-largest in the world after the Amazon, the Congo River with its many tributaries that extend across the entire country that amount to roughly 1,000,000 km2 (390,000 sq mi) of waterways that provide the easiest mode of transportation in a country where roads and rail connections are virtually non-existent.
But the Congo’s hypothetical blessing, and certainly its curse, is what lies below the surface. The country is overflowing with natural resources, including huge reserves of cobalt, copper, cadmium, industrial and gem-quality diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, and coal. It’s widely believed that the Congo is the richest country in the world when simply considering natural resources, with extraordinary estimates of $24 trillion in untapped minerals within its borders.
People have been living in this region for at least 80,000 years and it was where the Ishango Bone was discovered in 1950, a bone tool with a lump of quartz attached to one end that is believed to have been created roughly 20,000 years ago, possibly as some kind of rudimentary mathematical tool.
Early hunter-gatherers in the area were eventually either replaced or absorbed into the Bantu tribes that began migrating southwards probably around the 1st millennium BC and the Bantu Kingdoms gradually evolved over the coming centuries.
Congo Free State
Things began to go a little apocalyptical when the Belgium King, Leopold II, decided he wanted his own private slave plantation, but in truth, things had never been easy in this region. The eastern area of what is today the DRC, saw frequent raids by the Arab–Swahili slave traders who were bringing boats ashore on mainland Africa to collect people without their consent long before Europeans began doing the same.
But things quickly careened off a high cliff once King Leopold, envious of other European nations and their African colonies, decided he wanted a slice of the pie for himself. Now, this is important, because while other nations had certainly marched into African regions and announced that those living there were now under the white rule of a king or queen living thousands of miles away, it was always done so under the banner of a nation itself. King Leopold however, had very different ideas.
In fact, it’s absolutely insane to think that in 1885, King Leopold was able to claim such a massive piece of land, not for Belgium, but for himself. Even more ludicrous, considering what was to come, he was able to convince other leaders at the Berlin conference which began in 1884 to carve up the continent, that he was a humanitarian and esteemed philanthropist. And dear viewer, I would like you to keep that particular sentence in mind when I begin to explain about what happened in the Congo Free State.
It began with a lot of bluster about suppressing the slave trade and the usual pompous crap about ‘civilising the natives’ and while thousands of slaves were liberated and the Congolese were granted rights over their own land, it didn’t take long to begin crashing downhill.
You see, running a country is rather expensive and King Leopold quickly ran up huge debts that even threatened his stake in the Congo. In response, he set in motion a series of decrees that would push many to the brink and cause millions of deaths. First came new land laws which essentially meant any piece of land without a dwelling or cultivation was automatically claimed by the state and this was followed by rules which forced the Congolese to only sell their goods to the state – which of course could set prices at whatever level they wanted.
In 1892, Leopold carved up the country and handed out huge parcels of land to private companies to create vast rubber plantations. They were also given the freedom to police their land how they wished, which included detaining Africans who didn’t work hard enough. In return, the companies paid a hefty annual dividend, which, you’ve guessed it, found its way into Leopold’s bulging wallet. It’s estimated that greedy Leo, as I’ll now call him, extracted the equivalent of roughly $1.1 billion (probably around $20 billion today) from the Congo during his 23 years in charge of the region.
But that’s not the worst part. The most despicable law placed on the Congolese were the rubber quotas, which as I’m you can probably guess were impossibly high, with a sentence of death meted out by Leopold’s private army, known as the Force Publique, to those who failed to achieve the quota. These soldiers were required to bring back a hand as proof that they had actually killed who they were supposed to, which sometimes meant limbs were just chopped off with little regard over whether the victim lived or died.
The results of all of these were near-genocidal. In fact, it seems the only reason that word isn’t formally used is because of the semantics around the phrase. The word does not simply mean mass murder as is often thought and used, but rather the intention of exterminating a group of people completely. Those running the Congo Free State certainly didn’t want everybody killed – who would tend the rubber plants after all – but with around 5 to 10 million deaths between 1877 and 1908 – this was mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
Things got so bad that even rich white people became disgusted with what was going on in the Congo. With missionaries carefully detailing the mass atrocities taking place, it didn’t take long for international opinion to turn firmly against King Leopold – even as he did his utmost to discredit the sources.
With pressure mounting, the Belgium parliament decided to formally annexe the Congo to bring it under direct state rule – essentially making it part of Belgium and not the King’s private money pit.
It’s important to remember that things couldn’t have gotten any worse in the Congo, so we have to take the phrase “things improved in the Congo” with a large dollop of realism. Between 1908 and 1960, when the country gained its independence, the country was run as a Belgium colony, with absolutely zero tolerance for any kind of political or social debate and any rebellion put down viscously by the Force Publique.
That being said, conditions slowly improved for some, but certainly not all. The landscape of the Congo always made it difficult to reach many parts of the country, and while the Belgians installed railway lines and roads, much of the country remained remote.
With independence fever sweeping Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the turn of the Belgium Congo came on 30th June 1960 when it formally became the République du Congo. One week before, Patrice Lumumba had become the first Prime Minister and I would love to tell you that things went well for this studious looking man who certainly appeared to only have good intentions, but of course, this is not that story.
Let’s just start by saying that foreign powers began meddling as soon as the Congo gained independence, with its vast mineral wealth well known around the world. Within weeks of the election, the Force Publique mutinied and despite several overtures from the new government, including back pay and improved ranks, violence quickly spread, aggravated by regional secessionist movements, in particular the mineral-rich region of Katanga.
Just two months after his election, Prime Minister Lumumba was dismissed by President Joseph Kasavubu and soon handed over to the Katanga rebels – who may or may not have been colluding with the Belgium government to destabilise the country and was tortured, then executed, again, quite possibly in the presence of Belgium soldiers. It wasn’t until 2001, that a report published by the Belgium government found Belgium “morally responsible” for the murder of Lumumba.
With rumours flying this way and that, the country descended into near-anarchy as the United Nations attempted to broker peace – in that way the United Nations often does with plenty of talk but little action on the ground and which has a nasty habit of leading to plenty of deaths in the meantime.
Eventually, the UN did send in 4,700 troops who restored partial order in some parts of the country, but with a vast number of refugees now cramming into makeshift camps, problems were mounting in the Congo. On 17 September 1961, the plane carrying UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld crashed while on its way to peace talks. At the time the cause was unexplained, but since the finger has been firmly pointed at an aircraft flown by Belgium backed rebels.
Things exploded into an all-out war between the rebels and the UN forces at times, with the most famous instance being the 156 Irish soldiers who somehow managed to hold out for six days under heavy fire, without a single loss of life. This has since been made into a film, the Siege of Jadotville, which is well worth a watch.
A Dictator Emerges
As seems to have often been the case, civil war was followed by the rise of a strongman who promised to make everything better, but in reality, just plundered the country and set up a seemingly never-ending series of elections where he was the only available name on the ticket.
Now, remember the outrage surrounding Prime Minister Lumumba’s assassination? Well, the man who principally sanctioned it all, with the help of Belgium and almost certainly the United States, was Colonel Joseph Mobutu and if you’re following along, as I’m sure you are, it was Moobutu who eventually rose to power and stayed there for an outrageous 32 years.
The man who liked to style himself as neither left nor right was certainly styled as a good old-fashioned dictator. In his early years in power, the nation’s name was changed to Zaire, then the Republic of Zaire, while he tried to paint himself as the great African Nationalist fighting against imperialism. He also absolutely bled the country dry, with government funds, aid donations and just about anything they could get their hands on firmly embezzled by this crook president and his devious cronies. Corruption was so rampant, it became known as the le mal Zairois – Zairian Sickness – as the country’s infrastructure completely collapsed. In 1984, Mobutut’s personal fortune was estimated to be around $5 billion ($13 billion today) stored snuggly in various Swiss bank accounts – though some believed this to be a wild underestimate. In one particular year, a $73m ($190 million today) education budget saw schools receive only $8m ($20 million today) of that, with the rest finding its way to the Swiss bankers who didn’t like to ask questions.
So why exactly was this corrupt president who spent decades essentially milking the Congo allowed to get away with it for so long? The fear of communism of course. I don’t even remotely have enough time to go into all of the repugnant dictators that the west either turned a blind eye to or openly supported purely to keep them on side and out of the clutches of the Soviet’s, but it’s a long, horrifying list. Post World War II, it became clear that right-wing hardman dictators who had absolutely no qualms stealing from their own countries while making rivals disappear were eternally more preferable than left-leaning governments.
Things started to go bad for him in the mid-1990s, particularly after he openly welcomed thousands of Hutu extremists responsible for the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. In 1996, a coalition of rebels, aided by Uganda, Angola, Rwanda and Burundi invaded, in what came to be known as the First Congo War, and Mobutu, who was in Switzerland receiving treatment for cancer, was formally deposed, never to return to his homeland. He died in Morocco in 1997.
You might be thinking, there’s only just over twenty years until we’re up to date, how much worse can it get? Well, a lot. The problem with actively inviting powerful nations to help claim power is that they’ll almost certainly demand something in return.
When Laurent-Désiré Kabila became president, he ordered all foreign troops out of the country and most did, except for Ugandan, Rwanda and Burundi who essentially withdrew but placed their support firmly behind a new breed of rebels who had emerged, this time the Banyamulenge in Goma in the east of the country, another area rich in natural resources.
War once again erupted as the rebels began advancing across the country, even as other areas in the east remained at a stalemate – it was one of those strange wars. In a desperate plea, President Kabila requested assistance from other African nations. Many remained neutral, others pledged logistical support, but Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola decided to actively join the fighting on the side of the government. So, if you’re a little confused at this point, let me recap. The Congo was roughly speaking in a state of civil war, with the government fighting a rebel army, which was supported by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, while the government was aided by Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola, with Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic also sending small numbers of troops.
As the new millennium dawned, with most of the world either concerned about where the champagne was or the threat of Y2K, the Congo had broken up into a patchwork of different areas controlled by regional warlords, some allied with the government and some not. In 2001, President Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguard – there’s an awful twist of irony there – and his son was hastily sworn in.
The war staggered on drunkenly until 2002 when peace talks were finally held and some resemblance of calm settled in the region. The war had taken a horrifying toll on the Congolese people and an estimated 5.4 million are thought to have died between 1998 and 2008, including around 70,000 pygmies killed during a savage extermination program carried out by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo and Rally for Congolese Democracy. The Bambuti pygmies were targeted because they were thought to be subhuman and that their flesh contained magical properties. If this story could get any darker, this is where cannibalism came in.
So why were so many groups and nations fighting over the Congo? Well, sadly much of it came down to money. With so many untapped resources lying underground, there were vast fortunes to be made in the Congo.
Several reports commissioned by the UN in 2002 and 2003 have shown a damning light on the plundering that took place during the war years, and which highlighted 125 separate companies or individuals that participated. From blood diamonds extracted by children under the most horrific conditions to the sudden craze for coltan – a component in cell phones, laptops, and other high-end electronics – the country was essentially torn apart for the sake of huge financial gain for foreign leaders or investors. Rwanda didn’t come out looking good as it’s thought that 70% of the coltan leaving the Congo was smuggled out across the Rwandan border, to be sold on for a massive markup.
There are thought to be between 160,000 and 200,000 gold miners in the east of the country alone, with the whole country extracting 8 to 10 tons of gold annually – 98% of which is smuggled out of the country illegally. It’s thought that roughly 50% of gang profits currently come from the extraction and sale of gold.
I’d really love to end on a positive note, but once again, not that story. The first two decades of the 21st Century have seen a series of events that, for any other country, might seem catastrophic, but in the Congo, they simply join the front of a seemingly never-ending sad horror show.
There has been more fighting, particularly with the M23 Rebellion which started in 2012, activity by the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopathic leader Joseph Kony, an Ebola outbreak that started in 2018 and that is still flaring up now, three major volcanic eruptions, one of which led to rivers of lava charging through the city of Goma, leaving 120,000 people homeless and large-scale unrest due to the dubious election of Félix Tshisekedi also in 2018. Oh, and of course, there’s been Covid 19.
In 2009, the United Nations estimated that roughly 45,000 Congolese were dying a day because of disease, hunger or violence, while the east of the country has long held the terrible distinction of being the ‘rape capital of the world’. There are still an estimated 30,000 child soldiers operating within the Congo and who knows how many operating in mines to pull out a mineral that will probably go into something that we in the west will eventually buy.
Few places around the world can even begin to compete with the tragic tale of the Congo over the last 150 years. A land that should be prosperous, but has instead become the bottomless gold mine of the world as its people struggle in imaginable poverty. But perhaps the saddest thing about all of this is that the world seems to have pretty much washed their hands of the Congo, even as purchases around the world have often fuelled the chaos in the country.
I know this isn’t all pleasant viewing and no doubt some cute cat videos might be in order after, but this is a story that is tragically under-told nowadays, and certainly puts a lot into perspective. In 1899 Joseph Conrad wrote a book set in the Congo, and though it comes across as painfully colonial to modern readers, its title is perhaps the best way to describe what has happened in the Congo – the Heart of Darkness.