On the event of this year’s anniversary of the declaration of independence of the DRC, we publish an article which initially appeared on Xekinima, on June 30, 2022
On 20 June, 2022, the Belgian authorities handed over to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the family of Patrice Lumumba what remained of the country’s first elected Prime Minister after the formal end of colonial rule: a tooth. Lumumba, a symbol of the struggle for Congolese independence, was tortured and murdered by collaborators of the Belgian colonialists, who continued to essentially rule the DRC for decades after the country’s declaration of independence.
A few days earlier, in early June, King Philip of Belgium visited the African country in an attempt to wash away the bloody past of the Belgian royal family. The visit was described by many as historic, although in reality the Belgian monarch was content to make lukewarm statements about how he regretted what happened in the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century, when the DRC was the personal property of Leopold II of Belgium.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is among the African countries that suffered the greatest exploitation and the worst atrocities at the hands of European colonialists. As early as the 16th century, Portuguese slave traders were already getting rich by transporting slaves from the then Kingdom of Congo to Europe and America. In the late 19th century, the region became the target of King Leopold II of Belgium, mainly for its natural wealth.
The treasures of the river
The Congo River Basin is a vast area covered by ecosystems of rare biodiversity and ecological importance to the planet. At the same time, it hides enormous opportunities for the ruling class to gain untold profits: from the vegetation within the rainforest, to the untold mineral wealth beneath it, to the exploitation of the river to create trading posts, Leopold decided he wanted to acquire this land and the opportunities that came with it.
The king asked the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to explore these possibilities on his behalf, and within a few years Stanley confirmed the vast opportunities for profit that lay hidden in the Congo River Basin. By 1885, he had made several agreements with tribal chiefs in the region to secure for Leopold a vast tract of land in Central Africa, which was called the Free Congo State. Thanks to the cooperation of many of these local rulers, and the king’s army, for the next few decades the Congo would be part of his personal estate.
The Leopold years
Among the ‘treasures’ that the Congo had to offer Leopold were rubber trees, as the production of tyres for vehicles increased and the material became increasingly in demand. But Leopold did not only consider the country’s trees and land to be his property, but also its people. During the Belgian king’s occupation of the Congo, forced labour, torture, mutilation and murder were a daily practice.
The locals were required to be productive in the rubber harvest and if they did not live up to expectations they could be subjected to various punishments, from brutal beatings to amputation of the hands, not only of themselves but also of their family members. In many cases, families were kidnapped by the colonialists as a means of pressuring and disciplining slaves on rubber plantations and elsewhere, such as in infrastructure construction, mining, etc. At least ten million people died within a few decades. Some were murdered by Leopold‘s army, others because of exhaustion and starvation in the king’s sweatshops.
From Leopold to Belgium and independence
After decades of brutal exploitation, abuse and murder, the whole world now knew what was happening in the Congo and the Belgian state could no longer pretend not to listen to the voices of protest. In 1908, a year before Leopold‘s death, the Free Congo State, which of course was never free, was renamed the Belgian Congo and became the responsibility of the Belgian government. Although the extreme abuse of the country’s inhabitants was reduced compared to the previous period, the Congo’s natural wealth continued to be a trophy for the Belgian colonialists who continued to control every aspect of the country’s political and economic life.
In the mid-twentieth century, in the majority of African countries that had previously belonged to a European colonial power, movements demanding an end to colonialism developed. Something similar happened at the same time in Asia, with major anti-colonial movements and revolutions in India, Indonesia and elsewhere.
In 1960, the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was recognised, following mass demonstrations in 1959, during which, in the country’s capital Kinshasa (at the time still called Leopoldville – the city of Leopold), the army attacked the demonstrators, killing hundreds. It was out of these mobilisations that the Congolese National Movement led by Patrice Lumumba emerged. The following year, Lumumba was elected the first Prime Minister of the now independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the colonialists realised they could not fully control for much longer, no matter how harsh the repression.
But they were still seeking economic control of the country and looking for a way to maintain the access they had hitherto had to its wealth, while avoiding mass social upheavals. They knew that this economic power was threatened by Lumumba‘s government and they feared the possibility of nationalisation of the DRC’s main resources. Above all, they feared the Congolese people who had very recently experienced a nightmare at the hands of Leopold’s army and then the Belgian state. A people who were now ready to fight to take back the whole of their country and not simply to elect a government that would sooner or later be forced to submit to the colonialists – unless the latter had time to overthrow it. So the colonialists decided to waste no time and do just that.
The overthrow of Lumumba
To carry out their plans, they needed a partner who would be willing not only to ensure easy access to the country’s wealth, but also to suppress any voice of resistance. They found him in Mobutu Sese Seko, the army chief and until then a trusted associate of Lumumba. At the same time, they tried to exploit the separatist movements led by a series of local rulers who hoped to gain personal benefits by collaborating with the former colonialists, the most important being that of Katanga province, which remains to this day the country’s most mineral-rich region.
The first objective was to overthrow and assassinate Lumumba and establish an authoritarian regime that would control the situation on their behalf. Into the equation now, in addition to the old Belgian colonialism, had been added the United States, which feared that the Soviet Union’s influence in the former African colonies was growing. Lumumba, moreover, after the disappointment he experienced in his appeal to the UN and the US (from which he asked for help to stop the Belgian ex-colonialists from interfering in the internal affairs of the country), turned to the Soviet Union.
A few months after his election, in 1961, Lumumba was overthrown with the help of Mobutu, imprisoned and eventually assassinated by Belgian and Congolese soldiers. All that remained of his body, which was dissolved in acid in order to avoid being discovered, was a single tooth that a Belgian officer decided to keep as a prize. As for Congolese society, which had barely had time to breathe a breath of freedom, a new period of violence, terrorism and exploitation was beginning.
Mobutu Sese Seko
General Mobutu was quick to organise a coup based on his close relations with the Belgian colonialists and the United States. His period of power from the early 1960s to 1997 was known for terrorism, cult of personality and of course close cooperation with the West. Within the country, the main trend was to ‘sanitize’ and change any symbol, name, or element of daily life that resembled colonialism. The capital Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa, the Congo was renamed Zaire, and even the giving of Western names to children was forbidden.
At the level of international economic relations, however, his policy was one of seeking the greatest possible cooperation with the United States and Europe, which in practice meant all kinds of facilities for companies from his allies’ countries and full access to the country’s natural wealth.
Nixon called Mobutu “a leader who is able to provide the stability and the vision for progress”. This vision included facilitating massive investment by large foreign companies, particularly in the mining and energy sectors. Through close relationships with major governments and corporations, Mobutu ensured for himself and his family a life of extravagant luxury, while demanding to be worshipped almost as a god.
The enormous wealth of the country that Mobutu shared with his Western friends and allies, the one-party regime and the absolute worship of the leader, the defiant lifestyle and the extreme exploitation of the country’s poor, eventually led to a wave of social anger, which manifested itself in mass demonstrations during the 1990s. In 1997 Mobutu was overthrown by the rebel forces of Laurent Kabila, who despite great promises continued his policy of ceding the country’s wealth to Western imperialism and its businesses. So have all the governments that have intervened since the overthrow of Mobutu up to the present day.
The plundering continues
The DRC is today the tenth poorest country in the world (based on gross national income per capita) despite its vast natural wealth. Rubber has now been replaced by the mining of cobalt, copper, gold, diamonds, etc. The big mining and energy multinationals are getting rich from these precious materials, while all that remains for the country’s inhabitants is child labour, daily accidents in the mines, appalling safety and hygiene conditions, hunger and environmental destruction.
The Congo River rainforest, the second largest in the world after the Amazon, is being rapidly depleted by mining multinationals, but also by timber companies that either ignore the rules around logging or take advantage of their laxity. These practices not only endanger the environment and the country’s inhabitants, but also the global ecological balance.
The picture is similar in most African countries. Corrupt governments have taken it upon themselves to facilitate the exploitation of the continent’s wealth by the old colonial powers and large multinationals. Real independence, real freedom and human life for the people of Africa means taking their lives into their own hands, overthrowing the domination of the system of exploitation and its representatives. Every struggle that develops in this direction, every strike, every movement for the protection of the environment, every protest against the authoritarian regimes of the continent, needs the support and solidarity of every human being on the planet who is oppressed by the same system.