1906-2006 – History still repeats itself.

Pambazuka News has an interview with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja on “the strategic importance of the DRC. He asks us to imagine an economic and politically independent DRC and what that would mean to Sub Saharan Africa.

The forthcoming election means more to the international community, which is spending heavily on it and even sending in European Union forces to supplement MONUC to ensure that it is being held, than to the Congolese people. The major powers of the world and the international organizations under their control would like to legitimize their current client regime in Kinshasa so they can continue unfettered to extract all the resources they need from the Congo.

What is evident is that France and its allies, African as well as non- African, do not wish to see the DRC become a regional power in Central Africa, and thus constitute a threat to French hegemony and Western interests in the sub-region. A strong state in the Congo will not only threaten French control over the resource-rich countries in the sub-region, namely, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. Moreover, the DRC has enough arable soil, rainfall, lakes and rivers to become the breadbasket of Africa, and enough hydroelectric power to light up the whole continent from the Cape to Cairo. “

The above quote could have been just as well written in 1906 as in 2006 – that much has not changed. I have just finished reading Patrice Lumumba (written as part of the PANAF Great Lives Series) It is worth reading, on the eve of the first DRC elections in 45 years providing us with a detailed historical analysis and explanation of the Congo from the time Leopold of Belgium took it as his personal property during the Berlin Conference in 1882 to the present day.

Leopold’s prize was a country rich in minerals copper, cobalt, silver, tungsten, diamonds, tin and uranium. Rubber, palm oil, coffee and cotton. The exploitation of these resources by King Leopold led to the dispossession of all land by the indigenous people of the Congo. Firstly land was given to the mining companies; secondly land was used for the creation of a system of national parks; thirdly huge tracks of farmland were given to white settlers. But ultimately it was the mining sector that took control of the country and remains in control today. Two regions, the Katanga and Kivu provinces most affected by the above distribution of land have also been the most affected by war and conflict throughout the history of Congo.

It is interesting to look at a some of the companies set up by Leopold at the beginning of the 20th century. Three companies were at the centre of his venture. Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas Congo (BCK – national railroad network for transportation of minerals); Societe Internationale Forestiere et Miniere due Congo (Forminiere- part of the De Beers empire and with close connections to the Anglo American Corporation founded by South African diamond magnate Ernest Oppenheimer); Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga which produced the most revenue for investors and the Congo government (Belgium). Leopold later invited American finance capital to invest in the country and granted them mineral rights as well as forestry and rubber production rights. Half the profits went to Leopold the rest to the multinationals. In total 27 million hectares of the country’s richest lands were given to international companies mainly in Kivu and Katanga Provinces. The Belgium government of Congo, investors, multinationals reaped huge profits at the expense of indigenous labour which was forced with the threat of imprisonment and beatings to grow crash crops such as cotton and rice.

Political independence had been offered by Belgium in 1960 in the hope that they and the multinationals would continue to have economic control of the country and operate without hindrance from a newly formed African government. It was this that was the main reason behind the assassination of Patrice Lumumba who won the first post independence election by a landslide. The mining companies and the Belgium government had given huge sums of money to various right wing candidates in the hope of ensuring at least one of them would succeed and win the election but the people chose Lumumbu. The Union Miniere gave millions to CONAKAT the party of MosieTshombe (Katanga for Katangans) and the Belgians backed the PNP – a pro Belgium and pro chiefs party. However it was ABAKO the party led by Joseph Kasavubu which, although tribalistic, was extremely popular with the masses that was the main rival to Lumumba’s nationalist MNC (which won by a landslide). What followed is a complex series of events, alliances and uprisings by various factions as everyone fought for control of the heart of the country and it’s resources. Only 12 days after the Republic of Congo was formed Tshombe proclaimed the independent state of Katanga. PANAF describes this as a “counter revolutionary revolt engineered by the Union Miniere and the big monopolies operating in the Congo” to protect their huge mining and other interests in the Katanga region. Then there was uranium. Union Mineire had made a secret deal with the US to supply them with the product.

The Katanga and Kivu regions which remain today the most volatile and have seen some of the worst violence and illegal mining continues. The BBC recently posted a story on the use of child labour in the mining of copper and cobalt in the Katanga Province. Congolese blog, Congo Voices also published a piece on child labour.

Imagine that you’re five years old and you have to work all day. Your job is deep inside a gold, copper or coltan mine where you are usually paid just $1 (or even less) a day to find some mineral you will never be able to keep. You’re often beaten by the middlemen. If you are a girl, you’re raped. This is everyday life for hundreds of Congolese children forced to work in mines because of poverty and war.

One positive change was reported in the UK’s Sunday Observer. One of the country’s most vicious militia known as the Mayi mayi operating in the Katanga region have begun to surrender and lay down their arms. As always in the DRC nothing is straightforward and violence comes in all colours and sizes. The UN are once again under investigation for the “destruction of civilian hamlets” during the campaign against the Mayi Mayi.

A question not dealt with in the interview with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is what will happen to all the other militias operating in the DRC and the Great Lakes Region? For example many of the Mayi Mayi are young boys who are either forcibly recruited or who join “voluntarily”. In a world of limited choices, conflict, violence, poverty and destroyed families; in these circumstances the militias provide an alternative to child labour in the mines or destitution. Lindsay Hilsum commenting on the media and the reporting of war in Index on Censorship, writes

“In countries like the DRC, war is a form of employment for young men who would otherwise hang around jobless in towns or live in poverty in the countryside. Peace is not necessarily the best option for those who live by plunder.

The DRC conflict has killed 3 million over a 10 year period not by bombing or use of high tech weapons but by gangs of militias and small armies from surrounding countries using cheap weapons – machetes and AK-47s– and also due to poverty and disease. Those militias that do surrender and disband will have to find some alternative to murder, rape and pillage. Hilsum looks at the aftermath of other violent conflicts such as in El Salvador and the Balkans and suggests the alternative for these militias is to turn to crime.

In El Salvador “Guerrillas and death squads have been replaced by urban criminal gangs that run drugs and kill for money“. In the Balkans, old enemies have joined together to form “cigarette smuggling and prostitution rings”. For the DRC militias there is a choice of illegal mining, smuggling and of course urban crime. How realistic is it to expect militias to disband and disappear and not to regroup in some other form after all of the death. I have to agree with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s conclusion that Joseph Kabila will be elected and nothing will change either politicallly or economically and the violence will continue. The militias may transform themselves into criminal gangs but more than likely they will continue to operate as armed militias terrorizing the rural population.

Since the current transitional government has not fulfilled the requirements laid out in the Sun City/Pretoria accord for free and fair elections, the ritual of 30 July is likely to confirm Joseph Kabila as President, but it will not change the political situation of the country for the better. Violence will continue in the northeast, and corruption and incompetence will remain the most salient features of a government with an externally-driven agenda. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja