08 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Dictatorship to Anarchy

In the last post, we saw how the Congo suffered under colonialism. In the late 1950s the Belgian colonisers decided to end their formal rule, and abruptly handed the country its independence. Whatever game the Belgians were playing, the Congo came under the rule of the charismatic and radical sounding Patrice Lumumba. The Congo's big problem, though, was that it was a large and sprawling country created at the 1888 Congress of Berlin, with no pre-colonial history as an even semi-unified entity. Many people in the Congo had little or no association or identification with their new country, leading to secessionist and particularist sentiment across the country. The rich province of Katanga attempted to secede from the country, perhaps prodded by Belgium or the CIA. This revolt was crushed, partly with the aid of UN troops (including some from Ireland). However, its macabre sequel was the overthrow and murder of Lumumba by his own armed forces. The sinister Joseph Mobutu seized power, appointing the former leader of the Katangan separatists to a senior position in his government.

Mobutu ruled the country until the 1990s. His regime has been described as a kleptocracy, and was marked by the naked exploitation and brutalisation of the country's people by its leader and his circle. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, perhaps to avoid confusion with the other Congo*. He also played the Cold War game well, aligning himself with the USA and acting against Soviet interests in his neighbours. This external support of the USA protected him from any pressures coming his way from any do-gooders concerned by his appalling human rights records.

It would however be unfair to entirely damn the Mobutu years. For all the regime's rapaciousness, the country and particularly its capital Kinshasa saw the emergence and development of a vibrant mass musical culture, based initially on bouncing ideas backwards and forward across the Atlantic to Cuba. More recently, this scene gave birth to the Congotronics music beloved of hipsters everywhere. Mobutu's role in fostering any of this was, of course, minimal.

Mobutu's regime may have been exploitative, but for many years it was also rock-solid, and the dictator was able to see off any internal threats. Mobutu's mercenaries crushed an insurgency by Cuban supported rebels in the later 1960s, and thereafter the regime faced no serious challenges. However, in the 1990s, following the Rwandan genocide, time ran out for Mobutu. After the Rwandan genocide, many Rwandan Hutus (including perpetrators of the genocide) fled to Zaire, and began to launch raids across the border at the new post-genocide Rwandan government. The Rwandan regime struck back by invading Zaire, in alliance with rebels clustered around long-time Mobutu opponent Laurent Kabila. Mobutu's armies disintegrated in the face of this threat, and his regime collapsed. Laurent Kabila became the country's president, renaming it the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his reign saw the eruption of ethnic insurgencies and civil war, while armies from Rwanda, Uganda, & Zimbabwe invaded in furtherance of their governments' own perceived interests. The DRC fell into a period of protracted violence of a scale recalling Germany's Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The death toll has been estimated as lying in the millions.

And that is it for now. President Kabila was murdered in a failed coup, and replaced by his son Joseph. He remains little more than a chess-board king of a country with a largely imaginary national administration. The Congo did manage to hold elections a few years back, but disputes over their fairness were settled by gun-battles in the capital. The bar-room-brawl civil war rises and falls in intensity. People keep dying, and the Congo remains emblematic of everything that has gone wrong in Africa.

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*A former French colony, often known as Congo-Brazzaville (after its capital) to distinguish it from The Congo.

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