Global Policy Forum

Congo’s and Africa’s Destiny


By Amii Omara-Otunnu*

Black Star News
August 30, 2007

This week, regional military chiefs met in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, to plan joint operations against militia groups operating in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Ironically, these were the military chiefs of the very rulers who, acting either on their own behalf or in concert with external forces keen to exploit the vast strategic resources of the territory, were complicit in the killing of more than four million people and plundering the country in the past several years. These facts are contained in reports by various humanitarian organizations and in the United Nations Council Report (S/2001/357).

It is not clear why the focus of the meeting was only on militia and not on the formidable forces of the neighboring countries, which have in the past several years expropriated and caused so much mayhem in the DRC. In the case of Uganda, for example, which violated international law by invading and occupying a large part of the DRC, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that it must pay the DRC about $10 billion, for predation of the country. At the time of the meeting in Kigali, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that some 165,000 civilians had fled fighting in the North Kivu province since February. Yet last year's semi democratic elections in more than 40 years were supposed to bring to an end instability and conflicts that had characterized the DRC.

Why has the Congo been a theatre of conflicts and human suffering not only in the past several years but continually for well over the past 500 years? In order to understand the enormous significance of the DRC and to learn from the mistakes of the past, as a prerequisite to fashioning a formula for the betterment of the continent, we need to review the history and outline some of the fundamental facts about the territory. It is necessary to do this because, more than any other country on the continent, the Congo has, over the past 500 years, served as the bellwether of international rivalries and machinations and as a barometer for the continual human suffering of the great majority in Africa. The tragic reality is that over the past 500 years, various international forces have camouflaged their insatiable avidity for African resources with proclamations of affable altruism, and in turn undermined the rights and aspirations of people in the region. But of far greater significance is the fact that the Congo represents great possibilities for the continent: the country has the potential to be the engine of growth for the continent south of the Sahara.

What are the relevant facts about the Congo that make the territory a symbol of both challenges and great possibilities for Africa? To a considerable extent, the importance of the Congo derives from her enormous blessings, which have become her curses. These are essentially three. The first is her geo-strategic location. The Congo, which is as large as Europe, is in the heart of Africa; and whatever happens there has far-reaching repercussions in the rest of the continent. The second is her vast strategic mineral resources. This central African territory possesses more than 50 per cent of the world's strategic minerals, including a large proportion of industrial diamonds, cobalt, uranium and copper, as well as important qualities of cadmium, gold and zinc, all of which have provided vital underpinnings for Western military and monetary systems. And the third is her dynamic human resources, which have over the centuries contributed to the cultural heritage of the world by giving it various types of pulsating music.

The historical, human, geo-strategic and economic importance of the Congo have in the past 500 years attracted various forces to the region, which have imprinted indelible impact on not simply the welfare of the people in the region but on the entire African continent. At least on four separate and important occasions, international forces have intervened in the Congo, with devastating consequences for the great majority of the people. The first time was in the 1490s when the Portuguese established their influence in the Congo and set in motion the long and sordid history of European terrorizing and dealing in Africans. This most inhuman and abominable of all trading activities became known euphuistically as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The trade was responsible for removing from the continent and taking to the Americas more than 15 million of the most productive Africans. Whereas the productive African labor contributed vitally to the growth of modern America and Europe, the means by which Africans were forced into bondage instituted nightmarish regimes of violence that dislocated and poisoned the social, political and economic fabric of African societies for centuries.

The second occasion began in 1876 when King Leopold II of Belgium launched in Brussels the International African Association, which provided the impetus for the feverish scramble between European powers for position of advantage in Africa to gain access to raw materials. In order to minimize the prospects of war between European powers in Africa, Prince von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany, convened the Berlin Conference on Africa from November 1884 to February 1885. At the conference, which was attended by 14 Euro-American powers except Switzerland, the participants masked their avarice for African resources with the rhetoric of spreading Christian civilization and free commerce.

It was at the conference that the rules for the carving-up of Africa among European powers were established. While Euro-Americans arrogated themselves the right to decide the destiny of Africans, Africans themselves were neither consulted nor invited to the conference. After the Berlin Conference, European powers rushed to Africa to make fraudulent claims over African territories and resources and subsequently partitioned the continent into the current territorial states. In the Congo itself, which was euphemistically referred to as the "Congo Free State" and given to King Leopold of Belgium, as a personal estate, the partition was followed by a genocide of about 10 million Africans within a decade. Although the journalist E. D. Morel more or less single-handedly carried out a crusade to expose the crime that was unparalleled in the annals of the world, his efforts met largely with the sardonic indifference of Euro-Americans, until the evil was more or less done. The third outside intervention was the 1960 disaster, when the Congo found itself in inferno of Cold War rivalries and politics. To its credit, during what became known as the Congo Crisis, the United Nations did everything possible to bring a semblance of stability to the region. Tragically, the conflict claimed the lives of thousands of people, including U. N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. Although during the crisis Kwame Nkrumah — supported by Egypt under Abdel Nasser and Guinea under Seku Toure — demonstrated practical Pan-African solidarity with the democratically elected leader of the country, Patrice Lumumba, a number of newly independent yet neo-colonial African states betrayed the Congo. The assassination of Lumumba in cold blood by neo-colonial forces assisted by Western intelligence agencies was a major turning-point in contemporary Congolese and African history and set the country on its way to what became an autocratic feudal state under the dictator Joseph Mobutu.

And the fourth occasion of foreign involvement was in 1997 when a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila and supported by Uganda and Rwanda, brought to an end the 32 years of neo-colonial authoritarianism under Mobutu Sese Seko, who had seized power and was an accessory to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Barely a year after the ouster of Mobutu, a multi-tier insurrection by rebels sponsored by and linked to Rwanda and Uganda triggered a war involving six other nations, all of whom looted the natural resources of the country while they prolonged the conflict. With this background, what can be done to ensure that Congo's great potential is realized for the welfare of the region and indeed Africa as a whole? Apart from considerations of natural resources, strategic position, security and stability, there are issues of principles about the Congo that should be of far greater moral concern to, and be observed by, the international community.

The first is the principle of respect for the territorial integrity, and noninterference in the internal affairs of another state, both of which are enshrined in the U. N. Charter. In the conflicts in the Congo, troops from neighboring countries recklessly invaded, plundered and killed, with barely any sustained objection or sanction by the international community. This is a sad commentary on the moral authority of the U. N. The second is the principle of humanitarian law and human rights, which holds that combatant forces have a moral and legal obligation not to harm civilians. In the Congo, as has been indicated above, troops and militias from neighboring countries have acted with impunity and massacred and starved to death thousands of civilians, without the United Nations or human rights organizations holding any of the rulers accountable for the destruction and pillage that their armies perpetrated. The third principle is that of democratic pluralism, whose principal plank is that no single organization within a polity should monopolize power to the exclusion of other political formations. Sadly, the international community in general and the Western powers in particular, have been at best anemic in calling unequivocally for democratic solution to the conflicts in the Congo.

Within the country itself, the current administration has been rather inarticulate and even myopic in refusing to extend an olive branch to some of the democratic organizations that stood up and spoke out against the Mobutu dictatorship. Among the most prominent is the party led by the venerable politician, Etienne Tshisekedi, who commands enormous grass-roots support among Congolese and was a long-time opponent of Mobutu.

The issues of principle raised by the instability and conflicts in the Congo should not be sacrificed on the altar of short-term calculations. It is clear that there cannot be military solutions to the problem of instability and the birth pangs of democracy in the Congo. Only democratic government based on the consent of the people and implementing an inclusive agenda, supported by the international community, can provide a basis for a viable solution to the country's problems. Now is the time for the international community to be true to its own principles of using dialogue and the rule of law for the maintenance of peace and security. And the African Union must, beyond rhetorical flourish, demonstrate moral leadership and stand firm for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the Congo.

However, should the UN abrogate its duty and fail to act robustly to uphold and justify the principal purpose of its existence — which is the maintenance of international peace and security in the Congo, progressive forces and those who subscribe to Pan-Africanism must extend practical hands of solidarity to the Congo. This is an imperative not only because the stability and democracy in the Congo are of vital importance to the welfare of Congolese, but also because the destiny of Africa is intricately interlinked to the ebb and flow of fortunes in the Congo. A starting point for a positive approach to Congo's problems must be to ask the rulers of the neighboring countries to commit themselves to respect the principles of human rights, democracy, international and humanitarian rule of law and respect of the territorial integrity of the Congo.

About the Author: Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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