Democratic Republic of Congo: The colonial legacy doesn’t just go away

On Nov. 4, 2013, soldiers head towards Mbuzi hilltop near Rutshura while a woman and her children flee to get away from the fighting. Photo: Junior D. Kannah / AFP
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The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo) has experienced a sadistic and murderous legacy at the hands of the rich and powerful for over 500 years. The perpetrators have changed over time but the crimes continue, and have a direct causal relationship to its current political and social agony.

The sitting president, Joseph Kabila, won’t go. In power for 16 years after succeeding his father, Kabila’s term officially ended in December 2016. But his refusal to schedule elections is just the latest outrage from a long line of despots and criminals, both international and domestic, who have ravaged the people and land for profit.

The legacy of colonialism. Throughout the centuries, Africa has been divided and subdivided many times. What is now the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country the size of Western Europe with 78 million people. Humans settled it over 90,000 years ago, and three regional kingdoms ruled Central Africa for centuries.

The Portuguese were the first invaders in the late 1400s, seeking gold and a faster route to India. The French followed a few hundred years later. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, under the pretense of humanitarianism. But as Joseph Conrad’s searing book Heart of Darkness revealed, Leopold imposed forced labor by razing villages, taking women hostages, beheading resisters. He amassed a fortune building several international companies to extract rubber especially, and other resources. He introduced numerous deadly diseases to the famine-stricken, impoverished Congolese. His 23-year rule killed millions upon millions.

International outrage at the “Congo Horrors” forced Belgium to end Leopold’s personal rule in 1908. But it still controlled Congo as its colony and robbed its resources. As independence thrusts swept the colonial world, the Republic of Congo was formed in 1960.

Six months of freedom. Congo’s movement was led by anti-imperialist, and still much-respected African nationalist, Patrice Lumumba. Seven days after he was elected the first Prime Minister of Congo he gave an unscheduled speech declaring, “We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children,” and that the challenge was “creating a national economy and ensuring our economic independence.” When Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union after the U.S. refused to aid the new country against right-wing Belgian colonialists and the mining interests, the U.S. and Belgium and the U.N. conspired to have him captured and killed in early 1961, barely six months after he was elected.

A brief glimmer of reformist hope was followed by another coup d’état in 1965 by Joseph Mobutu (later called “Mobutu Sese Seko”). An utterly corrupt and vicious dictator, Mobutu ruled until 1997. He “rebranded” Congo in 1971 to Zaire and enjoyed consistent support from Belgium, France and the United States because of his staunch anti-communism.

In 1997 he was expelled by Rwandan rebel forces led by Laurent Desire-Kabila who took control as the third president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila established a leader cult-like state, rejected elections and was regarded as “another Mobutu” until he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 2001. Seven days later his son Joseph, the current ruler, took over as president and has proceeded to enrich himself, his family and allies through the state apparatus and several enterprises.

Congo’s mineral wealth. To fuel industrialization, early imperialists were hungry for metals such as copper and gold, and rubber. Gold backed their currencies and, along with ivory, adorned their palaces, clothing and jewelry. In one of the most barbaric uses of Congo’s resources, the U.S. secretly acquired, from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, uranium for the nuclear arsenal that powered the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

Today, global capitalism’s need for the vast mineral wealth in Central Africa, and Congo in particular, has only intensified. The area is one of the leading global sources for manganese, coltan, cobalt, lead, zinc and tin, as well as gold and diamonds — all of which are used in modern consumer and industrial goods. Congo is estimated to have $24 trillion of untapped mineral deposits.

There are different approaches to getting at Congo’s riches, but no honest players. The Chinese government and private corporations invest in infrastructure such as roads and railways in exchange for mineral rights. Canadian and Australian mining companies have interests in Congo and want to sell to the Chinese, and any other buyers, but they don’t want China to dominate the resources. Africa is central to the global mining industry’s interests, and Congolese resources are its crown jewels.

The U.S., wanting to check China’s power in the region, acts as main protector of the mining industry. It established AFRICOM in 2007 as its ninth “unified combatant command” in the world, and today has secret operations in 53 African countries.

Current agonies. With its tremendous natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo should be one of the world’s most prosperous countries. Yet, a microscopic number of people benefit worlds away, leaving masses of Congolese in breathtaking poverty, working for cents a day.

Nearly five million people live with HIV/AIDS (among the highest in the world, and over 60 percent are women). The country is the rape capital of the world. Violence from tribal militias, “army” units, and U.N. “peacekeepers” continue to generate desperate refugees. The horror, initiated by the first colonialists, extends to this very day.

The main opposition party is the Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (UDPS), reportedly with 45 million members. Its leader is Felix Tshisokedi who took the party’s reigns shortly after his father died in February 2017. Though popular, the father’s legacy is itself tainted by his collaboration with Mobutu.

As of this writing, Joseph Kabila now proposes elections at the end of 2018, and the opposition coalition demands they be sooner. Government repression against public protests continues unabated.

The Congolese people need radical change. But there is no viable Left party to provide leadership. Genuine independence and humane living conditions can only come with the end of the current predatory system.

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