Leopold leaves a lasting legacy
Date: Thursday, October 13 @ 17:30:48 UTC
Topic: Africa

By Paul Richard Harris, www.axisoflogic.com

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the current incarnation of a nation that has been known to history by various names, although most of us will have known it as Belgian Congo or Zaïre. It is presently known in some circles as Congo-Kinshasa, to distinguish it from its neighbour, Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville. Much of DRC's western border is comprised of the Congo River, which it shares with Republic of Congo in an undefined way; no specific agreements have been reached on the division of the river, its islands, or its resources.

This nation of approximately 55 million people straddles the equator in central Africa, an area called by author Joseph Conrad the "Heart of Darkness". When you hear the phrase "darkest Africa", this is it.

DRC is comprised of more than 200 ethnic groups and is surrounded by Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola. It is virtually landlocked although there is a narrow band of a few dozen miles along the western Bight of Africa.

And the country has had a troubled history that leads squarely back to one man: King Leopold II of Belgium.

While travel in the region today is very difficult because so much of the country is covered by dense and inhospitable jungle with few reliable roads, in the nineteenth century it was much more perilous. It was usually fatal for those foolish enough to attempt the journey; but in 1874, Henry Stanley became the first westerner to travel to the heart of the Congo basin and live to tell the story.

During the nineteenth century, competition for colonies was intense because the possession of colonies gave European states the sort of power that 'market share' gives to corporations today. And King Leopold was, by all accounts, a very shrewd man who managed to bargain (or cheat) his way into control of the Congo basin.

When Leopold ascended the throne in 1865, he clearly articulated his belief that Belgium needed to own colonies in order to secure its prosperity. But he also sensed there was no similar appetite amongst his subjects. So he set out to amass a private colonial empire; he tried to purchase the Philippines from Spain, to lease territory on Formosa, to buy lakes in the Nile basin and drain them. From his throne in diminutive Belgium, his finagling of control over the Congo basin finally gave him possession of a territory larger than England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France combined.

But Leopold also had a reach than his grasp. Quoting from the Columbia Encyclopedia:
Because he did not have sufficient funds to develop the Congo, Leopold sought and received loans from the Belgian parliament in 1889 and 1895, in return for which Belgium was given the right to annex the Congo in 1901. At the same time Leopold declared all unoccupied land (including cropland lying fallow) to be owned by the state, and unauthorized private traders were not permitted to operate there; instead, the state gained control of the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory. Much of the land was given to concessionaire companies, which in turn were to build railroads or (as in the case of the Katanga Company) to effectively occupy a specified part of the country or merely to give the state a percentage of their profits. In addition, Leopold maintained a large estate in the region of Lake Leopold II (NE of Kinshasa).
Belgium did not exercise its right of annexation in 1901. But starting in 1904, stories began to emerge from the jungle about cruel treatment of the Congolese under Leopold's watch. These stories began mostly because of the diligent work of two men: Roger Casement and E.D. Morel. Their stories of brutality raised the conscience of the Belgian people and public pressure built. Belgium finally exercised its option, after lengthy parliamentary debates, and in 1908 it relieved Leopold of the territory, establishing the Belgian Congo.

When Leopold died in 1909, he had managed to control the Congo basin for almost thirty years. But after the annexation by Belgium, evidence started to emerge of the five-to-ten million forced labourers who died from sickness, hunger and overwork, or who were killed deliberately. It is said that Leopold's policy was to chop off the hands or penises of any African who would not work and to hold hostage the wives and children of wayward workers to coerce them into working long and difficult hours, seven days per week.

Leopold knew that Henry Stanley, a Welshman of low degree who passed himself off as American, had an exalted image of himself. So he manipulated Stanley, using him to convince Europe that Leopold's hold on the Congo basin was really a humanitarian necessity because he was keeping the area free from 'Arab slavery'. In fact, there was no Arab slavery; but there was Leopold's slavery. It was only later in his command of this region, beginning in 1904, that the truth began to emerge of whippings, murders, hand amputations, rapes and other mutilations and humiliations foisted on the Congolese by Leopold's local administrators.

Most of this history is no longer recalled as its memory is submerged in the miasma of damage done in so many of the European colonies in Africa. And after they began to secure their independence from European masters, the newly freed countries of this continent had far more important issues to address than pointing their fingers backwards. But in Leopold's time, reformers spoke at meetings around the world, letter writing campaigns were conducted, there were commissions who heard testimony, official condemnation came from other governments. Even American author Mark Twain, not a name usually associated with political criticism, wrote an essay called 'King Leopold's Soliloquy' for the Congo Reform Movement in England and the United States. He was blunt and harsh, but apparently not as harsh as the reality of Leopold's rule.

After full control of the colony transferred to Belgium, the worst of Leopold's practices gradually diminished. But Congo was still considered to be a chattel, as were its people. The Congolese were given no role in the government or the economy and they became essentially the labour pool for a more benign, but still harsh, master; as is usual in colonial situations, the Africans became the poorly paid and abused workers while white Europeans were the managers.

Gradually, rubber played a lesser role in the output of the colony; in 1901, it had comprised 90% of exports but this had dwindled to about 1% by 1930. Instead, mining had become a huge enterprise in Congo and there were mass relocations of the Congolese, some forced, to take up residence near the mining operations; this put additional strains on a weak agricultural sector as young workers abandoned their fields and headed to the urban areas to be near the mines. During the seventeen years ending in 1955, the population of Kinshasa had grown from about 40,000 to 325,000. The city was unable to support this large influx of people and shanty towns grew like the once plentiful rubber vines.

The end of Belgian rule was foreshadowed, as was the case for the African colonialism of most European nations, when Christian missionaries became active in the Congo. They helped raise literacy rates and produced a class of at least semi-educated Congolese who were able to see clearly that colonial rule had to end. Still, virtually no Africans received more than a primary-level education until the 1950's.

But there had been one man, Simon Kimbangu who was educated by Protestant missionaries in the 1920's and who had started an indigenous spiritual movement. It was not an anti-Belgian movement but the government banned it in 1921 nevertheless and jailed Kimbangu. That action ensured the movement would become more aggressively anti-European and although it took another forty years, Belgium eventually decided that the time had come to leave their colony behind. Their decision was assisted by events in neighboring Middle Congo (now the Republic of Congo) when, in 1958, French president Charles de Gaulle offered the people of that country the opportunity to vote on a question of remaining in an association with France or full independence. The Belgians rapidly lost control of hearts and minds in Kinshasa and, by early 1960, they conceded the independence of Congo.

From its earliest days as the homeland of largely Pygmy tribes, the Congo basin has seen about 10,000 years of history. Prior to the coming of the Europeans, there were turf wars and the usual sorts of fights that occur between farmers and pastoralists; but in that regard, this was not different than the history of most of the world.

With the advent of white outsiders, however, the people of this region saw a steady slide which eventually pushed them off a precipice when they came under the suzerainty of Leopold II of Belgium. They were humiliated, tortured, mutilated to do the bidding of this man who, at least in retrospect, has earned the condemnation of the world. Even with his death, the government of his homeland softened only the brutality, not the slave-like conditions, so that by the time the Congolese arrived at statehood under their own banner in 1960, the cards had been fully stacked against their success. Later history shows that the cards quickly fell against them.

Parliamentary elections in 1960 produced Patrice Lumumba as the new nation's first president, only to have him die in mysterious circumstances within the first year. He was tortured and killed by Congolese troops but there are allegations that his death was arranged by the United States because of his refusal to become a puppet state of either the US or the Soviets. Within a week of independence, the army mutinied and the province of Katanga seceded, with the assistance of Belgium and the US.

After the death of Lumumba, a period of instability followed before power was seized in 1965 by Joseph Mobuto, in a coup d'état said to be with the assistance of the CIA. He renamed the country Zaïre and also renamed himself Mobuto Sese Seko wa za Banga, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."

Mobutu ruled for over 30 years. He is said to have turned over and again to policies and practices that would favour United States government and business interests over the needs and interests of his people. He also pillaged the country's treasury. But rebel groups arose to challenge Mobutu's rule and in 1997, power was seized by Laurent Kabila, a former Marxist who led the Alliance of Democratic Forces. During most of Mobutu's rule, the country had been known as Zaïre but in May 1997 Kabila formally changed its name to Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On assumption of power, Kabila inherited a country already involved in massive tribal infighting, partly arising because of the influx of refugees in 1994. His rule was quickly challenged by a Rwanda and Uganda backed rebellion in August 1998. Finally, troops from Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola, Namibia, and Sudan intervened to support Kabila's government. Even though a cease-fire was reached in July 1999 between DRC, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Namibia, Rwanda and the Congolese rebels, sporadic fighting continued unabated. Kabila was assassinated January 16, 2001 and rule of the country fell to his son, Joseph.

Joseph Kabila was successful in negotiating a withdrawal of the Rwandan forces from Congo in October 2002 and, early in 2003, all combatant parties finally came to the table and agreed to cease the fighting. They agreed to set up a government of national unity as a caretaker until democratic elections can be held in 2005. These will be the first democratic votes cast in this country in over forty years. Now late in 2005, the elections have not taken place although voter registration has been proceeding.

For all the time between 1998 and April 2003, most of the world had no idea anything untoward was occurring in DRC. Media didn't cover it although, to be fair, it is a difficult area to cover because it is largely jungle and forest with only primitive communications and bad roads.

Since the departure of the last of the foreign forces from DRC at the end of April 2003, there has been a steady increase in ethnic violence in areas where it is alleged Rwanda and Uganda deliberately incited longstanding ethnic hatred. The violence became so acute that the United Nations finally decided to intervene and has sanctioned a small international peacekeeping force under the direction of France. Local people and area governments appear united in their complaints that the force is too small, that its mandate is too limited and of too short a duration; much criticism has been leveled at the UN for its shortsightedness and many people point to this region as having the potential for genocidal nightmare like that in Rwanda in 1994.

As of this writing, the peace agreement reached is generally holding and the government is driving toward restoring the infrastructure and social systems of DRC. But it's a long road. The nation lost between 3.3 and 4.7 million people (a difficult number to quantify in these remote conditions) as a result of the civil war and untold millions in the hundred or so years of colonial or dictatorial rule. Leopold may have been no different than many European monarchs in his longing for colonial wealth; but he made his mark in a much more bloody fashion than most and the land that he called his own for so many years has felt those scars ever since.

The brutality still evident in modern day DRC is a lesson well-learned from King Leopold.

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