Congo came under colonial rule in the latter half of the 19th Century. The earliest exploration was done under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had colonial designs in Congo though initially he masqueraded as a humanitarian. Leopold formally acquired Congo in 1885 and made it his private property, naming it Congo Free State. Leopold’s regime began the classical colonial exploitation of the natural resources of the country and put in place infrastructure, like railways, to heighten this exploitation. The regime brutalised the natives and forced them to cultivate rubber. The spread of automobiles and the consequent need for rubber tyres in the growing international market translated into more atrocities on the local population. Leopold made a fortune out of this business. He began the system of rubber quotas – a certain amount that was due to be cultivated by all natives – and to enforce these quotas he called in the army, the Force Publique. The force made the chopping off of limbs a standard practice to enforce the quotas. Due to the exploitation millions died in Congo. A government commission later concluded that the population of the Congo had been ‘reduced by half’ during this period. These draconian measures led to an international hue and cry, especially by Great Britain and public figures like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle protested; Joseph Conrad immortalised this human tragedy in his novel Heart of Darkness.
In 1908, the Belgian Parliament took over the reins of the country. Conditions improved but the friction between the coloniser and the colonised remained leading to bad blood on both sides.
The country gained independence in 1960 when natives Patrice Lumumba of the Mouvement National Congolais and Joseph Kasavubu of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) were elected as the Prime Minister and the President of the country. Friction between the two figures in the government led to Kasavubu dismissing Lumumba. The political uncertainty thus created pushed Joseph Mobutu, the then Army Chief, to seize power in a military coup. It is here that the dubious role of the Western powers began in Congo. The United States and Belgium supported Mobutu in a bid to stop the perceived march of Communism in Congo. The support to Mobutu was so absolute that he paid his soldiers privately. The name of the country was first changed to Democratic Republic of Congo in 1965 and then to Republic of Zaire in 1971. In a brazen move Belgian paratroops in association with the rebels in Congo abducted and murdered Patrice Lumumba.
Congo has the largest United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the world. The country has been the theatre of what has been dubbed as the ‘African World War’ as it involved nine African nations and some 20 armed groups. The war is the worst human disaster since World War II, killing 5.4 million people since 1998. The bone of contention among the warring groups, some of which are neighbouring armies and militias propped up by them, is the mineral-rich eastern part of the country which is home to diamonds, copper, zinc and coltan.
Under the West-supported regime of Mobutu, Congo became so corrupt that it was referred to as kleptocracy. Mobutu enriched himself at the cost of the people and himself coined the term ‘Zairian Sickness’ to define the corrupt state of affairs in the country. His main source of income was foreign aid. the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, shall go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake. Mobutu, under pressure from brewing opposition in the country did introduce democratic reforms but they turned out to be only cosmetic. Mobutu continued in power until the conflict of 1997 forced him to flee by 1984, Mobutu was said to have US$4 billion, an amount close to the country’s national debt, deposited in a personal Swiss bank account. Mobutu whipped up the bogey of nationalism and renamed the nation’s cities: Léopoldville became Kinshasa and styled himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga Zaire. The country reclaimed its name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, since the name Zaire carried strong connections to Mobutu regime.
The conflict of 1997 was the effect of the spilling over of ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda. Rwanda too had been under Belgian imperialism. The Belgian masters favoured the Tutsi aristocracy even though the Tutsis were a minority and Hutus were a majority. Upon leaving Rwanda the Belgians reversed the direction of their favouritism and propped up the Hutus as militia in the name of democracy. This led to an internecine war between the two tribes upon independence and was part of the Rwandan Civil War that had started in 1990. The War culminated in the genocide of 1994 which claimed about 800,000 lives. Again Western powers were complicit in this genocidal war with France stepping in from the Hutu side.
The conflict spilled over into Congo as Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda crossed over into Congo as refugees when a Tutsi government took over in Rwanda. The Hutu militia in Congo whipped up trouble as they regrouped to attack Congolese Tutsis in the eastern parts of the country. As a reply Rwandan and Ugandan military disguised as militia invaded Congo and this axis was supported by Mobutu’s detractors who wanted to overthrow him. This new expanded coalition was led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila and was known as the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL). In May 1997, Mobutu fled the country, and Kabila marched into Kinshasa and named himself President.
The new President thanked the foreign partners and appealed that foreign forces return to their countries as he feared a coup against him. This was not well received by Rwanda and Uganda. Rwandan troops launched a new militia group called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD), led by Tutsis, against President Kabila. To maintain a balance of power and influence with Rwanda, Ugandan forces launched another rebel group called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). The two rebel movements started the Second War. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia became involved militarily on Kabila’s side to defend a fellow member of South African Development Community (SADC). Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila took office. He called for multilateral peace talks to end the war. In 2001, an agreement was reached between all the parties but it again broke down in 2002. With the United Nations Peacekeepers arriving in 2001, another accord was reached in 2003. Much of the conflict centered on gaining control of substantial natural resources in the country.
Though the war ended, low key war between Tutsis and Hutus continued in the north-eastern part of the country. The Kivu rebellion again threatened the broader stability of Congo and a rebel Tutsi force formerly under the command of Laurent Nkunda (National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP) rebelled against the government. After a series of fights, CNDP was assimilated in the Congolese army.
But the recent mutiny in Congo has again upset the fragile peace of the country. In April 2012, soldiers mutinied and the mutineers formed a rebel group called the March 23 Movement (M23). This group comprises rebels of former CNDP. Former CNDP Commander Bosco Ntaganda, known as ‘the Terminator’ is said to be in charge of the mutiny. Bosco is already wanted in war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
A United Nations report has discovered that rebels are getting support from Rwanda. On 6 July 2012, M23 gained control of the town of Bunagana. Some 600 DRC troops fled across the border and took refuge in Uganda. The rebels are demanding a peace parley with the government to stop their fighting. The United Nations condemned the rebellion as an Indian Peacekeeper was killed in action. On 8 July 2012, the rebels captured Rutshuru, 70 km north of Goma, and by early on 10 July, they were just 40 kms from Goma itself.
Reports coming from Uganda say that a large number of Congolese refugees are entering Uganda due to the conflict. As the government forces melt in front of the rebels, the future of this mineral-rich country seems to be jeopardised once again. What remains to be seen is whether the Western powers will play a positive role in ending human tragedy in Congo or will they play one of their nasty games to destabilise the country further and make sinister moves on its mineral wealth. The role of the African community too becomes important in the wake of the fact that Congo has borders with a number of African countries and they need to work out a solution to have a lasting peace in the already tangled political background of the region. Already Congo and Rwanda, the estranged neighbours, have agreed to support a neutral international force with the mandate of the United Nations to combat the rebellion that is threatening to tear Congo apart. Meanwhile Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, has denied any hand in the rebellion, as the United Nations suspected.