The Congolese in their Struggle for Freedom*
By Daniel Fisher
Congolese people continue to pay a steep price in their resistance to a dictatorial regime backed by the U.S. and its allies. The world takes little notice. Congo is an immensely rich nation, but it is among the poorest due to a history of political meddling and resource theft by Western powers. The time has come to stand in solidarity with Congolese people.
Thirty-four Congolese civilians were murdered last December and hundreds detained after calling for President Joseph Kabila to respect his constitutional term limits and leave office. If you are anything like the average American, you probably haven’t heard any coverage of the Congolese youth risking their lives for political, social, and economic justice. News from Central Africa is sporadic, decontextualized and confined to a modern version of the ‘dark continent’ narrative.
Researchers have found that there is “a widespread belief in broadcasting that audiences are not interested in factual programming on the developing world.”
But: “Apparent in all of the groups was a greatly increased level of interest in the subject matter once the conflict was understood as resulting from a system of relationships in which the group members themselves were in some way involved.”
In other words, contextualized discussions re-conceptualized African problems as human problems that are interconnected to global structural problems.
The western corporate press is either silent or frames Congolese news in the least productive way imaginable. As we go about creating a new media in light of the abject failures of our corporate mainstream media, we must make sure we don’t leave behind some of the most courageous and democratically principled people on the planet: the Congolese population.
The ghost of Christmas past
Throughout King Leopold II of Belgium’s life he sought to acquire territory around the world for colonial purposes. In the mid-1870 he found a piece of territory that he believed had immense potential for riches: the remaining territory of the Kingdom of Kongo.
Subsequently, Leopold launched a propaganda campaign to gain formal recognition of his territory which he would later rename the Congo Free State. Pushed by lobbying efforts from the United States Chamber of Commerce, wealthy businessman Henry Shelton Sanford, and Congressional allies like former Confederate General/then Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, the United States broke the glass ceiling for King Leopold by becoming the first country to formally recognize his colony.
It would be a costly recognition. Leopold’s 23-year reign as owner of the ‘Congo Free State’ would kill an estimated 10 million Congolese. King Leopold unleashed one of the largest state terrorist campaigns in modern history. His 23-year imperial rule institutionalized beheadings and forced children to rape/kill their mothers/sisters if they did not meet their forced labor quotas on palm oil plantations.
Overcoming decades of brutality, Congo won its independence in 1960. In their first election as a free country, they elected anti-colonialist Patrice Lumumba. The 34-year-old’s time as prime minister would be short-lived. Immediately the United States sought to remove him from power. Former head of the CIA Allen Dules stated that Lumumba’s “removal must be an urgent and prime objective” of covert action. President Eisenhower “expressed his wish that Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles.”
The prospect of Congolese citizens self-determining how to allocate resources was simply too risky for the United States. At first, the CIA tried to poison Lumumba but couldn’t get close enough. Undeterred, the United States decided they would pay off future 40-year dictator Mobutu Seseseko to murder him. By handing the Congo to one of the most notorious kleptocrats of the 20th century, the United States and other western allies ensured this would be the last peaceful transfer of power until today. With funding and military assistance, the United States and its western allies would help Mobutu crush and rob the Congo (which he renamed Zaire) of its natural resources until the end of the last century.
In the early 1990s, Congolese youth again overcame a brutal regime and took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. With great sacrifice, they slowly won reforms from the government. At the same time, America was shifting from Cold War dictatorial allies to a ‘new generation’ of leaders who would open their countries up to neoliberal reforms under the guise of promotion of democracy.
Mobutu was suddenly described as a ‘dinosaur’ who had to step down immediately. If he refused the U.S. and its allies would have the ‘responsibility to protect’ the Congolese citizens. This responsibility to protect doctrine would prove to be a leading argument for humanitarian imperialism.
Mobutu refused to leave power and so began what is typically referred to as Congo’s first war (1996-1997). United States regional allies successfully invaded Congo (Zaire) and successfully overthrew Mobutu and installed Laurent Kabila as leader of the newly named Democratic Republic of Congo. Laurent proved to not be as willing to allow the West and regional allies to loot Congolese resources as originally imaged.
Again, the American allies invaded DRC and, in 2001, assassinated Laurent Kabila and installed his son, Joseph Kabila, as president of the DRC. The war resulted in approximately 5 million deaths. Following the war, the United Nations found that Rwanda and Uganda systematically looted billions of dollars in resources from the DRC. Uganda was ordered to pay $10 billion by the International Court of Justice for their plundering. Apparently, after almost a decade, paying the fine is still being considered by President Yoweri Museveni.
The idea of humanitarian imperialism is quite striking. Namely, our allies could openly repress their populations, but if enemies of the state violated democratic principles they could be overthrown for humanitarian purposes. For example, Rwanda for a decade has been carrying out a global assassination campaign of Rwandans who have fled President Kagame’s autocratic regime. Presidential candidates have been jailed and former military officials have been killed for challenging Kagame’s narrative of the Rwandan genocide as well as his role in it. Yet, the U.S. continues to praise Kagame as a shining example of democratic values. President Museveni meanwhile has successfully blocked an international criminal court investigation into atrocities committed during the Congo war.
The ghost of Christmas present
Since being appointed as the head of the DRC, Joseph Kabila has won presidential elections twice. Both times were rife with voter suppression and irregularities. In 2011, Kabila was not able to secure 50% of the vote, but that was enough. Before the election he successfully removed the electoral runoff requirement. Despite the voter repression and boxes of votes apparently never counted, the United States endorsed the election results both times.
Throughout Joseph Kabila’s tenure he has jailed protesters, incorporated war criminals into positions of power, and unleashed his security forces on the Congolese population to quash dissent. The U.S. has at most voiced ‘concern’ (they endorsed plans to incorporate Rwandan war criminals into the Congolese security forces and were silent on the runoff removal) but has continued to support the Kabila regime because he allows (and gets a cut of) American allies to plunder Congolese resources.
As long as Kabila allowed access to what NATO refers to as critical resources and what the Pentagon calls strategic minerals, the U.S. would allow him to consolidate power by robbing the Congolese population of billions of dollars for his corporate western partners and himself.
The U.S. has gone as far as blocking language condemning the Rwandan M23 proxy invasion in 2012. After a year of the M23 using child soldiers, murdering civilians, raping women, and occupying cities to solidify criminal resource smuggling networks, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Kagame and told him to knock it off. Bosco Ntaganda would emerge from the woods and turn himself in to the ICC shortly after the call.
About a decade ago the United Nations recommended actions taken against western corporations for illegal dealings in the DRC, but again, the report was ignored by all parties. The social consequences are devastating. The United Nations Human Development Index ranks the DRC near dead last. Humanitarian intervention doesn’t apply when it suits our geopolitical interests.
But now Kabila’s second term has ended. Thanks to the courageous activism of Congolese youth, years of trying to change the constitution to increase the term limits have failed. Unsurprisingly, they have paid a heavy price. LUCHA, Telema, and other Congolese civilians have been killed (the UN described the pattern of killings as shoot-to-kill orders) and arbitrarily detained for demanding Kabila follow the constitution and to stop stealing billions of dollars of their resources.
LUCHA activist Luc Nkulula described why Kabila is having difficulty crushing the Congolese youth:
“The government is scared of us because we are calling for change and we are not like the opposition groups it is used to dealing with. We have no single leader so the government does not know how to control us.” A true democratic movement.
Instead of throwing diplomatic weight behind these peaceful democratic youth groups, the United States has reduced their statements to a timely election (that is, years past the constitutional deadline). Even more disgusting, the United States issued its standard “both-sides-should-stop” statement that is eerily similar to Obama’s call for the American indigenous population and the North Dakota police to BOTH knock off the violence.
Spokesman John Kirby stated,
“We appeal to all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from statements or actions that could incite further violence.”
A meaningless statement. The press didn’t ask a single follow up question after this statement, instead the discussion largely focused on Russia.
At the same time the United States is calling for Kabila to not change the constitution, they are silent about Kagame changing the constitution so he can run for a third term! To the United States, the DRC must continue to be a weak state for the Congolese people. The only function of a state that the DRC is allowed to exercise is violence on their population. This suppresses Congolese self-determination. At the same time, the DRC’s designed institutional corruption allows the US to maintain a footprint in a critical part of the continent while wearing a humanitarian veil.
The ghost of Christmas future
Unfortunately, for Congo it may soon find itself in the war on terror narrative. As one LUCHA activist put it, “If the government squashes the Lucha, this not only means the failure of the Lucha, but the failure of non-violence, which is extremely dangerous.”
That’s probably okay in the United States’ mind, for one, the United Nations Security Council has already approved a drone program in the DRC. A resolution passed under the cover of the Rwandan sponsored M23 invasion. As the U.S. continues to expand the world as a battlefield through drone warfare, raw materials required for drone assembly will become increasingly critical. The U.S. has no domestic coltan so expect the ‘American interests’ in the region to expand in a country that has 24 trillion dollars’ worth of mineral reserves.
Days to leaving office, Obama formally declared war on Al-Shabab. The United States and the Africa Union rely heavily on Ugandan troops in Somalia. “Kampala is the political equivalent of a brokerage firm for rebels, rebellions and peace missions. It has more troops abroad than any other country aside of the U.S. itself.” That will mean the continuation or furthering of American diplomatic immunity provided to corrupt Congolese forces and the American regional allies.
As Central Africa is incorporated into the war on terror and the United States continues its long legacy of defining democracy as choosing between candidates that ensure access to ‘American interests’ we must counter this narrative with a deeper contextual discussion of African problems as our problems. Supporting and standing in solidarity with groups such as Friends of Congo, Telema, and LUCHA will begin to make up for the atrocities committed in our names. Challenges to corrupt institutions are rightly being covered by alternative news outlets, but we will never be able to create a just world system without standing in solidarity and listening to those who have experienced the brunt of the injustice.
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