Behind the war in the Congo

November 25, 2008

Matt Swagler looks at how Western imperialism set the stage for renewed fighting in eastern Congo.

THE LATEST fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) isn't the result of ethnic rivalries, as portrayed in the mainstream media, but the logical outcome of intervention by Western governments and profit-seeking corporations.

The U.S. is fueling both sides of the conflict--by backing neighboring Rwanda's support for rebel forces on the one hand, and a United Nations "peacekeeping" operation in support of national DRC troops on the other.

Clearly, peace for the Congolese people is second to securing U.S. economic and political interests in the region.

As of November 11, Amnesty International reported that 250,000 people had fled their homes in response to the fighting, adding to the 1 million refugees already displaced in the province of North Kivu. Almost immediately, cholera outbreaks were reported at refugee camps overwhelmed by new arrivals, of whom 60 percent are children.

The most prominent armed forces in the region are those of the DRC's government, led by President Joseph Kabila, and the contending army of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda, which has been in rebellion against Congo's government since 2004, with the support of neighboring Rwanda.

Congolese refugees take shelter in a camp in the town of Kibati, near the city of Goma
Congolese refugees take shelter in a camp in the town of Kibati, near the city of Goma (Remi Ochlik | IP3)

Both sides have been accused of indiscriminate killings of civilians in recent weeks. On the evening of October 29-30, DRC troops were accused of looting and numerous murders as they retreated through the city of Goma. A week later, the Red Cross reported that the CNDP went from house to house in Kiwanja, executing over 100 young men.

On November 8, a senior Congo police officer described a preferred method of torture to the BBC: "You use car jump leads and attach them anywhere on the body, and as soon as you press the button, the current goes through, and they start to shake. It usually produced results."

An agreement reached last week with Nkunda appears to have mitigated the violence for now, but the truce remains tenuous. The recent conflict has the potential to reignite a civil war that led to the deaths of at least 5.2 million Congolese between 1998 and 2004, an atrocity that is, as author Leo Zeilig put it, "the bloodiest conflict since the end of the Second World War."


THE CURRENT crisis, like the previous civil war, has been framed in terms of continuing ethnic warfare. Nkunda and the CNDP claim that they represent Tutsi refugees still facing repression and the threat of attack at the hands of Hutu militias supported by the DRC government.

What else to read

The renewed violence in Congo and what's at stake is discussed in "Balkanization and crisis in eastern Congo," an interview with Congolese political figure Ernest Wamba dia Wamba in Pambazuka News.

Lena Weinstein's "The New Scramble for Africa," published in the International Socialist Review, documents how the world's biggest economies are jockying for control of Africa's oil resources.

A new book edited by Leo Zeilig, Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa collects essays and interviews that examine political struggle and social empowerment across the African continent.

Zeilig is also coauthor, with David Renton and David Seddon, of The Congo: Plunder and Resistance, a history that documents the devastating consequences of imperialism in the Congo, from King Leopold's Belgium in the 19th century to the U.S. and other Western nations in the 20th.

Although Tutsis and Hutus have long lived in the Kivu region, most of the people there now are refugees of the 1994 Rwandan civil war. In that war, the Rwandan government, at that point representing the elites of a majority Hutu population, coordinated a mass slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis, along with tens of thousands of ordinary Hutus who resisted the genocide.

The civil war ultimately resulted in a new regime, controlled by Tutsi leaders and backed by the U.S. Consequently, over 1 million Hutus, fleeing bloody reprisals, sought sanctuary in the eastern regions of the DRC, joining the existing Tutsi refugee population there. The Hutu refugee camps set up in North and South Kivu were filled with unarmed Hutus, but were largely run by Hutu military leaders armed by the French government.

After the genocide, international political leaders asserted that the Tutsi population should never again have to face such slaughter, and Nkunda has used such language to defend his actions in Kivu.

However, looking beyond the immediate antagonists reveals a war that is fueled by interests that are neither ethnic nor local. As Zeilig points out, numerous Western governments and international corporations are complicit in every aspect of the recent fighting.

"This is not a 'civil' war, but an international one," Zeilig said. "It has pulled in neighboring states that have armed rebel groups and involved Western multinationals and governments that supported different sides in their attempts to control mines and minerals in the DRC."

Even Francois Grignon of the International Crisis Group--a pro-imperialist think tank funded by Western governments and foundations--had to acknowledge the economic roots of the fighting. "This is the absolute core of the conflict," he explained. "What we are seeing now are beneficiaries of the illegal war economy fighting to maintain their right to exploit."


GOLD, CASSITERITE and coltan (widely used for cellular phones) are central to the economy of the mineral-rich Kivu provinces, which, like much of eastern Congo, have long been mined for the profit of those outside of the region. Hence, Nkunda's forces are funded by the Rwandan government, which has been removing $20 million worth of coltan from the DRC every month.

Behind Rwanda stands the U.S. Ever since a Tutsi-led rebel force overthrew the genocidal Hutu government, the U.S. has used the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his ally, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, to penetrate what had previously been a French-Belgian sphere of influence in central Africa.

In 1996, the U.S. sponsored an invasion of the DRC from Uganda and Rwanda based on satellite maps provided by San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. Using these maps, an estimated 800,000 Hutu refugees were hunted down and killed in the eastern forest regions. Some of these refugees died directly at the hands of U.S. Special Forces and private mercenaries from the Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Inc., housed at a U.S. military base in Uganda.

Not only has this facilitated British and American corporations' access to mining contracts, but it has also led to the direct corporate funding of militias, hired to enlist local residents, including children, for work in the mines. These laborers are usually "recruited" by force and threat of violence, a situation tantamount to slavery.

Similarly, the Kabila administration of the DRC, alongside troops from Zimbabwe and Angola, has forged connections with Hutu militias in the region who control extraction at other mines.

What has emerged is nothing short of a blood-soaked scramble for the vast profits to be made off the Congolese people and their land. In 2006, Keith Harmon Snow reported that $6 million worth of cobalt (used largely in jet engine production) was exiting the country each day, mostly headed for North American and European bank accounts. The yearly value of this cobalt extraction alone is greater than the DRC's entire federal budget.

As Mikhael Missakabo pointed out in a recent article, Canadian corporations alone now control $300 billion in mining assets in the Congo. Yet their contracts only mandate that they give back 5 percent in royalties to the DRC government. Anvil Mining, through a 1998 contract, exempted itself from paying any taxes or royalties for 20 years. Unsurprisingly, in 2005, the company provided logistical and transportation backup for DRC government troops engaged in deadly fighting in Katanga.

The result of this exploitation is a Congolese population that remains one of the most impoverished in the world. It is estimated that 45 million of the DRC's approximately 60 million residents survive on less than $1 a day. The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law has linked congenital birth defects among newborn babies in eastern Congo to mining companies guilty of polluting the local water supply.

The U.S. government and U.S.-based corporations have also played a key role in the militarization of the region. According to a report by the Arms Trade Resource Center, during the 10 years leading up to the 1998-2004 civil war, the U.S. provided the DRC and regional governments involved in the conflict with $112 million worth of weaponry--ultimately arming and training both sides.


SUCH VIOLENCE and corporate plunder has been a nearly constant fixture in the Congo since the Belgian colonial regime of King Leopold began in 1885.

As historian Adam Hochschild wrote, "There has been a surprisingly consistent pattern in the Congo over the centuries. Outsiders want some commodity the territory possesses. They extract the commodity, causing the death of thousands or millions of people in the process. They justify their seizure by portraying themselves as generous-hearted."

Similar lies continue today. One New York Times article lamented that mine contractors in the DRC were the well-intentioned victims of local militias. Speaking with Brian Christophers, a managing director of the company Mining and Processing Congo (MPC), the Times wrote:

Mr. Christophers said that his company was prepared to help pay not just for a road to the mine, but also for schools, clinics and a hydroelectric power station. It also promised to invite government agencies to enforce labor standards. But none of them have had the chance.

However, a Pole Institute report points out that when MPC acquired the rights to operate in the area around Bisie in 2006, local residents were already mining the land for their livelihood. Bisie has been controlled by a militia in the area known to exploit local miners, but it also has backing from Rwanda, leaving residents equally suspicious of their intentions.

The concessions noted by Christophers were made to a local Bisie chief and the neighboring population not as a selfless gesture, but as part of a strategy to gain control over the mines. Although Christophers implies that the hydroelectric plant was proposed for civilian use, the UN-sponsored Initiative for Central Africa pointed out that it is, in fact, intended to power MPC's industrial cassiterite mining.

Meanwhile, Christophers enjoys a comfortable position on the top management team of MPC's parent company, Kivu Resources, a vastly profitable enterprise with dozens of mine holdings throughout the eastern DRC and Rwanda. He got his start working for De Beers, the dominant supplier of African diamonds, which for decades collaborated with apartheid governments in Namibia and South African in order to protect its monopoly and undermine worker's rights.

Still, these fables of corporate benevolence have found high-profile supporters. In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, actor George Clooney called upon President-elect Barack Obama to work hand in hand with the Chinese government, which has just settled a $5 billion contract for mineral extraction in the Congo.

In response to the recent crisis, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for increased powers to be given to MUNOC, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, which will soon number more than 20,000 troops.

But such pleading for increased Western intervention, corporate or military, is a recipe for disaster. Until 2005, MUNOC was headed by William Swing, the former U.S. ambassador to the DRC. But Swing was forced to resign when UN troops were found to be systematically abusing and raping the same young Congolese women they had been sent to protect.

If the current U.S. intervention in the Congo is bloody, the past is no different. In 1961, the U.S. assisted in the arrest and assassination of the Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, the nationalist Patrice Lumumba. In his place, the U.S. installed and supported the vicious dictator Joseph Mobutu for over 30 years. And since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the UN, the UN can hardly be trusted to safeguard the Congolese people.

By contrast, the Congolese people have long stood up for themselves in the face of repression and exploitation.

In 1992, 1 million people marched on the DRC capital of Kinshasa in protest against Mobutu, and his regime was nearly toppled in the wake of further demonstrations by trade unions, students and the poor in 1994. When Mobutu responded by scapegoating the Tutsi population, Tutsis rallied in great numbers to defend themselves.

Similar grassroots struggles will be the key to improving the lives of ordinary people in the Congo and deserve our support. Rather than filling the coffers of Western corporations and Congolese elites, the vast mineral wealth of the Congo should be in the hands of the workers who extract it from the ground.

Foreign intervention has already impoverished the DRC and turned a country with a virtually non-existent weapons industry into one of the most heavily armed war zones in the world. U.S. activists should not call for further foreign interference, but an end to it.

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