By Osmund Agbo
Since the Russo-Ukrainian War began in February this year, thousands have worked into their early graves. A much larger number of people have also been displaced and are grappling with life outside of home. The casualties thus far according to a senior US official are as follows; about 200,00 Russian and Ukrainian soldiers equally split and about 40,000 civilians. The war has been all over the news with the United States spending billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and the European Union doing the same. But somewhere in the Central African nation of Congo, is the deadliest conflict since World War II, where an estimated 1,000 people die every day as a result of hunger and disease caused by war. By 2008, the war and its aftermath were estimated to have caused 5.4 million deaths. Yet, Congo’s war doesn’t get half as much attention as the one in Ukraine and tops the list of what Reuters, the British news agency tagged the “forgotten crises.”
Officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country is often referred to by its acronym, the DRC or Congo-Kinshasa to distinguish it from the other Congo Republic, which is officially called the Republic of the Congo and often referred to as Congo-Brazzaville. Congo is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world, crucial to the issue of global warming. It has been described as the treasure trove of natural resources and boasts of vast deposits of industrial diamonds, Gold, copper and cobalt.
Congo is bounded to the North by South Sudan, and Central African Republic; to the East by Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania; to the Southeast by Zambia and Southwest by Angola. These boundaries become important when examining the conflicts in the region. With a population of around 108 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 4th most populous country in Africa and with the highest number of French speakers than any other country in the world
King Leopold 11 formally acquired rights to the Congo territory during the scramble for Africa at the time of the Berlin Conference that started in November 1884 and made the land his private property. He named it the “Congo Free State” with its capital in Leopoldville, later renamed Kinshasa. In King Leopoldo’s Free State, the colonial army forced the local population to produce rubber, the sales of which made a fortune for him and his country.
During the period from 1885 to 1908, millions of Congolese were victims of widespread atrocities and an estimated 10 million people died as a consequence of exploitation and disease. Several of the King’s edifices stand today in the Belgian capital Brussels, as a testament to that inglorious era.
Overtime, however, news of the abuses began to circulate among Europeans. The Belgian government, reluctant to act but facing increasing international pressure, forced Leopold II to set up an independent commission of inquiry. Its findings confirmed reports of abuses, concluding that the population of the Congo had been “reduced by half” during this period. On 18 October 1908, the Belgian parliament voted in favor of stripping King Leopold of his powers and claimed Congo as a Belgian colony.
The transition from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo was not the clean break that was expected. The last Governor-general of the Congo Free State still continued in office and the majority of his staff were drawn from Leopold II’s administration. The change simply opened up the Congo and its natural and mineral riches to the Belgian economy for continued colonial exploitation.
Growing nationalist movement in Africa in the 1960’s led by Kwame Nkuruma of Ghana found a ready disciple in a young revolutionary by name Patrice Lumumba whose party called the Movement National Congolais was at the forefront of the liberation struggle. Belgian Congo achieved independence on 30th June, 1960 and Lumumba became the first Prime Minister, his Party having won the parliamentary election.
Belgium first denied Congo’s political leaders the two-year transition period they asked for prior to independence which they needed to prepare to take over the reins of government. Shortly after independence, secessionists backed by Belgium to protect its own economic interests, erupted both in the province of the mineral-rich province of Katanga and South Kasai which started tearing the country apart and proved very difficult for the new government to contain. Congo was programmed to fail.
Prime Minister Lumumba sought the help of the United Nations in quelling the rebellion which was rejected. He then approached the Soviets who came to his aid and sent both military supplies and advisers. Embracing the Soviets at the height of the Cold War would turn out to be Lumumba’s greatest mistake as America marked him an enemy and the CIA started to track his every move.
The strengthened Congolese armed forces would, however, invade South Kasai with many casualties recorded after the attack. In response, Lumumba was dismissed from office by Joseph Kasavubu, the President who publicly blamed him for the massacres by the armed forces in South Kasai and for bringing in the Soviet Union. Lumumba in return declared Kasavubu’s action unconstitutional, leading to a crisis between the two leaders. On 14th of September, 1961, Colonel Joseph Mobutu with the backing of the US and Belgium, removed Lumumba from office and three days later was handed over to Belgian-led Katangan troops who executed him with his body paraded in the most shameful way.
Mobutu renamed the country Zaire in 1971 and thus started an unprecedented dictatorship that lasted until his overthrow in 1997 by Congolese rebels led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila during the first Congo war with the help of Uganda and Rwanda. But how did two of Congo’s neighbors get sucked into the nation’s civil war? Well, it turns out that their is a direct link between the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Congo crisis that followed. Many of the Hutu rebels that took part in the genocide went into exile and stationed in the refugee camps within the Democratic Republic of Congo.
From the refugee camps in Congo, the exiled Hutus regrouped and continued the fighting by launching cross-border raids on Tutsis and moderate Hutus living in Rwanda and Uganda. When the then Congo’s government of President Mobutu Sese Seko, was unable or unwilling to stop the rebellion over his eastern frontier, the Tutsi governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi backed the Congolese rebels to launch an attack that toppled Mobutu and precipitated the first Congo civil war.
When the Hutu raids continued, the Tutsi-led states encouraged another rebellion against Kabila in the second Congo war.
Even though the second Congo war officially ended in July 2003, over the past decades, there has been a fragile peace. Congo has accused Rwanda of backing the rebel group M23, which has killed civilians, a charge which they denied. Rwanda, in turn, has accused Congo of attacking its border. Each side has accused the other of firing rockets across the border and relations between the two countries remain strained. Even Uganda and Rwanda who were former allies in recent years are now fighting each other and supporting rival factions over access to precious metals in the eastern Congolese city of Kisangani.
The conflagration now involves 8 African countries and more than 120 militia groups who are daily wreaking terror in the Democratic Republic of Congo in what is known as Africa’s World War. Kenya has been leading efforts to broker peace lately, bringing together leaders from the East African Community, a seven member nation regional bloc that includes both Congo and Rwanda. On July 6, this year, the presidents of Congo and Rwanda met in Angola to discuss the escalation in violence but there has never been a definitive end to the conflict.
With a rich deposit of Gold, Coltan and Tourmaline, fortune lies beneath Congo’s earth and the world has not failed to take notice of it. Between 10 and 20 tons of gold are smuggled out of Congo each year, much of it exported to Dubai in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) before being processed into jewelry and sold all over the world, according to one report published by the U.N. Group of Experts on Congo. For those state and non-state actors involved in this intractable conflict, war provides the perfect cover needed for smuggling to flourish. As long as “blood diamonds” continue to flow and violence is profitable with little international pressure to stop it, they have zero plan of letting up. At least, not anytime soon.
Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com