The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Congo: A Year for Lavish Celebrations or a Moment for Reflection?





Charles Tshimanga is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The year 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tens of millions of U.S. dollars have been spent by the government in order to lavishly fête the anniversary.  Albert II, King of Belgium, the former colonial power, along with several foreign heads of state, has been invited to attend.  Yet the fervor of the Congolese government sharply contrasts with the attitude of ordinary Congolese citizens who are wondering what the country has accomplished since June 30, 1960 that justifies celebration.  The skepticism of Congolese citizens brings to mind a principle of the Italian thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, who believed that a state is man-made, and able to be changed or improved by its ruler.  Machiavelli’s theory allows us to examine the history of the Congo over the past fifty years and to determine whether the country has made progress in democracy, human rights, economic development, health, education, and infrastructure, etc.

The nation’s first challenge was to build a viable state endowed with democratic institutions guaranteeing the rights and duties of its citizens.  Responding to this challenge was crucial for it would influence the trajectory of an independent Congo.  In other words, it was a matter of determining whether the Congo could equip itself with the tools to control its destiny, or whether on the contrary, private and foreign interests would continue to influence the decisions of the nation.  These questions were pertinent on June 30, 1960, and they remain so in 2010, the year of the Congo’s fiftieth anniversary.

It was up to Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister, to demonstrate a significant break with colonialism and to build a truly independent state with the backing of the Congolese populace.  However, Belgium and other foreign interests, including multinational corporations, were determined to weigh in on the affairs of the newly independent state and to preserve their interests in the Congo.  Their main objective was to continue to access the country’s natural resources, which were (and are still) vital to their own economies.  According to Ludo de Witte, the latter objective prevailed in the Congo due to the alliance formed by foreign interests (Western powers and private interests) and the Congolese petty bourgeoisie which had limited its nationalist ambitions and wished to preserve its class privileges.  The lust for natural resources dates back to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Congo was the personal property of the Belgian king Leopold II.

Lumumba’s failed undertaking and the petty bourgeoisie’s victory were characterized by Mobutu’s coups d’état on September 14, 1960 (and November 24, 1965) and finally by Lumumba’s assassination on January 17, 1961.  These events started a trend that began immediately following independence, i.e., gaining power by force and with the aid of foreign forces.  In 2002, Belgium finally admitted its “moral responsibility” in Lumumba’s assassination, forty-one years after the fact.  The political configuration installed by the Congolese bourgeoisie, still leading the country, corresponds neither with aims to build a modern state nor with a need to establish democratic institutions.  Instead it has helped establish a “political culture” that continues to meet the demands of foreign interests who helped put it into power and to disavow itself of the best interests of the Congolese people.

The Congo has had only four presidents in the fifty years since its independence:  Joseph Kasa-Vubu (1960-1965), Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1965-1997), Laurent-Désiré Kabila (1997-2001), and Joseph Kabila (since 2001).  The Congolese remember Kasa-Vubu as an honest president who did not use state funds for personal gains.  As for his political heritage, it is arguable that his presidency was one of the most chaotic in Congolese history.  His term saw the secession of the rich mining provinces of Katanga and Sud-Kasaï (accomplished with Belgian help) as well as Mobutu’s first coup d’état on September 14, 1960, which ousted Lumumba from power and violated the interim Constitution enacted earlier that year.  The Kasa-Vubu years were also marked by numerous wars that tore the country apart and the death of Patrice Lumumba in 1961.

Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who later came to call himself Mobutu Sese Seko, was the central figure of the Congolese bourgeoisie.  Having captured the presidency after his second coup d’état on November 24, 1965, he remained in power for thirty-two years until 1997, when rebel followers of Laurent-Désiré Kabila entered the capital of Kinshasa.  It was Mobutu who established monopartism with the creation of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), the party that eventually became indistinguishable from the state.  Mobutu’s dictatorship took executive, legislative and judicial power, and he practiced ethnic politics in order to maintain power and divide his political opponents.

Mobutu eradicated freedom of expression and was intolerant of political challenges.  He persecuted and imprisoned his opponents such as Etienne Tshisekedi, the president of the Union for Democracy and Social Practice (UDPS) and numerous others.  During his presidency, corruption became widespread.  A 1982 report by the International Monetary Funds found that he had ransacked the state’s coffers for personal use.  In 1973, he began “Zaïrianisation,” or the expropriation of small businesses belonging to Portuguese, Greeks and Pakistanis in favor of the Congolese.  According to Mobutu, the aim was to dismantle the economic structure inherited from Belgian colonialism and to replace it with an economic fabric held by the Congolese.  It was an ill-conceived plan that turned out to be a political move to benefit political allies.  The results were catastrophic and the country never recovered from the experience.  When he relinquished power in 1997, the Congo was deep in debt and poverty, torn apart by war and suffering from great ethnic tensions.

While he was with the opposition, Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his Party of the Popular Revolution said that Mobutu had learned to “destroy rather than build up” the country.  Kabila accused Congolese politicians of “despising” their own people and of behaving “as if in a conquered land” for which they demonstrated no patriotism.  With the help of Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila overthrew Mobutu in May 1997.  The Congo he inherited was certainly in shambles after thirty-two years of Mobutu.  Still, Kabila was unable to undo relationships with foreign interests that had established “neo-colonialism” in the Congo back in the ‘60s. Nor did he introduce political reforms needed to launch the democratic process in Congo.  After his break with Rwandan and Ugandan allies, he developed into a dictator, imprisoning of political adversaries like Etienne Tshisekedi, Zhaidi Ngoma, and Joseph Olengankoy, as well as journalists who were critical of his work.  Kabila was assassinated on January 16, 2001.  The four years of his presidency are considered to have been wasted.

After Kabila’s death, his son, Joseph Kabila, was “designated” successor, thus continuing the Congolese tradition of putting men in power who had not been democratically elected.  Five years later, the younger Kabila emerged the winner of the 2006 presidential elections, which political opponents such as Ruberwa and Bemba believe to have been rigged.  Today, after nearly ten years (or a fifth of the Congo’s post-independence years) in power, J. Kabila claims to want to rebuild the Congo and to make it a better country than ever before.  However, such rhetoric is no match for the country’s political, economic and social realities.

The same accusations uttered by L.D. Kabila about Mobutu’s and the Congolese political class’s lack of patriotism are being made today by ordinary Congolese citizens about Joseph Kabila.  The Congolese people accuse the president and government of having abandoned the people of the provinces of Nord-Kivu, and Sud-Kivu, and the Oriental province, people who are habitually attacked by rebels and intruded upon by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies.

Laurent Nkunda is a former Rwandan army officer and a warlord who waged war in Eastern Congo.  He stands accused of numerous war crimes, in particular the destruction of villages and refugee camps, mass rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.  The United Nations estimates that Rwandan authorities have been complicit in helping Nkunda recruit soldiers, including children, and has found that Rwanda has “facilitated the supply of military equipment, and [...] sent officers and units from the Rwandan Defense Force.”  In September 2005, the Congolese government issued an arrest warrant against Nkunda for war crimes, crimes against humanity and insurrection.  In January 2009, Nkunda was “arrested” by the Rwandan army, but he has yet to be turned over to the International Court of Justice.

According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 5.4 million (or 45,000 per month) Congolese have been killed in armed conflicts and war-related causes that have ravaged East Congo since 1998.  Recent studies, including those of John Clark, Thomas Turner, Gérard Prunier, and René Lemarchand, to mention just a few, argue that access to rare and strategic minerals like uranium, niobium, coltan (colombo-tantalite), tin, oil and cobalt, are the economic and financial factors fueling and breeding the Congo War.  The Congo produces 20 percent, or one-fifth, of the world’s supply of coltan, a mineral that is used to make parts commonly found in cell phones, video games, and computers.  For this reason, human rights organizations and other NGOs are asking the major electronics companies to ensure that they do not use minerals from the Congo.  David Renton, David Seddon and Leo Zeilig assert that the desire for natural resources by private interests shows “what can happen to countries rich in minerals.”

One of the main responsibilities of the Congolese President, as outlined in the Constitution, is to ensure the integrity of sovereign territory and the wellbeing of its citizens.  It is thus incomprehensible to the people of the Congo that in January 2009, without consulting the National Assembly, J. Kabila authorized the entry of Rwandan troops into Congolese territory.  Vital Kamerhe, the president of the National Assembly, was removed from his position when he denounced the admission of Rwandan troops to the Congo.

Kabila’s government is also characterized by the lack of a democratic system.  For example, J. Kabila absorbed political opposition parties into his “presidential coalition,” thus weakening what could have been a true and thriving opposition, something the country desperately needs.  Moreover, the assassination of Floribet Chebeya, head of the “Voice of the Voiceless,” and his driver is further proof of human rights violations in the Congo.  General John Numbi, General Inspector of the National Police, has been implicated in this murder and is now the subject of an independent and impartial investigation called for by the UN and the international community.  Given that the Chief of Police answers to the President of the Republic and that Chebeya was investigating human rights violations by Congolese higher-ups, there is little room for speculation about the motive for the assassination.  Similarly, Amnesty International reports that two other human rights activists “were prosecuted in August and September respectively after their organizations published reports critical of [Congolese] authorities.  Numerous others have been arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated in custody.”

The leaders of the Congo have squandered the last five decades. Instead of lauding the fiftieth anniversary, the nation should reflect on the lack of progress over these fifty years. While it is true that foreign interests have meddled in Congolese affairs, it is the government’s responsibility to protect the country from outside aggression and influence while continuously building and improving it.  The very nature of democracy makes it possible for a democratic nation to engage in discussions of ideas for enriching the nation.  Similarly, a vibrant civil society is needed, especially in a country where political opposition is practically non-existent, to inform the people of their rights and responsibilities, initiate micro-development projects and challenge political decisions.  By refusing to practice democracy, Congolese presidents have stifled the remarkable inventiveness of their people and wasted the country’s numerous endowments.  The assassination and imprisonment of human rights activists and other civil society members has deprived the country of important actors who could otherwise greatly contribute to the country’s well-being.

Despite threats and intimidation, opposition parties should reassemble and play their role to the fullest.  Though many of their members have been imprisoned or assassinated, civil society members must continue their work and challenge political power.  This will be crucial to the advancement of the Congo and to ensuring a better future. It is necessary that the Congolese diaspora be a dynamic component of Congolese civil society.  Diaspora members must give back to their country and remain involved in all arenas, beginning with insisting on democracy.  However, in order to have a functioning democracy, citizens must be well informed and educated, so this must figure into any development plans. Micro-projects, such as the Mutombo Dikembe Hospital in Kinshasa, must also be promoted.

HNN Special: Congo's Fiftieth Birthday


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