The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Insight into the Nation’s Past and Present

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kate Hannon, Staff Writer

Colonization first touched the central African kingdom of the Congo in 1876, when King Leopold the Second of Belgium first lay claim to the area. The Belgians abused the Congolese lands and people in search of rubber and ivory. This rule would eventually be supported by financial groups from the United States who were interested in the conflict metals that were plentiful in the Congo (tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold). The cruel treatment of the native peoples lasted until 1960, when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was formally formed. This parliamentary democracy lasted only a few months, until squabbles among rulers allowed Joseph Mobutu to lead a mutiny.

Joseph Mobutu created a harsh dictatorship in his country, the newly named “Republic of Zaire.” He abused the human rights of his people and under his rule, he allowed infrastructure to collapse and debt to skyrocket, all the while increasing his personal wealth. His rule was supported by the United States government regardless of these transgressions, simply because Mobutu was strongly opposed to communism during the Cold War period. During his time as Head of State, Joseph Mobutu met with three US Presidents and relations only began to cool after the Soviet Union dissolved, and the relationship between the two countries was no longer deemed necessary to the American government.

A few years later, neighboring Rwanda was plunged into chaos after conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis led to the genocide of the Tutsi people. This led to the dispersal of Tutsi refugees into Zaire. The mixing of peoples between the two countries continued, and this eventually escalated into a coalition between the armies of the Congo and Rwanda rising up and toppling Mobutu’s regime. These forces were led by Joseph Kabila, who then took over and renamed the country the Congo. He ruled until his assassination, when his son, Joseph Kabila the Second, was appointed President. In 2005, his defeat of an opponent in an election set off yet another round of riots and a civil war.

The history of the DRC is one of conflict, a conflict that continues even today. This conflict affects every facet of life for the Congolese people. One example of this is the extreme poverty that the vast majority of Congolese are subjected to. Although the country is very rich in natural resources, the average person never sees the benefits of these resources. The benefits of these resources are seen by the militias that take over the mines and the surrounding areas, as well as by the companies and governments that fund the militias.

One brutal tactic that soldiers use to force these people from their homes is sexual violence against the Congolese women. In the Congo, over 40 women are raped every day, with 13% of victims being under the age of 14 and 3% dying from the assault. The sexual violence causes families to leave the victim out of shame, due to a culture of victim-blaming that is especially awful due to the frequency of sexual violence in the area. The rapists use this shame to help clear out villages that are considered useful due to the natural resources surrounding them. Rape was officially designated a “weapon of war” in the Congo by the United Nations in 2008. The use of sexual assault as a war tactic is especially notable given the recent “Me Too” movement in the United States and Europe. As we begin to acknowledge the traumatic experiences Western women have faced, it’s important that the far greater suffering of Congolese women is no longer forgotten or ignored. This is especially true considering the actions of western countries and companies that helped to create such a tenuous situation, and have profited off of it ever since.

Thanks in no small amount to the use of sexual violence, the various militias have succeeding in displacing many Congolese people. An estimated 2.3 million people today are homeless in the Congo. This large homeless population has contributed to the shocking number of child soldiers fighting in the Congo today. While children in the Congo compromise only 19% of the population, they account for 47% of those killed. There are two common ways that children become child soldiers; The children could be born into these groups, or they might be abducted and forced to fight. In either case, the children suffer unfairly and often die.

Life for the people living in the DRC is very challenging. Although the Second Congo War ended in 2003, fighting has continued. The Congo became even more unstable after Joseph Kabila the Second refused to step down in December 2016, inspiring more riots and violence from opposition groups. The election will finally be held on December 23rd of this year, and Kabila has agreed not to run after pressure from the U.S., E.U., and the Congo’s close ally, Angola. However, he has selected a diehard loyalist in former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. This defies Western powers such as the European Union, as Ramanzani is currently under E.U. sanctions for the use of human rights violations. One such violation was the use of deadly force on protestors and pro-democracy groups. This choice shows that if Ramazani is elected, Kabila will likely remain closely involved in national politics. This is worrisome because although opposition group candidates hold a healthy majority in the few polls that have been conducted,  inability to coalesce between one candidate, as well as alleged voter fraud by the current ruling party could lead to a victory for Ramazani.

The situation in the Congo is arguably one of the greatest tragedies of our time. The country is widely considered “the rape capital of the world,” and there are more child soldiers involved in the conflict than in perhaps any other area of the world. The resource rich country houses some of the poorest people in the world, while their rulers have for decades profited off of their labor. Before that, the native people were abused for centuries by European colonizers who considered only their own riches, and never the humanity of the exploited peoples. For these reasons, the DRC contains the largest UN Peacekeeping mission of any country, and the United States now has laws requiring any use of conflict minerals to be documented and available to the public. But is this enough? The United States in particular has had many questionable policies which further destabilize the region and have opened the door for more violence. One American policy that time has shown to be detrimental to the Congo was the decision to spare it’s allies, Uganda and Rwanda, from any real sanctions over their alleged funding of violence in the DRC. This allowed the countries to continue abusing human rights without consequences. These countries, as well as the United States, profit off of the Congo every year. Rwanda and Uganda, and perhaps even the United States, are willing to sacrifice the lives of the Congolese in order to protect these profits.

The so-called “Forgotten War” in the Congo is the deadliest war since World War Two. An estimated 45,000 people continue to die each month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But no one is talking about the Congo, because no one wants to acknowledge the realities of the conflict. Countries like Belgium, America, and their allies have caused and profited from one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, and our economy relies upon the conflict minerals that have inspired so much suffering. As a society, we must wake up to the suffering of the Congo and correct our past mistakes in order to create solutions for long term peace in the country.