Reverse Congo's Melancholy History


The Democratic Republic of Congo's problem is its wealth. It is the size of Western Europe, and it is quite staggeringly rich in diamonds, coal, oil, and coltan, an essential ingredient in mobile telephones.

Its very identity is a product of European rapacity; its multitude of tribes and languages were brought together as the private fiefdom of Leopold II in 1885, King of the Belgians, and run as his personal labour camp.

Estimates of the number of Congolese killed in his relentless quest for rubber range from a conservative 3 million to 8 million. One of the iconic images of that time—circulated by a BMS missionary—is of a father crouched over the severed hand and foot of his young daughter.

They had been hacked off because he had failed to meet his quota.

The wicked do not always get their just deserts in this life, and Leopold died in his bed. But the relatively humane Belgian regime which followed those darkest days epitomised all the evils of colonialism. The Republic of the Congo was wholly unprepared for independence. Its infrastructure was designed to benefit Belgium, not its own people. It had a tiny educated class, with no technical or government experience.

It soon became the victim of Cold War politics and tribal rivalries, and quickly fell into the hands of the kleptocrat Mobuto. The civil war which followed his departure in 1997 cost millions of lives, and as the terrible events in Eastern Congo have shown, it is not over yet.

The DRC's problem is its wealth. It is the size of Western Europe, and it is quite staggeringly rich in diamonds, coal, oil, and coltan, an essential ingredient in mobile telephones.

It is these riches which fuel the conflicts which continue to disfigure the country. Without strong government and high standards of public life, they present a temptation to the powerful which they see no reason to resist.

A contributing factor to this continuing tragedy is the influence of China. It is desperate for natural resources to fuel its rocket-like economic growth, and will take them where it can find them.

From bitter experience, Western powers have learned that throwing money at developing countries without attaching conditions—namely government reform, accountability and social investment in health and education—is not only morally wrong, but stores up grief beyond measure for future generations. If China wants to take its place among nations shaping the world for good, it must not abdicate its responsibilities, either in Congo or in the Sudan.

The cri de coeur from Baptist leader Andre Bokundoa is very poignant. 'This war is mainly because of Congolese minerals which we believe are a gift from God. Shall we die because of a gift from heaven?'

That has been Congo's melancholy history since first it came into contact with those who could exploit its wealth.

It may be that at last the world is prepared to say 'Enough'; to halt the flow of arms, to cease buying diamonds and coltan, to refuse to deal with those whose only thought is for themselves.

If the so-called international community cannot solve this, it faces its greatest failure since it began to conceive itself as a community.

Rev. Mark Woods is editor of Britain's Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.

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