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The Horror, the Horror

Posted on Feb 28, 2014

Zed Books

By Nomi Prins

“The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair”
A book by Michael Deibert

“The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair” by Michael Deibert is a grim and difficult book to read, despite the author’s masterful reporting. It is painful because of the visceral attention and emotion his work demands. The tragic and depressing tale of Congo is steeped in the gruesome brutality and avarice of elite leaders-cum-plunderers. It is a story we must know.

Deibert spares readers no detail of the horrors inflicted on a population whose only crime is one of location. It is agonizing material to absorb. After yet another killing, another raid and another rape, you want the book to end. Only there is no end. Not for the Congolese. That Deibert can so compassionately balance their predicament against the voracity of their leaders and pillagers speaks volumes about his skill as an on-the-ground journalist.

He expertly untangles the myriad political and ethnic factions, their acronyms (for which he helpfully provides a glossary), and the leaders who dwell in Congo and the surrounding countries of Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda, Angola and the Central African Republic.

Today, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Congo’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame flit between competing and collaborating on a long-standing mission: gaining control over Congo’s abundant natural resources. Meanwhile, the world does precious little, beyond lip service, to defend Congo’s inhabitants. Indeed, world political and economic powers are not only complicit through passive acquiescence, but also actively encourage and facilitate the monstrous pillage of Congo.

Deibert begins with his exploration of the remote Eastern part of Congo, which he traverses with a driver and a translator. He ushers us “over windswept green hills from the dusty, dilapidated provincial capital of Bunia” to Ituri, “a patchwork of ethnic groups and subgroups”—broadly, the “Hema” and “Lendu.” Stemming from these divisions are “a panoply of other armed groups, each with its own competing, overlapping and colliding agendas, and a civilian population, including a substantial number of Mbuti pygmies, made to suffer the consequences of the mad scramble for power and riches.” He explains how slaughters in Ituri, as for Congo, trace back to Uganda and Rwanda. Such is the entwinement of Africa’s power elite.

Deibert examines U.S. support for the colonization of Congo, how American President Chester Arthur came “to recognize [Belgium King] Leopold’s claim to Congo in early 1884,” and the Berlin Conference that “entrusted an expanse the size of Western Europe to the whims of a king who had never set foot there.”

Echoing Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Deibert writes, “the 1885 to 1908 existence of the Congo Free State was and remains one of history’s great crimes, but at the time the rape and pillage of the prostrate land continued with much approbation from the world at large.” At the time, plundering another country’s resources did not raise eyebrows among the powerful. Sadly, the only change has been the perpetrators, as Deibert elucidates throughout the book.

After decades of struggle, Congo declared itself independent on June 30, 1960. Seven months later, foreshadowing the corruption and violence that would escalate for decades, “[Patrice] Lumumba, the figure that more than any other single person symbolized Congo’s independence and its refutation of foreign domination,” was killed.

Deibert then depicts the rise of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who after launching two coups, declared himself president in November 1965. Ruling for 32 years, he infused Congo with a “cult of personality to rival anything Africa had seen before or since.” He despotically centralized state control over Congo’s provinces, reducing their number from 21 to eight within eight months in 1966, instigating massacres along the way.

Deibert broadens the story of Congo’s ongoing conflict with its neighbors, bluntly recounting their genocidal actions. “The opening shot in the Rwandan genocide was fired,” Deibert explains, “around 8 p.m. on the evening of 6 April 1994.” Hutu military and militia went on to kill nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days.

As Deibert fumes, based on voluminous evidence, “It is hard to overstate the immorality that characterized the response of Western governments during the crisis. … In the case of US President Bill Clinton, it meant a policy of feckless, narcissistic self-interest, as the administration … spearheaded efforts to remove UNAMIR troops from Rwanda, refused to use US technological know-how to block genocidaire radio transmissions and avoided any public use of the word ‘genocide’ for fear that it somehow might be compelled to act.”

After further violence through the 1990s, Deibert presents Congo’s young current leader, Kabila, taking the helm of a nation crippled by decades of corruption and half a decade of war. Sworn in as president on Jan. 25, 2001, Kabila sought international favor through a whirlwind tour of world capitals, including visits with French President Jacques Chirac, a prayer breakfast with President George W. Bush and Rwanda leader Kagame, and a meeting with Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. Deibert illuminates the swath of atrocities since Kabila’s reign began, as factions within and beyond Congo fought Kabila’s power and he fought theirs. The civilian populations were the casualties.

In stark contrast to these embattled, impoverished and powerless citizens are Congo’s vast resources. Their pillaging is an “armed robbery of epic proportions,” in which “Congolese officials, their neighbors in Africa and the international community were all complicit.”

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