Why Don't We Care About Congo's Dead?
Is it true that atrocities in Africa garner little international attention because the victims are black?
The recent kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian girls has generated empathy and outrage worldwide, undermining such a claim. The international shame and guilt over Rwanda’s genocide, despite coming too late, also proves that global concern for African lives is not negligible. Indeed the news media often cover stories like the hunt for Joseph Kony and his exploitation of child soldiers in Uganda, the killings in Darfur, Sudan, or the armed attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
But what happens when millions of Africans die in a conflict in which some of the world’s most desired natural resources are at stake? Very little, it turns out. The massacres that have taken place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have surpassed genocidal proportions but rarely spur the outrage they deserve in the media or public.
Since 1996, 6 million Congolese have been killed in a series of invasions and violent conflicts often instigated by armies and militias from neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, which are both U.S. allies. The battles have centered on access to Congo’s vast mineral deposits. According to an advertisement lauding Congo’s riches on The Washington Post’s website, “In terms of its untapped mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the richest countries in the world. Its soil is reputed to contain every mineral listed on the periodic table and these minerals are found in concentrations high enough to make metal analysts weep.”
Maurice Carney, the co-founder and executive director of Friends of the Congo, in an interview on Uprising, told me, “Congo has been at the center of the unfolding of the drama … as it relates to the geostrategic pursuit to control the riches of the African continent.” He thinks the media fail to adequately cover Congo’s conflict because “if you look at Darfur, the bogeymen were the Arabs, the Muslims and the Chinese. In Congo, the bogeyman is the West. From the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, to the imposition of Mobutu on the Congolese people, to the backing of the invasion of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda, the West is complicit.” In fact, Carney said, “The United States has been on the wrong side of history [in the Congo] from day one.”
Congo has never really been allowed to control its own destiny, save for the brief leadership of the visionary Lumumba in 1960. But Lumumba’s tenure and life were cut horribly short with the help of the CIA just months after he was democratically elected, only to be replaced by a Western backed dictator, Mobutu, who remained in power with U.S. backing for three decades. Even then, the stakes centered around Congo’s mineral wealth.
Today U.S. policy in Congo is part of its continent-wide AFRICOM project, which the military says works “in concert with interagency and international partners, builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.” Carney told me that the project’s real goal is for the U.S. “to protect its strategic interests [in order to] compete with the Chinese” for Africa’s resources.
U.S. policy on Congo also includes propping up Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. With respect to Kagame especially, despite the fact that several multinational bodies like the International Criminal Court have warned the Rwandan president that he could face prosecution for crimes in the Congo, “the U.S. has run diplomatic and political interference to protect its allies,” according to Carney, as this report maintains.
Rwanda and Uganda invaded the Congo on two separate occasions in 1996 and 1998, and fought one another on Congolese soil in 2000. But the vast majority of the millions who have died in Congo were either killed outright in armed clashes instigated by foreign-backed militias, or were driven out of their villages and died of starvation and disease after being displaced into the forests.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped as a systematic tool of mass shame to break the will of entire villages. “Militia groups terrorize villages, particularly the women,” Carney said. He hesitated, adding, “I can’t even say they ‘rape’ the women. They will inflict a form of sexual terrorism on the women, destroy their reproductive systems, humiliate them by raping them in front of their husbands and their children, or even force the children to rape their mother.” Such unspeakable horror has led entire villages to be physically and psychologically destroyed and displaced. The invading militias then have easier access to the mineral resources such as gold, coltan or tin under the land where the villagers once lived.
Meanwhile, Congo’s government under the leadership of President Joseph Kabila is too weak to defend itself and to adequately rule the more than 70 million strong population. According to Carney, Kabila’s government “lacks legitimacy among its people.” Because of that, different groups, even from outside Congo, simply enter the land and claim precious minerals. Congo’s borders are porous, even leading to serious questions of who exactly are defined as citizens.
Coltan, one of Congo’s most sought-after minerals, is used in the making of tantalum capacitors, which are ubiquitous in today’s electronic devices. Gold, tin and tungsten are also traded by armed militias for profit. Carney paraphrased Museveni, who likened Congo to a “banana plantation,” meaning that “everybody goes in and grabs what they want.”
But Congo is not just swimming in minerals crucial to today’s technological toys — it is also home to one of the world’s largest rain forests, second only to the Amazon in South America. The central African country also has enormous water resources with hundreds of rivers including the great Congo running through it. But the systematic pillaging of minerals without proper enforcement of environmental regulations has resulted in serious environmental devastation. Carney told me, “Congo is where John Perkins’ ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ meets Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine.’ For example, the mining laws of the Congo are written by the World Bank and are written in such a way as to benefit private corporations; the forestry laws are also written by the World Bank.”
So, Carney concluded, “you have these multinational institutions having undue influence in the Congo.”
Global oil company Soco International is planning a major drilling operation in Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to endangered gorillas famously studied by Dian Fossey, author of “Gorillas in the Mist.” Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site. Despite legal challenges by environmental groups, Soco is moving forward with its pre-exploration development. Another undertaking, called the Grand Inga Hydroelectric Project, is a massive dam slated for the lower end of the Congo River in the DRC. It would be the largest dam project on the river and is expected to generate twice the power of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Advocacy organization International Rivers warns that the project is expected to have “huge ecological impacts … affecting local agricultural lands and natural environments; and may cause huge methane emissions that will contribute to global warming. The effect of reduced flow in the Congo River may cause loss of biodiversity and a shift in the dominant species.”
Carney lamented that “in a sovereign nation, the government through its laws is supposed to protect the environment.” But multinational corporations, taking advantage of Congo’s weak government, are “exploiting the resources of the Congo to the point where it destroys the environment. It’s not just a question of local Congolese engagement, but it’s a global collaboration that winds up depleting and affecting the second lung of the world.”
But is it really necessary for Congo’s people and environment to suffer so tragically to satiate corporate greed and U.S. strategic interests? Despite a dearth of media coverage, there has been tremendous grass-roots activism around the world pressuring Western leaders to play a constructive role in Congo. As a result, Carney is hopeful that President Obama is taking what he called “incremental steps” in the right direction. “For the first time in 15 years,” Carney said, “the United States withheld military aid from Rwanda in 2012 and 2013.” Additionally, U.S. and U.K. officials personally called Kagame, urging him to stop backing M23, the main Rwandan militia responsible for much of the violence in Congo. Carney credits such actions for resulting in M23’s recent defeat.
Even more heartening are Congo’s own social movements that are attempting to organize for justice and peace. Carney’s eyes lit up when telling me about Congo’s dynamic youth activists, who cite the slogan “I do whatever is necessary,” an English translation of a popular French slogan. Congo is a very young country, with a median age of 17. “Young people throughout the country are organizing to transform the society,” Carney said. “They believe there is a fundamental change that is needed — a new society where leaders represent the interests of the people.” Like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the American civil rights era, Congo’s youth are “going into communities and rural areas, speaking with pastors, educating their peers, training people about the responsibility and the role of Congolese as citizens, letting people know about the geostrategic game that is being played, letting people know what is at stake in the Congo.”
Excitingly, Congo’s youth are also reigniting the vision of their own hero, Patrice Lumumba, by reading his works and hearing his speeches to inform their activism. Hip-hop artists are incorporating Lumumba’s speeches into their music.
Congolese activists are also harnessing the very technological tools containing the minerals for which their land is being ravaged in order to strengthen their work. American and Canadian students have been sending BlackBerry phones, laptop computers and digital cameras through groups like Friends of the Congo so that Congolese activists can communicate with like-minded people in other parts of the country and beyond. Carney told me this sort of solidarity is crucial for young people to be able “to broaden their vision of the world, tap into different ideas, engage in dialogue and exchange in a way that’s going to empower them.” Most importantly, Carney said, “By virtue of them being able to connect with young people outside the country, it lets them know they’re not alone.”
It is past time for the world to give Congo the attention it deserves, and to send a strong message that its people are not alone or forgotten.