Few countries have suffered more during the transitions of international history than the Congo. After the Conference of Berlin in 1885 a pan-continental invasion of Africa put 90 per cent of the territory under European rule. King Leopold II of Belgium didn’t want to miss out on this land-grab and hired an explorer to reconnoitre the area of central Africa now recognised as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The king inflicted a brutal regime of atrocities on the indigenous population after taking the land as his personal property.
In common with modern exploitation of the country, Leopold was after the vast bounty of resources held within the land: primarily the rich supply of natural rubber. Horror tactics such as cutting off the right hands of workers (often young children) who didn’t meet quotas and taking hostage the women of a community until rubber was gathered were the methods of this barbaric colony. A contemporary newspaper recorded the dismemberment of 1308 hands in one day.
The effect of this experiment in colonialism was devastating to the Congolese: halving the population from 20 to 10 million in just 40 years – meanwhile Leopold built palaces and human zoos stocked with his African slaves. Even by the standards of the time Leopold’s massacre and inhumanity was shocking: his actions were uncovered in 1908 (a year before his death) and the Belgian government stripped him of the territory.
Lamentably, since Congolese independence from Belgium in 1960 the land has born witness to a succession of tyrannical leaders. The first elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated within months of appointment by Western powers and Congolese sycophants. The United States then installed and backed dictator Joseph Mobutu for over three decades. Invasions by Rwanda and Uganda left nearly six million dead; President Laurent Kabila was installed in 1997 and assassinated in 2001 – succeeded by his son Joseph who remains in power today. The awful trademarks of conflict in the Congo are mass rape as a form of psychological warfare, international looting of the country’s wealth and appalling living conditions for a country of which 80 per cent of the population subsists on less than 30 cents a day.
Congo has the potential to overcome its past and develop into one of the strongest powers in Africa. The same land that lured tyrants and colonialists to the nation’s borders is the key: a storehouse of minerals such as gold, magnesium, uranium and petroleum; it is also the home to 64 per cent of the world’s reserve of the mineral coltan (essential to the mobile phone and electronics industry).
Liv.History spoke with Fufu Mussanzi: a Congolese student in Liverpool and organiser of Liverpool Congo Week, about her views on her home country what influence its history has today. Liverpool Congo week (part of October’s Black History Month) was a series of film screenings, events and discussion meetings to raise awareness about one of the most devastating areas of conflict in the world which is all too often ignored in the world media.
Liv.History, What do you think are the main reasons for the instability in the Congo today?
Fufu Mussanzi, There are a lot of factors; we have the three I’s, Impunity: a person that commits a crime goes unprosecuted, Illicit minerals: the exploitation of the country for its minerals is a huge problem, and institutional failure: a government that isn’t protecting the population.
LH Do you think that the country’s history of intervention from foreign nations has caused the problems in the Congo?
FM Of course, Patrice Lumumba came with an idea to help the people and he was not approved of by the United States – the US and Belgium could not allow him to control an area as powerful as the Congo so they removed him!
LH What can be learned from the Congo’s past?
FM That’s a difficult one: Congo’s history is tragic and fragile. One thing we can learn is the Congolese people are tired – this has been going for over a hundred years since colonization. Perhaps it needed this long for us to realize it was time to make a change.
LH Why do you think the crisis in the Congo doesn’t have the high profile of other conflicts such as Syria and the Middle East?
FM I remember moving here ten years ago with my family and we were shocked it wasn’t considered a big story. I think the news wants to stay current: because the crisis has been going on for such a long time and it is so complex it gets ignored.
LH What was your motivation for organizing Liverpool Congo Week?
FM I grew up in a war environment that I didn’t really understand until I came here, my parents who are involved with charities inspire me and I give my views as a young person.
LH What was the biggest success from Liverpool Congo Week?
FM There are so many! Just seeing normal students who want to find out more come every day encouraged me because before that sometimes I would wonder ‘do people really care?’ Other young people genuinely wanted to act!
LH Do you think that people in the UK have a good knowledge of African history?
FM Well in Congo, as soon as you get to high school you learn the history of Africa and Europe. In high school in the UK the only thing I learned that was related to African history was slavery.
LH What do you think of initiatives such as Black History Month, do they make a difference in raising awareness?
FM I really love it – there are a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on, if the profile of Congo is raised during Black History Month then that’s got to be positive.
LH What would you like to see happen in the Congo in your lifetime?
FM That’s one of my favourite questions, what I would want to see happen is more young people to know the impact the war has on them: to raise awareness and give a platform for Congolese people to be able to sort out their own problems and bring about change. We need to support young people in realising they are the next leaders who will make the changes!
Find out more at www.friendsofthecongo.org