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Plunder and war

With around four million dead and the country in the hands of competing warlords, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has seen the world's worst conflict in the past decade. David Renton and Leo Zeilig see little cause for optimism in the recent multiparty elections

October 1, 2006
8 min read

Since the end of the second world war, few countries have seen fighting on the scale of recent events in the Congo. As well as the indigenous armed groups, six African states and more than 200,000 foreign troops also took part. The International Rescue Committee estimated that from 1998 to the end of April 2004 approximately 3. 8 million people were killed in the country.

It is easy to understand, then, the enthusiasm with which many western journalists have responded to the country’s first elections, which are set for a final run-off contest at the end of October. Some writers compared events in Kinshasa, the DRC capital, to South Africa’s first democratic elections. There were the same long queues of people, waiting patiently to vote.

But other images also escaped – of a capital in which no posters were allowed save those endorsing President Kabila.

Demonstrators loyal to longstanding democracy campaigner Etienne Tshisekedi clashed with the police. And from the northeast border, stories came back of other protests ending with dozens of people killed.

In the aftermath of the vote, the negative impressions came to the fore. Troops loyal to the current president, Joseph Kabila, fought others loyal to his main rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba. While these particular clashes have since died down, the impression given is of a mere lull in the fighting.

The elections are perhaps best seen as just one phase in the country’s recent history of plunder and war. The period running up to the contest has witnessed the return of many multinational companies to regions that they had previously watched from a distance. There were attempts to reintroduce gold and copper mining and to start oil exploration, particularly in the north east of the country – the very region where the worst of the killings had previously taken place.

One of the companies heavily implicated in the war was the gold mining concern, AngloGold Ashanti, a subsidiary of the multinational Anglo American. Ashanti was connected to a rebel group, the Front Nationaliste et Intégrationiste (FNI), which assisted the company’s access to gold reserves situated around the town of Mongbwalu. The company provided financial support to the FNI.

Although the company initially won mining rights to a gold concession in 1996, it was not until 2003 that it began serious exploration. Only once the transitional government had taken power in Kinshasa did the Mongbwalu region become properly accessible to business. AngloGold Ashanti vice president Charles Carter says of his company’s role: ‘While this is obviously a tough environment right now, we are looking forward to the opportunity to fully explore the properties we have in the Congo, believing that we now have access to potentially exciting growth prospects in central Africa. ‘

The 2003 peace agreement saw the government attempt to reclaim control over the country’s resources. Licences were negotiated with the Canadian- British Heritage Oil Company for the Congolese side of the Semliki valley. The company claimed that the area would become a worldclass oil basin. Mindful of the region’s turbulence, it had already made contacts with local chiefs the previous year.

One of these, Chief Kahwe of Mandro, was fighting to take control of the region’s capital, Bunia, from another rebel group, the Union des Patriots Congolais (UPC). Kahwe explained in February 2003: ‘I have been contacted by the Canadian oil people, who came to see me. I told them they could only start work in Ituri once I had taken Bunia from the UPC. ‘

The second process tied to the 2003 peace deal was just as important. Rebel commanders responsible for much of the killing and slaughter in the war were incorporated into the Congolese army.

Jean Pierre Bemba’s rebel group, the Mouvement de Libération Congolais (MLC), emerged in the first two years of the war. Bemba himself did not rise out of any guerrilla struggle, but was promoted in early 2001 as a regional player in the war by Uganda for his business connections – he is a mobile phone entrepreneur. One commentator explained that it was ‘due to his growing reputation for getting results, Uganda selected him to head the umbrella organisation’.

In 2001, Uganda received $81 million in ‘development assistance and food aid’ from the US; in 2003, the total amounted to approximately $70 million. The Bush government awarded Uganda favoured trading status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2002.

Within Congo, Joseph Kabila is also seen as an upstart. He owes his position to the activities of his father, Laurent Kabila, one-time Maoist guerrilla, later Washington darling, and variously the protégé of first Rwanda and then Zimbabwe.

Days before Kabila senior took power, the Times(22 April 1997) reported that: ‘Mining multinationals have signed billion-dollar deals for mineral rights with Laurent Kabila, Zaire’s rebel leader, to get ahead in what is being billed as the “second scramble” for Africa. Executives with the companies said that they are happy to do business with rebels, who control all of Zaire’s mineral resources other than its offshore oilfields… The unusual alliance [brings together] big business and revolutionaries, many of whom were Chinesetrained Maoists and Marxists in their youth.’ When the elder Kabila died, his son was pushed forward to front the same alliance.

‘He is not even Congolese,’ people tell you, expressing in that way the great contrast between Kabila and the first elected president of the country, the leftinclined Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered on Belgian and American orders in January 1961. Lumumba’s killing created the conditions for the 32-year rule of the pro-western dictator, General Mobutu Sese Seku. The Congo is still trapped in the long period of scrabbling for power that followed Mobutu’s removal.

During the past ten years, groups such as Bemba’s MLC have clashed with other militia for control of minerals. Resources have then been exported through Rwanda or Uganda, and bought by multinationals. The relative calm of the ‘transition’ to the elections has led to the further direct involvement of the corporations.

The west’s recent interest in Congolese democracy has been underpinned by a desire to secure access to the country’s immense natural resources. In March this year, the EU agreed to send a multinational force to help oversee the elections. The German defence minister made the underlying intentions clear: ‘[European] industry would benefit from the stability of a region rich in raw materials. ‘ Yet in the rush to assist the Congolese the EU forgot to consult even the African Union or the DRC.

Western intervention, usually mediated by regional proxies but often direct, has been a cornerstone of the war from 1998 to the present. In 2002, a UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of National Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of Congo published a report that demonstrated the fortunes being made out of the Congolese people’s suffering. The exploitation of minerals was found to be funding rebel groups and feeding global business networks. The report’s conclusion stated that foreign companies ‘were ready to do business regardless of elements of unlawfulness . . . Companies trading minerals which the Panel considered to be the engine of the conflict in the Congo have prepared the field for illegal mining activities in the country.’

Since the elections, US politicians have proposed that all factions should be compelled to work together in a government of national unity. As in occupied Iraq, it is a formula that places the minimum emphasis on popular choice and gives the maximum opportunities for foreign governments to pick and choose between malleable partners. And by defining parties in ethnic terms, it creates the conditions for further years of inter-ethnic warfare.

Yet the people of the Congo have a magnificent history of resistance to both domestic and international plunderers. After the Congo was first captured, by Belgian colonialists, rebellions continued for decades. Parts of the country were liberated: one region, Lake Kisale, withstood all attempts at occupation for 13 years.

Lumumba’s victory in 1960 was the product of a sustained period of resistance, including great copper strikes and a near insurrection in 1959. Something similar took place in the early 1990s, when a mass movement of millions of people wrested power from Mobutu – the churches were at the forefront of the campaign. Half a revolution took place, without the people going quite far enough to take power into their own hands.

Unlike the current elections, the rebirth of this protest movement would offer the people of the Congo real hope.David Renton and Leo Zeilig are, with David Seddon, the authors of The Congo: Plunder and Resistance (Zed, 2006)

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