Pope Francis’s recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo has focused world attention on a “forgotten genocide” in a region long exploited by outsiders and devastated by the consequences of endless wars. For more than a century, Congolese rubber, ivory, and minerals have enriched the coffers of colonial and Cold War powers — and, after the Cold War, China, neighboring countries, and the West. The people and their labor have been ruthlessly exploited, their bodies brutalized, their villages plundered, their women raped, and civilians murdered.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis told the cheering crowd. “We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere. What is happening here needs to be known.”
What needs to be known is the role that outsiders have played in instigating and exacerbating Congo’s endless wars. Dominating the public relations campaign, perpetrators have successfully blamed victims for their own plight. While local actors certainly deserve a share of the blame, their impact has been intensified by external support.
Congo’s exploitation by outsiders began in the sixteenth century, when the territory became a major source of slaves for colonial Brazil. Following the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century, Congo was pillaged for rubber and ivory. King Leopold II of Belgium claimed Congo as his personal fiefdom and imposed a harsh labor regime that consumed five to eight million lives between 1890 and 1910 and left countless others maimed and disabled. When the atrocities were exposed, international outcry — both by humanitarians and by fellow imperialists who hoped to gain Congo for themselves — forced Leopold to relinquish the territory to Belgium in 1908. Exploitation continued, although severed hands and mass murder were no longer a prominent feature.
As the “wind of change” blew over the African continent in the 1950s and ’60s and anti-colonial activists forced imperial powers to grant political independence, the Cold War superpowers vied with one another for influence. Congo, rich in strategic minerals and bordered by nine other territories in Central, Southern, and East Africa, was a coveted prize.
Following Congo’s independence in June 1960, it became a key Cold War battleground in Africa. The West, including Belgium and the United States, along with white settler states and foreign mineral companies, targeted then prime minister Patrice Lumumba, whose economic nationalism and political nonalignment threatened their interests. Deeming Lumumba a Soviet stooge, Washington helped orchestrate a coup d’état and joined forces with Brussels and local opposition forces to assassinate the elected leader. Belgium, together with other colonial powers and the white settler governments, supported separatist movements that would ensure that Congolese mineral wealth would remain in Western hands.
In the decade that followed, the CIA helped install compliant political leaders and trained a mercenary army that quelled a Lumumbist insurgency in the east. Mercenary pilots bombed railroads, bridges, and populated areas, while mercenary and Congolese soldiers raped, robbed, and killed civilian populations. In 1965, following a coup d’état by CIA protégé general Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the United States threw its support to the military strongman, helping him establish a sophisticated, well-equipped army that transformed Congo into a regional powerhouse. For the next three decades, his corrupt and brutal dictatorship wreaked havoc on Congo while enriching Mobutu, his family, and associates. Valuing Mobutu as its regional policeman, the United States turned a blind eye to his atrocities until the Cold War ended and Washington severed its ties.
The withdrawal of US military support rendered Mobutu vulnerable to a pro-democracy movement and to rebel forces that had challenged his rule since the 1960s. After the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, genocide perpetrators, aided by France, fled to Congo, from where they launched attacks and plotted a return to power. Rwanda and Uganda, in turn, backed rebel forces that drove Mobutu from power in 1997 and seized control of the embattled state.
The most recent spate of Congo wars, launched in 1996, continue to plague the country. The conflicts have attracted foreign armies and their local proxies, who have fought over the nation’s political future and mineral wealth. Civilian populations, whose death toll has surpassed 5.5 million, have been the biggest losers. Displacement and economic collapse have led to hunger, disease, and malnutrition. Women and children have been especially affected. More than two hundred thousand women and girls have been raped and brutalized, while tens of thousands of children have been abducted and forced to work as fighters, miners, cooks, porters, and sex slaves.
Externally imposed peace accords, designed by political and economic elites, have led to new governments that have perpetuated many of these abusive practices and failed to address deep structural inequalities. Unresolved are the distribution of land and resources, the impunity of armed groups and their external backers, and the absence of responsive government, rule of law, and a security sector that can protect the civilian population. Pro-democracy activists, members of the internal political opposition, and civil society more generally were not party to the discussions or included in the new governments, which were often installed after elections plagued by corruption and violence.
Outsiders have initiated or worsened the situation. Most of the Great Lakes countries and others from East, Central, and Southern Africa have been involved, supporting various factions and pillaging the country’s mineral wealth. Rwanda, especially, has backed numerous rebel forces and used Congo’s resources to rebuild its post-genocide economy. UN peacekeepers have failed to protect civilian populations and have often participated in the abuses and plunder.
There is no doubt that instability in Congo is the product of both internal and external factors. Long-standing political, economic, and social inequalities; the legacies of colonial and Cold War practices; and the determination of political and economic elites to protect their power and wealth have led to numerous domestic conflicts that foreign interests have exploited. Although the presence of Rwandan genocide perpetrators served as the immediate justification for intervention in the 1990s, this rationale masked many others. Congo’s mineral riches attracted the attention of outsiders, who looted the country’s wealth to build their own. Although the UN, the African Union, and African subregional bodies sponsored several plans to establish stability and a framework for a new political order, their efforts were hindered by the competing interests of their members and the failure to address the underlying causes of local conflicts.
It should not require a visit from the pope to focus world attention on African conflicts that have taken millions of lives, especially when outsiders have provoked and intensified these endless wars. It is high time that the devastating impact of foreign interventions in Africa be taken as seriously as those in Europe.