53 years later - a brief look back for Independence Day in the DRC
Today, on the 30th of June 1960, the Belgian Congo was officially given back to its original owners. 53 years later the country is unfortunately worse off than before independence. This entry is a brief look back - on the Congos history but also our first three months in the country.
Just briefly: what are we doing here: We decided to go to the DRC as Melaine took a job as Project Manager with an US-American Research Center (Woods Hole) in March. The first weeks we were accompanied by the directors and an administrator of the organization for a whirl wind tour of the area they plan on working in, to implement a Pilot of a so called REDD+ project.
REDD stands for Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and has been mainly put in place to keep the large primary forest intact in places like the Congo, to help mitigate Climate Change (if that is still possible). The project is actually financed by the Norwegian and British governments, that recognized the importance of keeping the forest in tact - for all of us. The African Development Bank is (unfortunately) responsible for releasing these funds, at the same time the project is supposed to involve the congolese Ministry of Environment and of course the effected population.
To me it was surprising to hear that it is not so much large logging companies that take down the forest, but mostly the people living in and around the forest. Data in the Congo is hard to come by, the last Census for example was done in 1984. So one of the first steps for the project is to investigate the main drivers of deforestation. That being said, one can see that the lack of electricity and other fuels to cook and heat water with are severely lacking the DRC. With the lack of transport of any kind (most roads the Belgians had left half a century ago have been reclaimed by the forest and the Congo river that lies so conveniently next to our city of Mbandaka has not been trenched or mapped, making navigation a gamble with poorly maintained boots and crews). People have little access to inputs or information.
And this is were it becomes a general overview of the history of the DRC : ) The shape of what we currently know as Democratic Republic of Congo was actually determined in 1885 in Berlin. At the conference King Leopold II decided to have this area as his private colony (after Henry Morton Stanley had explore the area - originally searching for the famous Dr.Livingston - and unsuccessfully tried to convince the British Crown to take on another African colony). As Belgium was only known as a state since 1830 it's King was eager to get into the "colonial game" of economic exploitation that had been ongoing (after slave trade had almost collapsed at the time in this part of Africa). As the belgian government at the time was not interested King Leopold II took the colony as his personal possession. He committed unspeakable atrocities, as his interested was economic only; Limps and genitals were cut off the local population to increase pressure on them to collect and hand over even more ivory and rubber. The Krup cannon was also used to kill, "setting examples" for poor behavior; communities and families were ripped apart with women and children being kept to "motivate" the men to work faster and harder. An estimated 10-15 million congolese (up to 50% of the population at the time) died from 1885-1908!!!
Only after even the european powers were disgusted with Leopolds behavior did he hand over the colony to the Belgian government. The Belgian continued with only slight differences. They did build roads to explore the mineral riches in the east of the country, as well as hospitals and treated the population in an odd combination between slaves and children that needed to be taken care of. Independence surprised both the Belgian and the Congolese. Without much of a fight before 1960 the idea of independence arose on the African continent, as european powers were weakened and occupied by the results of WWII. The problem with the Belgian attitude towards all Congolese, to treat them like children, resulted in there being absolutely no high ranking officials, no local military leadership, no one that was introduced to the structure and organization, and only 17 people, out of 25 million that had a college degree. In 1955 the Belgians drafted a ridiculous 30-year plan to hand over the power, but that was way too long, and by 1959 the Belgians finally loosened their grip.
In 1960 the Belgian Congo becomes independent with Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and JosephKasavubu as president. Patrice Lumumba sees the future of his country without any involvement of the West and made clear that he will not allow independent regions, that would continue to be exploited - Katanga specifically. A region in the East of the Congo that holds vast mineral wealth and Belgians already had mines set up, was in the center of the debate.
After the UN denied Lumumba support he turned to the Soviet, which in midst of the Cold War raised the USA hackles. With only 6 days in power, and 7 months on the run, Lumumba was executed in horrific ways by the Belgian secrete service, with support of the CIA and local Congolese.
Mobuto was already involved as Lumumba appointed him to be head of the army. He did see his former friend and colleague Lumumba one last time before execution, did nothing to stop the killing, but eventually used Lumuba in all of his campaigns, pretending to be his best friend all along.
Mobutu of course is a chapter on its own. The man that ruled for 32 years officially and made the world come up with a new term just for him: Kleptocracracy: defined as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed".
The damage this man has done over his three decades in power is hard to underestimate. A man without any care of the general well-being of his population, completely paranoid simply paying everyone around him off - aids, ministers, army generals, family and friends. Every one received a piece of the pie. His fear of a coup-d'etat caused him to only have one-on-one meeting, promising whatever was asked, never following through on anything, and continuously reshuffled his cabinet. The Congo, which he renamed Zaire in 1971 (a bad Portuguese translation), saw 52 cabinets during his 32 year rule. A great speaker he knew how to convince - and keep his donors close. The US, France and Belgium continued to pay for his extraordinary life and could allow him to build things like an extended Concord landing strips to his jungle palace Gbadolite (in the north of Equateur), so he could fly in is favorite Laurent Perrier Champagne from Paris within 4 hours. The amount of money he stole from the Congolese people is still subject to debate. Some estimates go up to $14billion (which was on par with the national debt at the time), but almost none of it was to be found after he passed away (then again, the Swiss were never too eager to return money of deceased) While Mobuto was a terrible economist, simply not interested in numbers, he was smart enough not to keep money in his name and also not sign for anything himself, only given withdrawal orders to his staff orally. At the end he died of cancer in his Moroccan exile, with little left to show for his 32 year rule. As Michela Wrong in "the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz" puts it: "Whatever bloody deeds were carried out on his orders, this will always constitute Mobutu's worst human rights violation: the destruction of an economy that quashed a generation's aspirations.
As this entry is turning out to be absurdly long, let me just summarize that the next two after Mobuto - Kabila Sr. and Kabila Jr. have not made the situation any better. Now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country ranks 186 out of 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index that considers Income, Health and Education among many indicators. The war in the East has been ongoing since Mobuto left office in 1997. An estimated 5.4 million people have lost there lives because of this conflict since then. Unspeakable atrocities are committed against women and girls, as rape as been used as a weapon of war. The war of course has been motivated and fueled by the enormous mineral wealth in the East: 70% of the worlds Coltan deposits (vital for cell phones, computers, fighter jets) are here. But also Copper, Gold, Diamonds, Oil, Zin and other rare earths, making the DRC the second riches countries in the world based on their mineral resource wealth. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 had a large impact on the DRC, as millions of Hutu refugees fled into the country, then followed and often massacred by the Tutsi. Again a subject that would need a separate Chapter.
All in all 70% of the population live below the poverty line (less than $1 per day). As production of any sort has come to a halt long ago, 90% of products of all sorts (including food) have to be imported. 1/3 of children do not go to school, while mean years of schooling is below even the african average with 3.5 years. Life expectancy is 48 years, with 50% of the population being below 20 years of age. In this young nation not many are left to tell the story of change - or lack thereof.
Numbers are even more depressing for the equateur region in which we live. 94% of people live below the poverty line! 40% of children do not attend school. 15% are severe or acute malnourished Health care has completely collapsed. During the three months while we were here we witnessed continues Malaria threats, a measles epidemic as well as Cholera. Thanks to Doctors without boarders the city of Mbandaka was safe, but life is still hard. 800,000 people without running water or electricity. The only thing that runs is the Bralima beer factory, and while we could grow just about anything manioc is the only thing being readily available. The main causes of this mess is greed and corruption. They do exist everywhere but impunity has turned this sick game into a culture of who can be most corrupt. As of now it is hard to see any significant improvement in the the near future unless leadership changes - today.
53 years after independence, there isn't much cause for celebration. And in fact from the balcony of the convent turned hotel, I hear no loud music from the dance-and-sing-loving Congolese. Implementing a project in these circumstance is challenging. The + in the REDD+ stands for the development aspect of the project. Understand and offer alternatives and opportunities to a population living in the vast forest. Without adequate schools, hospitals, roads or laws this is big task, but projects like this are even more needed as the world has seemingly turned a blind eye to the suffering in the heart of Africa.