What’s Behind the Killing in Central Africa?

When the mainstream press pays any attention to the Congo–or African wars in general–they invariably characterize the conflicts as “ethnic” or “tribal” wars, rooted in age-old hatreds. This explanation is not only false, but racist.

It provides cover for the argument that “we”–invariably some mix of Western nations, perhaps with UN cover–must intervene to stop this irrational ethnic murder. This argument is a repackaged version of the same racist excuses given for European powers’ conquest and colonization of Africa in the late 19th century–that is, to “civilize” the continent. Any prospect of resolving the Congo war requires a much different framework–one that doesn’t look to the architects of the crisis to solve it.

It is the case that the militias fighting over Bunia are based in two distinct groups, the Hema and the Lendu. As with many civil conflicts in modern Africa, ethnicity provides a mobilizing lever for politicians, just as it did in the Balkans wars in Europe in the 1990s. But the Congo war–including this latest episode, is about far more than ethnicity or regional politics.

It’s the legacy of brutal Belgian colonial rule, the Cold War and U.S. and European imperialism–all aimed at controlling the Congo’s massive mineral wealth.

In the European carve-up of Africa, the Congo was given to King Leopold of Belgium, who ran it as a private preserve for decades. Belgian rule in the Congo was barbaric even by the brutal standards of European colonialism in Africa. In their quest for rubber and ivory, the Belgians murdered as many as 15 million Congolese in the first 30 years of their rule.

When the Congo threw off the colonial regime in 1960, the Belgians hadn’t developed the infrastructure beyond the bare minimum needed to exploit its natural wealth. At the time of independence, fewer than 30 Congolese had graduated from college. Moreover, Belgian-based capital maintained vast holdings in the country, and the Belgian government–with the active participation of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in the U.S.–conspired to mold post-independence Congo to suit its desires.

Congo’s elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered a few months by Belgian agents just months after taking office–with the active support of the CIA. Lumumba was assassinated because he advocated independence from the U.S. in foreign policy–and opposed the continued domination of the country by Western political and economic interests.

After Lumumba’s death, the CIA installed the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Congo for 32 years, killing uncounted thousands and stealing an estimated $5 billion. Mobutu–who renamed the country Zaire–was always faithful to his masters in Washington, who rewarded him for being a Cold War ally against Moscow-backed “communism.”

The Cold War in Africa, however, was never cold. The U.S. and USSR fought proxy wars up and down the continent.

When Washington backed colonial and white minority governments, Mobutu gave U.S. policy an African face. It didn’t hurt Mobutu’s prospects that the Congo has immense amounts of gold, cobalt, uranium and other valuable or strategic minerals that the U.S. coveted.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, the nominally “socialist” pro-Moscow governments in Africa turned to the free-market “neoliberalism” pushed by Washington through the International Monetary Fund and other institutions. Washington had no more reason to support Mobutu’s corrupt regime and cut him loose.

Mobutu’s brutal dictatorship was overthrown in 1997 by a rebel movement led by Laurent Kabila and backed by Rwanda. Yet the country was soon plunged into what some have called “Africa’s first world war” as armies and militias from Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda and the Kabila government fought over the vast territory and rich mineral deposits in Congo.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, but the fighting has continued under the government led by his son, Joseph. This war is the background for the current bloodletting in Ituri.

Uganda and Rwanda both claimed strategic interests in invading the eastern part of the Congo, but their alliance eventually unraveled. The Ugandan army armed the Hema-based UPC, while Rwanda armed Lendu militias.

More recently, the Ugandans and Rwandans switched sides, so that now the UPC is fighting Lendu forces backed by Uganda. When the Ugandans pulled their troops out of Ituri earlier this year under a peace deal, the violence skyrocketed.

But when Washington and Paris make pious pronouncements about ending the bloodshed in the Congo, remember their role in Africa’s other recent civil wars. The U.S. military made its first direct intervention in Africa in 1992 amid Somalia’s civil war as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. Washington’s stated aim was ending a famine–but U.S. forces killed an estimated 10,000 until resistance forced the U.S. to withdraw in 1993.

During the genocide in Rwanda the following year, President Bill Clinton didn’t lift a finger to stop one million murders in two months carried out by an ethnically based Hutu government against the minority Tutsis. In the aftermath of that bloodletting, a new Tutsi-led government took power in Rwanda. The new Rwandan government soon invaded eastern Congo–backed Kabila’s rebel army–to establish a buffer between the Hutu refugees and Rwanda proper.

For its part, France–by far the dominant European power in the region–had backed the genocidal Hutu government, and saw its influence decline as a result. Washington seized the opportunity to increase its presence at France’s expense.

The U.S. adopted Uganda’s strongman president, Yoweri Museveni, as its proxy in the region–and former president Bill Clinton made a high-profile visit to Uganda in 1998 as part of his six-country tour of Africa. Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, hailed as a new era in US aid for Africa, is a NAFTA-style agreement that opens the door to greater domination of the region by U.S. corporations. Meanwhile, the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program provides training to African military officers from 44 countries at U.S. facilities–and Washington has increased spending on the program from $8.8 million in 2001 to $11.1 million in 2003. Finally, it is no coincidence that the Congo sits on some of the richest gold and diamond deposits in the world–and that the country has recently discovered oil reserves.

So the war for control of the Congo isn’t mindless tribal killing. It’s a war of the new world order–one in which traditional allies in Europe and the U.S. back competing sides in a slaughter for key economic resources and strategic influence.

Will UN troops bring peace?

THE RECENT killings in Bunia–about 700 by some estimates–are unremarkable in a war that has claimed millions of lives in a few years. What’s different are the accounts of horrific mutilations and cannibalism–and the fact that these killings took place within a few hundred yards of a UN “peacekeeper” compound. There were about 700 UN soldiers in Bunia in late May, who sat in their compound and ‘observed’ the killings.

For many, this is reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994, when a UN detachment sat in Kigali throughout the genocide–and the UN ignored repeated warnings in the preceding months that genocide was about to break out. Again in the Congo, the UN has paid no attention to repeated warnings from Ituri that massacres would happen once the Ugandan army left.

In the face of this inaction, many see the vote to send 1400 heavily armed soldiers, led by France, as a step in the right direction. In late May, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the Security Council to “deploy a rapid reaction force to protect civilians in Ituri.”

But UN peacekeepers have never brought peace and justice–and the UN’s history in Congo is particularly revolting. UN troops were at the very least complicit in Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s murder in 1961–and they actively aided the pro-U.S. forces that led to Mobutu’s vicious dictatorship.

As Lumumba, the only democratically elected leader the Congo has ever had, said in 1960, “How does a blue [UN] armband vaccinate against the racism and paternalism of people whose only vision of Africa is lion hunting, slave markets and colonial conquest?” And the notion that the French have benign intentions is absurd, given France’s own bloody history of colonialism in Africa.

If France, the U.S. and Britain really wanted to do something about Africa’s apocalypse, why haven’t they cancelled the foreign debt, sent convoys of AIDS drugs, and made reparations for their centuries long pillage of the entire continent?

There’s no solution to the Congo war in continued cynical intervention by the imperialist powers that created the crisis in the first place. The long-suffering majority of the Congolese will get peace and justice only when they take control of their resources, their politics, and their society.

The hope for different Africa

WHILE ATTENTION is concentrated on the Congo, crises and wars caused by the same legacy of colonialism and imperialism wrack many other places in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tens of thousands have died from hunger in the Horn of Africa in recent months–and more than 20 million in Southern Africa live on the brink of starvation. Some 25 million people in the region have AIDS, according to UN agencies. Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Sudan all are suffering horrific civil wars bred by poverty and crisis.

In Western capitals, UN peacekeeping is the only solution that is offered. Yet in West Africa, the “peacekeeping” is being carried out by the notorious Nigerian military, which has spent decades crushing popular revolt at home.

Oil-rich Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, recently held an election hailed in the West as an example of democracy. In reality, both main candidates were former military dictators of the country–and the election was rife with fraud and coercion. The big winners in Nigeria remain the oil companies and their patrons in Washington.

In Zimbabwe, a recent general strike has highlighted the resistance to the corrupt and repressive government of Robert Mugabe. While there has been increased pressure on Mugabe from the West recently, Washington and London backed him to the hilt when he pushed through the IMF programs that created the country’s economic disaster.

Over the whole region, there has been a big retreat from the promise of a “new dawn” with the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) government came to power at the head of a massive popular movement spearheaded by the powerful South African trade unions. Yet the ANC has consistently pursued the failed pro-business policies of neoliberalism at the expense of ordinary South Africans.

Nevertheless, resistance is taking shape. In South Africa, the unions and social movements that broke the back of apartheid are increasingly challenging the ANC’s neoliberalism.

The opposition movement in Zimbabwe is based on an organized and active workers’ movement. And in Nigeria, residents of the Delta region have waged a heroic struggle against Western oil companies and their backers in the government.

It is these struggles–not U.S. or UN intervention–that point the way forward to real self-determination for Africa and an end to the crisis.

CHRIS FAGEN writes for the Socialist Worker.