On the Congo

Winding my way home yesterday afternoon on the bus, idly watching the world go by out of the window, I chanced on a demo of about 60 people marching over the Squinty Bridge.  I couldn’t hear much of the chanting but eventually a banner came into view – saying “Kabila must go“.  I have to confess that I didn’t have the slightest clue who Kabila was or why people would want him to go, but the internet is a wonderful thing.

Kabila, it turns out has just been re-elected as President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a position he has held since 2001 after the assassination of his father under some rather murky circumstances.   This was the first democratic election administered from within the country.  Although international observers initially reported no significant democratic breaches, it turns out that there are some very strange goings on in voter turnout and vote distribution.

Since the election, four people have been killed by Congolese police, allegedly for looting, while there are reports of opposition supporters being rounded up by the police.  In London 143 people were arrested at a demonstration against the reelection with 7 subsequently charged, while 200 were arrested in Brussels, the capital city of the DRC’s former colonial rulers.

The DRC is the largest country in Africa, and in terms of natural resources, fantastically wealthy.  Approximately 80% of the world’s coltan – a mineral essential in the manufacture of just about any electronic device you can think of – is found in the DRC; it is the third largest producer of diamonds, is home to hundreds of billions of dollars of gold and even has oil.  With an estimated $24tr in natural resources this is one of the richest countries on earth.  Yet the average income in the DRC is $120 (£77) pa; its children go hungry and there is an epidemic of sexual violence.

The Congo is exploited at every level from the man, woman and child in the street to its national assets. Not only is there horrific worker exploitation, there is also systematic smuggling and fraud of the mined resources, and multiple dodgy deals which have sold off mining rights within the country.  In July it was revealed that shares valued at £800m had been sold to an Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, a substantial and generous backer of Kabali’s 2006 election campaign, for approximately a seventh of their value, while Bloomberg reports a further sale of £480m mining assets for approximately a sixteenth of their value.  Just last month, the UK parliament released a report detailing a £5.5bn loss to the Congolese people through dodgy mining deals.

A fantastic summary of its recent complex and bloody history of the DRC is available in four parts at the “Wronging Rights” blog (part 1234).  This recent history follows on from two decades of US backed dictatorship; preceded by five years of anti-colonial struggle with systematic interventions from the US for strategic control; fifty years of systematic colonial exploitation and thirty years of some of the most brutal colonisation ever known – inspiring contemporary commentators such as Mark TwainArthur Conan-Doyle and Joseph Conran to document the abuse through satire and fiction.

The modern heart of darkness shows up in the five million recent deaths in the country and the mass rapes which occur there.  Women’s bodies comprise the terrain in a war over resources control, yet the response of the US government to the unprecedented level of sexual violence there is suggest the distribution of camcorders to record sexual abuse increasing the demand for one of the causes of the level of violence, both sexual and physical.  This somewhat perplexing suggestion that greater recording of sexual abuse can solve the issue in a country where the level of sexual violence is so high that a new term has had to be coined for women who are re-raped after being surgically repaired, has to be seen in the voyeuristic relationship that the West holds with Africa.  Gruesome tales of mass rapes and brutal murders are recounted with little context but much hand wringing in the Western media with an implicit narrative of the savagery of the native. This savagery on display in Central Africa is a legacy of over a century of Western exploitation, corruption, brutalisation and theft.  Our laptops, cellphones and games machines now take the place of rubber tyres in our collusion with forces beyond our control which murder and maim.

So, after a bit of internet delving I agree with the Squinty Bridge protesters, Kabila must go …but then would Tshisekedi, his nearest rival be any better?  The DRC is no longer exploited by colonial masters, but by post-colonial puppets; their strings pulled via a complex interweaving of interests, alliances and allegiances all at the expense of the Congolese people.  I still have no real idea who the people were who turned out on a cold Saturday afternoon in Glasgow to highlight the situation in the Congo but I’m glad they did.

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