Sunday, November 9, 2008

Explaining the crisis in Congo part 1: From colonies to 1990

As explained in the introduction, this isn't by any stretch of the imagination an attempt to write an exhaustive history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo from this point), Uganda and Rwanda. It is merely an attempt to give the minimum amount of information to be able to understand the crisis in eastern DRC to a level higher than “primitive tribal hatred make them hate and fight each other”.

Let's first start with Rwanda and Uganda, two countries from the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. When the first European explorers arrived in the region, they were stunned to find highly organized kingdoms, seemingly lost in the middle of the continent*. The British claimed Uganda, which they ruled with a relatively soft hand (compared, let’s say, to its neighbor to the north or the west); although they planted the seeds that would lead to chaos after they left. They attempted to govern through local chieftains because it was easier and cheaper. But not all of the kings from the different kingdoms that now comprise Uganda were equally friendly to the British. So they decided it would be simpler to have the friendly Bugandan monarchy and its bureaucracy deal with the whole country (I'll let you guess where the name of the country came from). That didn't go too well with the rest of the country. This would be like if a superpower had colonized Europe and had decided to rule all of it with French officials.

At the same time, the British Army somehow decided that they preferred to recruit among people from Northern Uganda because they were felt to be better fighters. Needless to say that when independence came in 1962, having a monarchy that was hated everywhere (but the old Bugandan kingdom, a small part of the country) and a military that was drawn from the poorer northern provinces, wasn't the best recipe for stability. Within a few years, the military took over and dissolved the monarchy. But before we finish that story let's look at Rwanda.

A bit to the south, the small kingdom of Rwanda was claimed by the Germans. They didn't have time to do too much as they were driven out in WW1. The country, along with its southern neighbor, Burundi, was given to Belgium. Both German and Belgian officials noticed that the country was divided in what appears to be two ethnic groups; the cattle-herding Tutsi that were felt to have a more "European" built (taller, slender nose) and the Hutu farmers that were thought of as more "Bantu" (shorter, wider nose). The Tutsi had historically been in charge of most of the country, but the boundaries between the group was fluid. It was possible for a Hutu to "move up" to Tutsi if he became rich enough to buy cattle and Hutu had responsibilities in Tutsi rule.

The Belgian administration gave to every citizen of the country an identity card with their "ethnic group" on it; thus officializing and sclerosing the identity dichotomy. This is an important nuance to understand. Belgian officials didn't invent the ethnic differences, but they recorded it officially and thus froze the boundaries between the two groups. At the same time, they taught in school their racial theories on how the Tutsi and Hutu differed and how superior the Tutsi were. The Tutsi were favored by the colonial administration and received a better education. So when the nationalist tide started blowing on the continent; it was Tutsi who were the most vocal about independence, since the educated were disproportionately represented in nationalist movements. The Belgian administrators saw this as a treason from the Tutsi who they felt they had given every advantages. They started favoring Hutu in local elections and giving them more power. At the same time, virulent Hutu nationalism began to form in reaction to Tutsi rule.

Long story short, things turned violent and by independence in 1962, Hutu were in charge in Rwanda. There had also been widespread massacre of Tutsi, killing several thousands and forcing tens of thousands of other into exile into Uganda and Eastern Congo. Both of those exile groups are playing a key role in the current crisis, so keep them in mind. Those exiles attempted to retake the country a few times, without much success. It is also worth noting that in Burundi, a country with similar ethnic group as Rwanda, the Tutsi monarchy managed to stay in power. They fought hard against Hutu, the worse case, but by no mean the only one, being the 1972 massacres in which at least 200 000 were killed. That only increased Tutsi hatred among Hutu in Rwanda. The Tutsi exile in Uganda eventually gave up trying to retake their homeland, but they found they weren't welcome in Uganda either. The country was in constant chaos and the other groups believed they were foreigners, stealing precious resources.

Uganda was lead by corrupt and violent dictators for two decades, including the famous Idi Amin who was recently portrayed in a movie. He overstretched his hand by attacking Tanzania in 1978 and was quickly pushed back. A new government was voted in 1980 to chose Amin's successor. But the voting was marked with several irregularities which led to one of the man who lost the election, Yoweri Museveni, to take the bush and start a guerrilla war. He elicited the support of various ethnic groups, like the Tutsi; with several of them rising to high ranks. In 1986, Museveni took power in Kampala, marking the beginning of stability for most of Uganda. Insurgencies have continued in the north, where all the previous dictators came from (remember that the British had trained mostly northerners in the military). But overall, the country has been remarkably stable for the past 22 years.

But Museveni had a problem. He was friendly with Tutsi as they had fought hard with him in the bush for more than five years and had several of them in the upper echelon of his government. But they were deeply unpopular in the country. He tried to protect them at first, but slowly he bowed to political pressure. They were removed from the military, and the government recognized them as foreigners with basically no rights. In this environment, the Tutsi in Uganda started dreaming about taking back the "homeland" of their parents, by force in necessary.

Now we turn to the history of the country that was alternatively known as the Congo Free State, Belgian-Congo, Republic of Zaire and now Democratic Republic of the Congo. Congo was the vision of a very ambitious man: King Leopold II of Belgium (who actually owned the country personally for several years, before transferring it to Belgium government). He managed to grab this huge country because other Great Powers preferred that tiny Belgium have it instead of one of their rival. The story of colonialism in DRC is heart wrenching, even for a period of history that wasn't known for being rosy for Africa. The country was full of rubber just at the time that rubber demand was increasing worldwide, but before plantations were established to satisfy it. So prices were high and Belgium found itself sitting on a gold mine; and they made sure not to miss the opportunity. They forced the Congolese to gather huge amounts of rubber for them threatening to kill villagers or cut their arms if they didn’t comply.

This brutal practice was only stopped because an international outcry eventually shamed the Belgians into stopping, or at least slowing, what amounted to mass murder. More than 4 millions were killed and a government report found that half of the Congolese died during this period**. Things eventually stabilized, transport infrastructure was built, but almost nothing was done for the local people. By independence, the number of high school graduate was less than a hundred.

Following independence there were some crisis like the assassination of leftist nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba (with the help of the CIA and Belgian secret services, who feared he would align the country with the USSR), the crushing of an independence movement in Katanga and a low-level guerilla in the east by a fellow named Joseph Kabila (who was helped at one time by Che Guevara and several other Cubans – also keep in mind this man, he’ll be an actor in Part 2).

But soon enough a fellow named Mobutu Sese Seko took power and the story of post-independence DRC can be summed up from this point in two words: corruption and decay***. He was a staunch US ally, which he used shamelessly to secure funding for himself; and the US were ready to pay because they wanted to keep Congo in the “free world”. He basically let the country crumble while he lived the high life. He also had no qualms about using his country as a base for various armed movements. The country was too big for him to be held accountable by the population but big enough to give him enough money to secure a strong base using patronage. The story of post-independence DRC is basically one of slow decay with an infrastructure that collapsed in ruin, so much so that today even relatively short trips (200-300 km) have to be made by planes because the roads are unusable.

But in the early 1990's, the fall of the Soviet Union lead the US to question its backing of such a corrupt dictator which weakened Mobutu's grip on power. DRC was a unified country only from the corridors of Turtle Bay, the reality on the ground was totally different although it hadn't exploded yet. The colossus of Central Africa was standing as strong as a house of cards. So when Tutsi decided to invade Rwanda, they set into motion a chain of event that would lead to the deadliest genocide and the deadliest war since World War 2. To be continued…

* Jean-Pierre Chrétien: The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History
** Adam Hochschild: King's Leopold's Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
*** Michela Wrong: In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo

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