Dark Decades A statue of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, an explorer famous for his travels in Africa of Africa, lies on the ground, while a Congolese mocks his posture at former President Mobutu Sese Seko's offices in Kinshasa, August 3, 2006. Stanley was a 19th-century Welsh-born American journalist and explorer famous for his exploration of Africa and his search for David Livingstone. His actions were indirectly responsible for helping establish the rule of King Leopold II over the Congo Free State.
The third largest country in Africa, with a landmass two-thirds the size of Europe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a critical piece of the puzzle that is modern Africa. Originally inhabited by Pygmies, today known as Bitwa, Congo was eventually settled by Bantu tribes, and by the 1500s was the Kingdom of Luba. In the late 1800s, Europeans discovered the Congo and its vast resources. In 1885 King Leopold II of Belgium made the land his private property and called it the Congo Free State. While the Congo made Leopold rich, life under Leopold was disastrous for native Congolese. During the 23 years of his rule, he enslaved the people and ruthlessly plundered the land; it is thought that 10 million people died, almost half the population. The author Joseph Conrad was so appalled by what he observed in the Congo that he quit his job as captain of a steamer and wrote HEART OF DARKNESS to expose the dark side of European colonialism. As word of the atrocities reached Europe, the Belgian government finally intervened and took over Leopold's administration of what was then called Belgian Congo. Although the Congolese still had no say in their own government, the Belgians did build an infrastructure of schools, hospitals, and railways.
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In the Hands of Its Children Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo, on July 3, 1960. Lumumba was later assassinated in January 1961.
Growing dissatisfaction with governance from afar led to national elections and independence from Belgium in 1960. A fiery new leader, Patrice Lumumba, denounced the colonial rule, inspired the populace with his rhetoric, and was elected prime minister. The new nation was dubbed the Republic of Congo, known commonly as Congo-Leopoldville, to differentiate it from its neighbor, the former French Congo, which was also named Republic of Congo, but called Congo-Brazzaville. Within a year of the election, however, Lumumba was assassinated, done in by rivals with the complicity of external forces, including Belgium and the CIA. Belgium supported the assassination because it wanted to protect its rights to mine in the Congo, and the American CIA, concerned over Lumumba's ties to the Soviet Union, did not want to see a Marxist government take hold in Central Africa. The country dissolved into civil war.
The Leopard A Zairian rebel puts a poster of President Mobutu Sese Seko into a fire on main street in Goma, an eastern provincial capital, November 8, 1996. At that time Zairian rebels had taken over most of the Lake Kivu region of eastern Zaire with the intention of overthrowing Mobutu's regime.
After a five-year period of instability, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a member of the army, backed again by the CIA, overthrew the latest leader in a coup. He was to rule for 32 years. During his reign he renamed the country Zaire, a modified version of the Lingala term for river, and he gave most of its cities new, African names. He even renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, or the "all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake." While Mobutu maintained order, he did so at the price of civil freedoms. At one point considered one of the 10 most corrupt leaders in the world, Mobutu robbed the country blind, stashing several billion dollars away in foreign accounts. While the Congo experienced quiet during most of his reign, it did not experience prosperity. Although it is one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa, under Mobutu's reign it plunged into poverty, and its infrastructure crumbled.
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Rebels and Neighbors Conspire South African President Nelson Mandela leads peace talks between Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko, left, and rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, right, aboard the SAS Outeniqua in Pointe Noire harbour, Congo, May 4, 1997.
In 1994, in Rwanda, a small nation that borders the DRC to the east, the governing-majority Hutus carried out a genocide of the minority Tutsi people rather than share power with them. When the Tutsis rose up and took over the government, massive numbers of Hutus fled into neighboring states, especially the DRC, rather than face reprisals. The Hutu leaders used the refugee camps as bases to strike against the Rwandan government, which contributed to an overall destabilization of the Congo.
In 1997 Rwanda and Uganda supported Laurent-Désiré Kabila in overthrowing Mobutu, who supported the Hutus. This initiated the First Congo War. Kabila declared himself president and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo. When Kabila attempted to limit Uganda and Rwanda's influence in the Congo, however, those countries withdrew their support from him and backed Congolese rebels in an attempt to overthrow him. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia entered the fray on the side of Kabila, and in 1998, the Second Congo War began. It lasted five years and resulted in the death of four million people. The conflict is sometimes referred to as Africa's World War.
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Africa's World War Zairian rebel leader Laurent Kabila shows off new recruits for his army in Uvira, Zaire, Feb. 12, 1997. In just five months, Kabila went from obscure bush fighter to man in demand.
Once invited in, foreign powers have tended not to want to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo. A vast country of about 62 million, with a capital situated in its far western corner, the DRC is difficult to control. When Laurent-Désiré Kabila joined forces with Rwanda and Uganda to overthrow the government of Mobutu, he could not have predicted the trouble that would follow.
Tiny in comparison to the DRC, Rwanda (8.6 million people) and Uganda (28 million) stumbled onto some of the most mineral-rich land in Africa when they entered the DRC from the east to support the coup. They promptly set themselves to looting the land. In addition, by staying in the eastern Congo, they made it more difficult for rebel groups operating against Uganda and Rwanda to use the DRC for their base camps. When the Kabila government began sheltering former Rwandan Hutu officials who had taken part in the massive 1994 genocide there, it gave Rwanda additional justification for remaining in the DRC and working to unseat Kabila. Desperate to maintain his control and lacking an effective army, Kabila enlisted the help of Angola and Zimbabwe, whose militaries at one point functioned as his primary security forces. Chad, Burundi, and Namibia were all drawn into the conflict at various points.
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"La Pacificateur" Newly installed Congolese leader Joseph Kabila is escorted by military officers as he arrives at Ndjili International Airport to receive the casket containing the body of his father Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa, capital of Congo, January 21, 2001.
On January 16, 2001, Laurent-Désiré Kabila was killed by one of his officers as part of a failed coup attempt. His 29-year-old son, Joseph, commander of the DRC army at the time, took charge of the government, promising to hold democratic elections and send all foreign armies home. Dubbing himself La Pacificateur, Kabila has become an unlikely peacemaker, setting in motion events to bring about the democracy indicated in the DRC's name. In June 2003, an agreement led to the withdrawal of most foreign forces. An interim coalition government was formed that shared power between Joseph Kabila and the opposing factions. In December 2005 the country's new constitution was approved. In the eastern part of the country some rebel and militia groups formed by former invading powers have refused to disarm, however, and continue to fight with government troops. Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of maintaining close ties with these groups and providing them with support in order to continue their influence in the DRC. An additional product of the war is former combatants who now use their weapons to terrorize the local populations for their own gain. There is an epidemic of rape, in particular in eastern Congo, with most perpetrators going unpunished.
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A Massive Undertaking A Congolese election worker removes rotting vegetation from a submerged canoe so that he can use it to deliver voting material downstream from Mbandaka, DRC. With few paved roads, river travel is an essential means of transport in the country.
Five and a half years after Joseph Kabila took power, the DRC finally prepared for national elections to determine a new government. After several delays, the first national elections in 46 years took place on July 30, 2006. By all accounts, it was one of the most extensive, expensive, and most logistically challenging elections ever held on the African continent. Thirty-three candidates ran for president, including Joseph Kabila -- the interim president -- and Jean Bemba, one of four current vice presidents. More than 9,000 candidates ran for seats in the national legislature. The international community poured about $450 million into the country to support the vote, which was backed by 17,600 U.N. peacekeepers from 58 countries, the largest force like it in the world -- all in a country that has only a few hundred miles of roads. Many ballots had to be delivered by canoe. In the end, about 70 percent of the 25 million registered voters went to the 50,000 polling stations across the country.
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Disruptive Factors People run from the burning office of presidential candidate Jean Pierre Bemba in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, July 27, 2006. Bemba was on his way to an election rally when the fire broke out.
The lead-up to the election was fraught with controversy. Congolese and international officials had serious doubts as to whether fair and impartial elections could be held in a country where armed rebels are still operating. There was sporadic violence and accusations of corruption. The government was accused of using its power to harass the opposition. At one point, the influential Roman Catholic Church encouraged its parishioners to boycott the vote. Election monitors from throughout the world came to the DRC.
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Significant Turnout, Credible Vote Voters wait outside a polling station in the early hours of the morning in Bunia, DRC, July 30, 2006.
Ultimately, international election observers such as the Carter Center gave the process a thumbs-up. And on July 30, 2006, 17 million Congolese, 70 percent of the eligible population, voted. The results of the election took two weeks to determine. When the results were announced, fighting broke out for days between supporters of the first- and second-place presidential contenders, Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba. Kabila, from the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP) did not achieve the 50 percent required to win outright, instead garnering 44.8 percent of the vote, while Bemba, from the Rally of Congolese Nationalists (RENACO) and backed by former Mobutu supporters, came in second, with 20 percent of the vote.
Bemba, a strong nationalist who appeals to Congolese instincts to be "tough" on foreigners, did extremely well in the county's west, where he is from. A former advisor to Mobutu, he has been accused by a neighboring country, the Central African Republic (CAR), of allowing his troops to enter CAR to rape, pillage, and support the ouster of its president. During the rebellion against Laurent Kabila, Bemba created and led the Uganda-backed militia group MLC. Kabila dominated the polls in the east of the country, encouraging fears that the run-off vote would be a split between east and west rather than leading to reconciliation and cohesion. One theory is that eastern voters, who have borne the brunt of the rebel violence, voted against all those associated with the rebels, including Bemba, as punishment. The west, on the other hand, may have voted against Kabila in order to vote against a government that has done little to provide for the people. Some skeptics believe that the vote is simply a rubber stamp for the current regime, designed to give it credibility and allow multinational companies to continue to strip the country while the ruling class gets rich. Many Congolese hope, however, that these elections will be the first step toward a united Congo that capitalizes on its resources and cares for its people rather than continuing to self-destruct. The two candidates will face off again in the presidential run-off election on October 29, 2006, during which a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared president.
Poverty Striken, Resource Rich Pascal Baguma carries cassiterite stones rich in tin ore in a mineral processing factory at Bukavu in eastern Congo, December 27, 2004. Officials and analysts say rising metal prices have intensified competition for eastern Congo's mineral riches, adding to worries of renewed fighting between the armies of Rwanda and Congo.
The DRC, one of the world's richest countries in mineral and other resources, has virtually no state infrastructure and a population that exists on about $100 or less a day per capita. Rather than bringing the nation prosperity, the wealth of natural resources has made it an appealing target of rapacious international companies, neighboring governments, and kleptocratic national leaders. The Congo has some of the world's richest deposits of gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt. Additionally, the south and east of the DRC are a source of petroleum, silver, zinc, uranium and more. The location of the richest deposits of these sought-after minerals, the eastern Congo, has fueled the war between the DRC and Rwanda and Uganda, who have helped themselves to the DRC's natural resources. There are accusations that Congolese officials collaborate in spiriting these minerals out of the country. Zimbabwe, Angola, and Nambia -- Congolese allies -- have also been accused of helping themselves to Congolese resources. For rebel groups, the pillaging of resources is a way to fund arms purchases. Uganda, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe have even started exporting diamonds although there are no diamond deposits in these countries.
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Other Riches A female mountain gorilla called Mugeni, 15, and her five month old son, Bonane, in the Kahuzi Biega Nature Park near the town of Bukavu , DRC, May 2, 2004. Thousands of farmers have overrun the forests of Congo's oldest national park -- the separate Virunga national park, a World Heritage Site -- slashing and burning whole kilometers in the latest threat to the home of more than half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas.
The DRC is not rich only in minerals. Straddling the equator, the DRC has the world's second largest rainforest -- half of Africa's forests are in the Congo. Almost the whole country is a vast river basin, and some believe that the DRC could become the breadbasket of Africa and supply enough hydroelectric power through the mighty Congo River to light the entire continent. The DRC's vast rainforests hold a plethora of species. It is known for its gorillas, made famous by the protective efforts of Dian Fossey, and contains both species of chimpanzees. It is the only place in the world that the bonobo chimp, a peaceful animal that resolves conflicts through sex, exists in the wild. These animals, as well as many others, are considered endangered, primarily due to loss of habitat caused by deforestation and poaching. The bush-meat trade as it is called, is a tragic consequence of the impoverishment of the Congo: the people don't have enough to eat, and so they prey the primates.
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Justice, Peace and Work A woman pushes an old armed vehicle's gun barrel around in the town of Bunia, eastern DRC, March 6, 2005. Militiamen and renegade soldiers have brutally raped and beaten tens of thousands of women and young girls in eastern Congo, and nearly all the crimes have gone unpunished by the country's broken judicial system, an international human rights group said in March 2005.
The DRC has a troubled past and an uncertain present. There are many enduring problems: no integrated army; no new police force; 10,000 foreign-armed and controlled troops; 2.5 million displaced people; 1,000 people dying every day from fighting, disease, and treatable illness; seemingly insurmountable foreign debt; and massive unemployment. In a country whose motto is "Justice, Peace, Work," there is little justice, peace is still a hope, and 70 percent of the people are without jobs.
Although the legacy of the past is one of death, exploitation, and dashed dreams, this African giant seems to be stumbling toward the light. While in 2005 it was ranked the tenth poorest country in the world, the DRC has the potential to be an economic superpower. There are important milestones that must be met: peaceful elections; government control of the entire country; disarmament of rebel and foreign groups; and a halt to massive government corruption. Yet with all these problems, the DRC has the potential to create a bright future for itself and stabilize the entire region. If the resources of the DRC can start to serve the entire population, rather than a select few, the DRC can not only take care of its own but lend a helping hand to its neighbors.
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