Walter James (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Walter graduated in 2006 from the University of Minnesota. Following college, he worked on international development in Haiti and Senegal, and studied human rights and international development in Senegal, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Walter first visited Eastern Congo as a 2009 Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project, where he documented the work of civil society organizations such as SOS Femmes en Danger, Arche d’Alliance, and Tunza Mazingira. The following year, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy with a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

Independence Day

30 Jun

Happy Independence Day! Today, on June 30th, Congo is celebrating 51 years of independence from Belgium. In light of this national holiday, I thought I’d write up a little history of the African territory today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly its political history and how it relates to the state of the Kivus today.

At the Berlin Conference, King Leopold II of Belgium consolidates control over a massive chunk of central Africa. The Congo Free State, as the colony is known, is created ostensibly to encourage free trade and wipe out slavery. However, the true goal of the colony was for the personal profit of the king, who quite literally owned the colony all to himself. Tribes were given quotas of ivory, rubber, and other natural resources; the quotas were enforced through a brutal system of executions, floggings, and torture. It is estimated that anywhere from 10 to 13 million people were killed or forced to flee during the period of Belgian colonization.

On June 30, Congo declares itself independent from Belgian rule, creating the Republic of Congo. Leading the fledgling government is President Joseph Kasavubu, charismatic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and army chief of staff Joseph Désiré Mobutu. Almost immediately, the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai secede. When Lumumba turns to the Soviets to quell the rebellion to the disagreement of Kasavubu, Mobutu seizes control of the government from both politicians on September 14th. Lumumba is subsequently imprisoned. It is probable that the CIA was involved in Mobutu’s “peaceful revolution”, as Washington cables from mid-1960 indicate approval for CIA agents in Kinshasa for an operation “replacing Lumumba with a pro-Western group”.

Patrice Lumumba is taken to Katanga and executed, with Belgian collaboration.

Joseph Désiré Mobutu mounts a coup and becomes the supreme leader of the Congo, declaring a one-party state.

Mobutu renames the country “Zaire” in a campaign of “authenticity” to diminish the colonial legacy hanging over the country. He also encourages Zairian citizens to drop European names, dress, and customs and adopt more African traditions; Mobutu himself adopts the name Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu confiscates all foreign-owned enterprises (farms, plantations, industries, commercial enterprises) and turns them over to himself and the Zairian elite, who subsequently loot these enterprises to support lives of exorbitant luxury. The Zairian economy, which beforehand was experiencing on average 7 percent growth per annum, begins to rapidly decline.

Mobutu bows to international and domestic pressure and ends the one-party system in Zaire. However, despite having driven the country into massive poverty with his lavish lifestyle, Mobutu manages to stay in power through masterful manipulation of opposition forces.

Thousands of Hutu refugees flee to Zaire in wake of the Rwandan genocide and the victory of the RPF. Among the refugees are the remnants of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that performed much of the genocide, and also Hutu elements of the military that assisted in the genocide. Mobutu plays a tug-of-war with the refugee situation, welcoming the exiled génocidaires. International organizations (such as UNHCR) rush to provide assistance in the refugee camps, but do nothing to suppress extremist elements in the camps or move them farther away from the Rwandan border.

Rwanda invades Zaire, in order to hunt the exiled génocidaires rebuilding their forces in refugee camps just across the border. In the process, thousands of refugees are killed and the génocidaires flee further into the Zairian interior. The AFDL (Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation), a coalition of 4 rebel groups in eastern Congo, forms and challenges Mobutu’s government in Kinshasa. Laurent-Desire Kabila, an old foe of Mobutu’s, emerges as the leader of the rebellion.

The AFDL, with support from several African governments, routes the Zairian army and marches triumphantly on Kinshasa on May 17. Mobutu, already ailing from prostate cancer, flees to Morocco in exile and dies several months later. Kabila is sworn in as president, and the country is renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Conflict continues in eastern Congo as ethnic tensions boil to a head, with fighting between the escaped Hutu extremists, the new Congolese military (made up largely of Kabila’s former rebel force), Burundian FDD rebels, Rwandan troops, Ugandan troops, and the Mai Mai (grassroots militia resenting any Rwandophone ethnic groups in the region). Kabila starts to lose the support of crucial allies with his erratic behavior. In 1998, Kabila orders all Rwandan troops to leave the Congo; very soon afterward, a new rebel movement, the RCD (Rassemblée Congolaise pour la Démocratie) forms in the east to challenge Kabila’s authority, again with backing from several African governments. Only an intervention from Angola and Zimbabwe prevents the rebel movement from duplicating Kabila’s own victorious march on Kinshasa. Despite failing to secure Kinshasa, RCD still controls much of eastern Congo. The warfare between the different armed factions continues to toll heavily upon the civilian population, with massacres being committed by troops from all sides.

The first observers from MONUC (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo) arrive in the Congo

Laurent-Desire Kabila is assassinated by one of his own ex-child soldiers. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeds his father as President of the DR Congo. Kabila fils immediately starts courting international support in order to de-legitimize the various rebel factions laying claim to the Congo.

Kabila fils signs power-sharing agreements with the MLC (Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo) and the RCD, the two most formidable rebel groups in the Congo. Rwanda begins to withdraw troops from eastern Congo.

In its first-ever national election, the DR Congo elects Joseph Kabila as president. Running against Kabila is Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the MLC. Today, Bemba is imprisoned at The Hague on trial for war crimes.

Laurent Nkunda, a former FAC/RCD commander, forms a new rebel faction, the CNDP (Congres National pour la Défense du Peuple), in North Kivu. The CNDP gains much ground in the Kivus and ignites more conflict, but eventually the movement is subdued through political negotiations with the Rwandan government. Nkunda is taken prisoner by Rwanda, and the CNDP units integrate into the FARDC.

The FARDC (Forces Armees de la Republique du Congo) carry out Operation Kimia II in eastern Congo. The goal of Kimia II was to wipe out the FDLR and other armed groups operating outside of state authority. The FDLR sustains heavy losses and is forced farther into the interior, but civilians pay a heavy toll in human rights abuses committed by members of all armed groups involved.

The FARDC carries out Operation Amani Leo in eastern Congo, an effort to further dislodge the FDLR and other rebel groups in eastern Congo.

Congo’s second national election is scheduled for this fall.

So, what is going on in Uvira today? Well, people tell me there used to be a parade, but there isn’t one this year. President Kabila is in Lubumbashi for a large military parade, and it is being broadcasted all across the country; I watched some of it this morning at the little boutique where I buy bread. However, there is sure to be a big party tonight. When I was walking past the Esperanza (a popular local restaurant), a group of men were unloading case after case of beer from a car with Burundian plates. A large banner on the wall proclaimed a big June 30 party at the Esperanza tonight, if you are willing to fork over the hefty $5 entry fee.

Fortunately, the streets are quiet. With the upcoming elections, many people are worrying about political demonstrations that may turn violent, but in the past week or so there haven’t been any major manifestations in Uvira.

Let the festivities begin!

Congolese woman in Baraka preparing chapati

Congolese woman in Baraka preparing chapati


Posted Jun 30th, 2011


  • Lam

    June 30, 2011


    Nice history lesson!

    About to break open “The African Stakes of the Congo War.”

Enter your Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *