Democratic Republic of Congo History | Professional Jeweler

August 2000

Democratic Republic of Congo

As one of Africa's largest and most ethnically diverse countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses the necessary ingredients for economic success. This nation, roughly the size of Western Europe, has greater mineral wealth than South Africa; diamonds, copper and gold are some of its natural resources. However, these resources haven't helped the average Congolese citizen, and DRC's turbulent history has contributed to its current unstable and impoverished condition.

Colonial Rule
Belgium colonized DRC in 1877, when King Leopold II commissioned journalist Henry Morton Stanley to explore the Congo, secure treaties with local chiefs and establish the contacts needed to form a commercial monopoly of the land. Leopold named this area the Congo Free State and immediately began exploiting its natural resources. To keep this colony profitable, torture and execution were used to force native Africans to work in the mines. This oppressive regime was the setting of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness.

Belgian rule in the Congo included missionary efforts to civilize and Christianize native Africans, and many Congolese citizens were educated at the secondary level or higher. In the early 1950s, these educated individuals - known as evolues - became unhappy with how they were being treated and petitioned the colonial government for reform. The evoluee demand for independence erupted into riots in 1959.

Although the Belgian government was reluctant to let go of the Congo's vast resources, it realized it had neither the force nor the authority to maintain control. At the Brussels Round Table Conference of 1960, the Belgian government granted Congo its independence. In May of that year, national elections were held. Joseph Kasavudu was elected president of DRC, and Patrice Lumumba was named prime minister.

Congo's government was troubled from the beginning. Merely five days after independence was granted, violent conflict erupted between Belgian and Congolese citizens, as well as among Congolese ethnic groups. Lumumba asked the United Nations to intervene. The U.N. Security Council authorized a military force to remove Belgian troops and restore order to the land. When they were unable to do so quickly, Lumumba asked the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for help. It provided Lumumba's troops with weapons and military training.

Under the guise of fighting the spread of communism, the U.S. backed rebel Mobutu Sese Seko in a military coup that resulted in Lumumba's seizure, torture and execution. Because this move was motivated more by U.S. interests in the vast mineral resources of this area than in securing a peaceful future for DRC, U.S. efforts to establish a stable government after the uprising were half-hearted.

Mobutu's Rule
Mobutu began his rule by crushing rebel forces in outlying provinces and executing dissidents. He created a singular state party of which membership was mandatory and changed the name of DRC to Zaire. Mobutu nationalized foreign businesses, reclaiming copper and diamond mines in the Shaba region. These mines became the backbone of the economy.

Motubu's reign was notoriously corrupt. Public funds from diamond mining were used for private gain. Zaire's people, meanwhile, were poor. Mobutu maintained power by portraying himself as anti-Communist, gaining financial and military support from the U.S. and France. However, as the Cold War came to an end, so to did Mobutu's power.

The U.S. severed ties with Mobutu in 1997 as the rebel group Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, led by Laurent Kabila and backed by the nations of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea, advanced. On May 16, 1997, Kabila's army took control of the capital city of Kinshasa. Mobutu stepped down from power, and Kabila declared himself head of the government. Zaire once again became known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

D.R.C. Again
Kabila's government proved to be no more stable than Mobutu's. Kabila's relationship with former allies quickly deteriorated. In August of 1998 war broke out. The rebel forces of the Congolese Movement for Democracy, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, took control of eastern Congo. This take-over included Kisangani, the upriver center for diamond dealing. Kisangani became a site of massive human-rights abuse; profits from diamonds illegally mined there are used to fund the rebel army.

To prevent the government-controlled diamond mine in Mbuji Mai from falling into rebel hands, the nations of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent forces to help Kabila. When this effort succeeded, valuable mining concessions were given to these nations as payment. In September of 1999, Zimbabwe and DRC set up a joint business venture to pay for war costs through the marketing and mining of diamonds from these mines.

Efforts have been made to obtain peace in DRC In July of 1999, DRC, all other major governments involved in the conflict and the three main rebel groups opposing Kabila signed the Lusaka peace accord. They agreed to end hostilities by rebel forces, withdraw foreign troops and contribute to the disarmament and demobilization of rebel forces not signing the accord. All participants also agreed to take part in a national dialogue aimed at creating a new government. In April 2000, the D.R.C. restricted trade of precious minerals involving foreign currency to authorized exchanges to try to limit the illegal trade of diamonds as well as the human rights abuses that go with it.

However, the peace accord has been ignored, and the effects of the new trade policy remain to be seen. Although the U.N. Security Council recently passed a resolution requiring rebel forces to be removed from Kisangani, citizens of DRC remain skeptical that this measure will be any more successful than the Lusaka peace accord. Because of the many millions of dollars in diamond trading at stake, peace in DRC any time soon seems unlikely.

- by Susan Kell

Susan Kell is an undergraduate at Drew University, where she is majoring in English and minoring in Business Management and Psychology. She will spend the second semester of her junior year studying in London, England.