45,000 people die every month from starvation and preventable disease in the country
In early July, renewed fighting broke out in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This fighting represents a threat of renewal of the massive bloodshed that was the inter-ethnic slaughter between the Hutus and Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s. In that slaughter it is estimated that some 5-6 million people were killed.
In the current instance, a former Tutsi-based militia group that had been integrated into the DRC military revolted. The DRC regime and independent groups accuse the Rwandan government of backing the rebels, an accusation that the Rwandan regime vigorously denies.
How did this situation arise? What lessons can be learned from it? From the perspective of an American, of course, only extremely limited answers can be supplied. However, it is important for all workers and all socialists to study and learn from this history and the current situation.
The DRC, and especially its eastern region, which borders on Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, is an amazingly rich area, with massive deposits of such rare minerals as niobium, tantium, and casserite, as well as tin, titanium, cobalt, manganese, uranium, radium, iron, diamonds and gold. Receiving heavy rainfall, the DRC has a massive river system and is potentially capable of producing enough hydro-electricity to supply the needs of the entire continent. In a previous era, the region was a main supplier of natural rubber. Yet today, the per capita income of the DRC is the second lowest in the entire world. It is estimated that close to 45,000 people die every month from starvation and preventable disease in the DRC.
What is now the DRC was initially settled by Pygmy peoples some 80,000 years ago. They were later pushed into the mountain regions by subsequent entry of Bantu and Nilotic peoples. From the 14th to 18th centuries AD, the Bantus (originally from what is now Nigeria) established a massive and complex kingdom in the region. Disaster struck these peoples first in the form of the slave trade and later in 1877, when Henry Stanley made his way to the head of the Congo River on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Through bribery and coercion, Leopold had himself declared the personal ruler of the region as formalized by the European powers at the Treaty of Berlin in 1885. He utilized his rule to extract the vast natural rubber wealth. It is estimated that up to 5 million Congolese were killed through overwork, starvation and disease and outright slaughter as this very civilized king tortured Congolese society. His methods were so brutal that even Western society was shocked and he was forced to transfer his rule to the Belgian state as a whole, whose methods were only slightly less blatant.
One can only imagine how the social structures developed by the peoples of the region over millennia were smashed by this general rape, torture and slaughter of society that accompanied the massive extraction of wealth from the region.
The period following WW II saw an explosion of the colonial peoples, and the “Belgian” Congo was no exception. In 1960, Belgium was forced to grant the Congo independence. The popular leader of the independence movement was Patrice Lumumba, a left/populist nationalist with friendly relations to the Soviet Union. He became the first president. French and US forces, however, helped engineer his assassination. There followed a period of civil wars and disintegration in which the interests of US, Belgian and other capitalist interests intervened, as did the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union and China.In 1960 Mobutu was able to take power over the entire nation.
Mobutu played on nationalism, among other things, renaming the DRC “Zaire”. Under his control, huge state enterprises were developed, such as power stations, steel plants and entire planned cities – many of which failed and were subsequently abandoned.
These failures were due to the corrupt nature of this dictatorship, which was supported by US capitalism. These projects, amongst other things, resulted in a huge foreign debt – by 1985 55% of the state budget went to paying just the interest on this debt. Mobutu dealt with this by cranking up the printing presses, printing out the currency. As a result, by 1996 the inflation rate was 23,000% (!).
Rwanda & Burundi
Events in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi also have had a huge impact on DRC history. The two main ethnic groups in the former two countries are the Hutus and the Tutsis. The former were primarily agricultural and the latter mainly cattle herders. They (Tutsis) are and were a minority but they tended to dominate. When the French colonialists invaded and dominated the region, they ruled in part through the Tutsis in order to secure a base and help divide up the population. This naturally created a certain amount of tension between the two groups. The tensions were increased by lack of economic development under capitalism, which together with increased pressure for land led to conflicts over land ownership. It should be emphasized that these conflicts were not confined to those between the two groups but also within each group. In fact, up until that time there was significant integration, including intermarriages, between the Tutsis and Hutus.
In 1994 a genocidal struggle between these two ethnic groups broke out in which it is estimated some 5 million people were killed. Most of them were hacked to death with machetes as using bullets was too expensive. Eventually, a Tutsi-led regime came to power in Rwanda and Burundi. These regimes were backed by American capitalism, whereas the Hutu groups were backed mainly by French capitalism.
Also sweeping into the region was the conflict between Western capitalism and the former Soviet Union, leading to the war in Angola (also bordering Zaire/DRC) in which then Zaire was caught up. These tensions as well as others led to two “wars of aggression”, fought on Zairian soil, in the mid and later 1990s and involving a whole host of African nations in the region. It is estimated that some 5.4 million people died in the second of these wars, mostly due to disease and starvation, and millions more were displaced.
Western Capitalism Leads the Slaughter
It is important to consider in a little detail the involvement of Western capitalism in this slaughter.
According to foreignpolicyblogs.com, “France was directly involved in the preparation of the genocide. They were training the Interaharamwe (Hutu “genocidaires”) in a systematic manner. They were training them to kill, to kill as fast as possible as one witness said, using knives and machetes….” The same report explains that French capitalism helped the Rwandan government start the genocide, contributed strategies, trained special units and provided population data bases used to target not only Tutsis, but also Hutus who opposed the slaughter.
The ethnic genocide led to massive displacement into neighboring Zaire (now the DRC), but this was not the first such wave of immigrants. During Belgian rule, the colonialists had brought tens of thousands of people from what is now Rwanda and Burundi to work the rubber plantations in then “Belgian Congo.” These people – known as the Banyamulange- stayed there after independence. President Mobutu used their presence to bolster his rule. At times he favored them, especially when it came to land ownership, and at times he did the opposite, causing constant tensions in eastern Zaire.
US capitalism intervened in the 1990s by supporting the Tutsi-based side. As early as 1996, current Rwandan president Paul Kagame was visiting the US Pentagon, conferring with them on how to unseat Mobutu in what was then Zaire. When Kagame’s forces invaded the DRC, US military advisors were seen accompanying them. The US regime also built links with top generals in Mobutu’s military in order to undermine his regime.
This involvement was not for abstract political or ideological reasons. Among others, Bechtel was directly involved, especially contacting Laurent Kabila who subsequently overthrew Mobutu. Also involved was America Mineral Fields (later renaming itself Adastra Minerals), based in Hope, Arkansas and closely linked with President Bill Clinton. Others involved included the International Rescue Committee, on whose Board of Directors sits that noted humanitarian Henry Kissinger, responsible for the “rescue” (from life on this planet) of millions of Vietnamese. From Canada rushed in Barrick Gold (on whose Board of Directors sit both former US President George H.W. Bush and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) and Heritage Oil and Gas, also on the side of Kabila and Co. From Britain came Ashanti Goldfields, which also has ties to South African capitalism.
In 1997, Laurent Kabila succeeded in ousting Mobutu. He was succeeded by his son Joseph when he was assassinated in 2001. Joseph Kabila was “reelected” in what was almost certainly a fraudulent election in 2011.
This history of war almost without end has meant that serious wide scale investment in the DRC is impossible. Yet it is exactly the potential for massive profits that has caused the multi-national corporations to continue interfering, hiring their own bands of thugs and killers, and continually disrupting society. It is a vicious circle.
As a result of this underdevelopment, it is estimated that some 12.5 million people work in what is called “artisanal” mines – small, informal mining operations. (It is also estimated that over 90% of the DRC work force earn their living in the “informal” economy.) These operations are totally unregulated and unsafe, leading to all sorts of occupational diseases on the part of the workers. Wages in these mines are as low as $1.00 per day – enough to buy a chicken after 16 days at work.
One article described the situation as follows: “Armed groups and soldiers force people, and sometimes whole villages, at gun-point to work as diggers, transporters, and processors for free…. Miners are obliged to work for a designated government official, military leader, or an armed group on a particular day of the week. Refusal can result in a fine or even torture. Debt bondage is also common.” (www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdr/ituc_violence_rdc_eng_1r.pdf.pdf) Children as young as ten years old are forced to work eight hours per day and longer. Rape of women and even young girls is absolutely the norm as is forced prostitution of women and young girls and also sexual slavery.
And what if the multi-nationals and their regimes such as that of the US are able to pacify the region, then what?
The example of the Nigerian Delta is instructive. There, Shell Oil has invested massively to suck the profits from the rich oil deposits. In the process they have wrecked the environment of the region, taken over the local government, and repressed and killed the indigenous Ogoni people. From the Amazon rain forests to the deserts of Iraq, it is a similar story.
Clearly, capitalism offers only devastation without end for the people of the DRC and the surrounding area.
Seeking a Solution
The United Nations maintains its longest standing troop presence in its history in the DRC. It is called MONUSCO, formerly MONUC. Its troops have been engaged in the plunder of society there, as well as in rape, child molestation, etc. In fact, their exploitation of the local population is so bad that they are now forbidden to even have any contact with the people or to leave their bases when not on duty!
There is something of a labor movement in the DRC although it is repressed, corrupted and fragmented. In many cases, different “enterpreneurs” one might call them, have started a union simply to extract dues from workers. This is often in conspiracy with the employer. Nevertheless, there have been several labor strikes there, especially of public sector workers, which shows that this sector is the most developed in the DRC.
However, the DRC masses are not alone. Just as the turmoil in surrounding countries has entered the DRC, so can the workers’ movement. In Rwanda, for instance, there is not only a lively union movement, there is also a labour party. There is also widespread union organizing in neighboring Angola. (This includes amongst Indian “guest workers.”)
It is difficult to find anywhere in the world where the theory of permanent (or uninterrupted) revolution applies more clearly. Great and complex societies were developed there by the indigenous peoples. These societies were devastated by the forced entry of capitalism. Not only were the economies destroyed, so were the social structures and social relations. Political independence on a capitalist basis has proven to be no solution. There is not a single capitalist force, including the UN, that can provide even a partial, temporary solution.
In the DRC, the capitalist class, such as it is, is corrupt but also with very little base in society. In fact, while the state forces seem to be powerful, just the opposite is the case, with a centralized state having little or no control in large regions. Just the slightest movement of the region’s working class would serve to topple these states and provide a solution to the millenia-long nightmare that capitalism has proven in the DRC and in central sub Saharan Africa.
John Reimann is a retired carpenter and an expelled member of the Carpenters' Union in the United States. (He was expelled for leading rank and file struggles against the union bureaucracy.) He is a long-time socialist, who organized for a number of years in Mexico. He is presently a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.