The plundering of Congo: without precedent

One hundred years ago, novelist Joseph Conrad called what was then King Leopold II's private property the "Heart of Darkness" and its exploitation a horror. This vast land is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, and what is happening there eclipses Conrad.

The chronicler today is a panel of experts established by the United Nations Security Council to find out what five years of civil war, invasion by neighboring states, and the corruption of its leaders have done to the enormous wealth of this vast country.

The Congo, as big as the United States east of the Mississippi, with 50 million people, has become a carcass being chewed at by its elite and its neighbors. They have looted and sold its natural resources on a scale without precedent. This, with the direct or tacit complicity of pious governments and corporations around the world.

Rot really set in with the accession to power of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, one of history's great thieves, in the 1960s. The current drama began in 1996, with rebel raids from the Congo into Uganda and Rwanda. Lighting a backfire against Mr. Mobutu, the two states spurred into action a nondescript Congolese rebel, Laurent Kabila. He rewarded his friends with mining concessions even though they were already stealing livestock, coffee, and other resources.

After driving Mobutu out in 1997, Mr. Kabila sought to stop this, whereupon Uganda and Rwanda, joined by Burundi, instigated rebellions against him, joining in with their own forces. They seized control of large areas in eastern and northeastern Congo. In the first year of mass looting, they made off with the region's total stockpiles of minerals, agricultural and forest products, and livestock.

Southern neighbors Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia sent troops to Kabila's aid. International bids to make peace, bring withdrawal of all foreign soldiers, and find a political settlement for the Congo's internal problems have failed.

For Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, the Congo is too rich a cash cow to abandon. When Laurent Kabila was assassinated last January, his son Joseph succeeded him, but it is not clear who holds the power in the Congolese phantasmagoria.

Meanwhile, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi turned looting into an ongoing business. The UN report cites how, for instance, a Uganda-Thai forest company in cahoots with rogue Congolese has cut mahogany and other timber at an alarming rate without any regard for law and forest management. Enormous quantities have been exported to companies in major industrial countries including Belgium, Japan, and the US.

Coffee is taken from private plantations. Wildlife has suffered. In one national park only two of 350 elephant families remained last year, when a total of 5 tons of tusks went into the international black market for ivory.

The most lucrative trade is in diamonds, gold, and minerals, including coltan, which is valuable for jet and rocket engines. Prison labor, forced labor, and child labor are employed. The occupiers levy taxes in their areas. They buy commodities with counterfeit money, Kenya being the base for fake US dollars.

The occupying armies are business armies, working for their high commands and the political leaders of their countries. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is quoted as calling the conflict a "self-financing war."

The profits have certainly bolstered the treasuries of Uganda and Rwanda.

The World Bank has praised Uganda's economic performance, overlooking the fact that a country that produces no diamonds has exported millions of dollars' worth over the past four years.

Looking ahead to the time when Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian troops are finally withdrawn from the Congo, the occupiers have been setting up criminal cartels and international networks of front companies with banking links to keep this good thing going, according to the UN experts.

The experts urge an embargo on illegal trade, freezing the financial assets of companies and individuals engaged in it, as well as an international mechanism to investigate and prosecute individuals involved.

The accused have denied everything, but the report may at least be a shock. The Security Council has asked the experts to flesh out their findings in the next three months and then report back.

The Council has never before faced this kind of problem. There is no NATO or other agency to which it can be thrown. The Council members must act on their own. At the moment, there is no telling how they can.

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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