'Congo' is a magnificent, epic look at the history of the region

In 'Congo,' Belgian author and historian David Van Reybrouck tells a story rife with plunder, exploitation, violence, corruption – and human resiliency.

Congo: The Epic History of a People, by David Van Reybrouck, HarperCollins, 656 pp.

David Van Reybrouck’s magnificent Congo: The Epic History of a People, as translated from the Dutch by the award-winning Sam Garrett, is truly an “epic” work. It spans the history of the Congo from the arrival of British explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley in August of 1877 to today’s nearly two-decade-old civil war over the so-called “rare earth” minerals prized because of their use in cell phone technology.

Van Reybrouck’s introduction provides a comprehensive sketch of the period, including the “pre-Stanley” era of circa 1500, with extensive discussion of the international slave trade undertaken by Portuguese merchants. This trade, which lasted until approximately 1850, eventually devastated the population of the Congo region. And over that same time period, there occurred rampant proselytizing of the Catholic faith, first by the Portuguese and later by the Italian Capuchins, monks of the Franciscan order.

Stanley’s arrival, eight years before the famous – or rather, infamous – Berlin Conference, where the powers of Europe essentially determined the future of Africa, was a critical moment in the Congo region’s history.

Stanley had already “found” the presumably lost physician David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871 and was now being commissioned by London ‘s Daily Telegraph and the New York Herald to cross Central Africa from east to west – “a staggering journey through festering swamps, hostile tribal territories, and murderous rapids.” Starting in 1882, Stanley, armed with contracts from King Leopold II of Belgium, moved from one Congolese village chieftain to the next, entering into treaties with them. Within four years, more than 400 such treaties were established. Van Reybrouck asserts, “They were written without exception in French or English, languages the chieftains did not understand … those treaties did very much stipulate that they, as chieftains, surrendered all their territory along with all subordinate rights to paths, fishing, toll-keeping, and trade.”

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 convened by the German leader Otto von Bismarck, effectively placed the sovereignty of the Congo in Leopold’s hands. Leopold’s Association Internationale du Congo was granted authority over “an enormous section of central Africa” – the so-called Congo Free State – even though Leopold never set foot in the region. As Van Reybrouck notes, the legacy of the Free State was “notorious not so much for its vague borders as for its crushing regime – the bloodiest in the nation’s history.” And to oversee Leopold’s imperial ambitions, he named to the Free State’s administration men whom Van Reybrouck labels as “racists and sadists.” Torture, abuses of power, and massacres occurred with monotonous regularity.

As the post-World War I era arrived, there was some relative prosperity among the Congolese, but there were always ways in which the colonial “patrons” kept the people in line. Smoke-filled, whites-only restaurants like the Cerele Albert in Elisabethville were where decisions were made about the lives and futures of the indigenous black population. There was censorship of films and schooling was managed by the missionaries, which would “mold the masses in the desired shape.” For example, pupils were taught everything about the Belgian royal family, but nothing about the American civil rights movement. 

Paul Lomami Tshibamba, the first giant of Congolese literature, wrote of his time in the Leopoldville of the 1920s, “The colonizer did everything to convince us we were big children, that we would remain that way.… My generation no longer knew our parents’ traditions; we were born in this city founded by colonials, in this city where the life of a man was subordinate to the power of money … without money, you ended up in prison.” 

Religion and colonial power meshed seamlessly and cultivated a “servility” that provided diamond-mining entities like Union Minière with “happy and tractable workers.” Even the relative prosperity city dwellers attained was infused with European and other cultural influences. Cuban 78 r.p.m. records were particularly popular, effectively bringing music home from the Caribbean, which had received so many Congolese slaves in centuries past. Also, the music of tenor Enrico Caruso could occasionally be heard wafting from huts, and starched collars and elegant hats enjoyed a wide favorability.

As the 1930s progressed, Congo’s cities were strictly delineated by white and black centers, as were graveyards and even soccer matches, where black and white teams did not compete with each other, “out of fear for riots after a defeat or humiliation after a victory.” And after a white man had been murdered by a Congolese, the colonial newspaper L’Avenir concluded that any African threatening the life of a white man should face the death penalty.

During World War II, Belgium had sided with the Allies but collapsed to the German army in a matter of weeks, its exiled government moving to London. The Congo’s Force Publique, aiding the Allied cause with over 3,000 soldiers, was instrumental in defeating a superior Italian force at Saio, near the Sudanese border. However, as Van Reybrouck notes, its contributions in winning the war are virtually unknown today.

In the bombing of Hiroshima at the conclusion of the war, the bomb itself was constructed with the Congo’s yellow cake uranium. In fact, the mine at Shinolobwe had “the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium.” The Congo was also an invaluable source of other raw materials, the supply of which in Southeast Asia and other regions had been cut off from the Allies – copper, tin, zinc, rubber, cotton, and quinine being just a few. By 1945, the Congo had become the second most industrialized sub-Saharan African country after South Africa. 

The rubber industry exacted a particularly significant toll on its workers, where “red rubber” had pushed workers deep into the tropical forests, where they encountered predators, tse-tse flies, and sleeping sickness, the latter of which affected as much as 20% of the equatorial forest’s population.

A decline in the political and economic fortunes of Belgium had made the country more dependent on the Congo than vice-versa. And following a cataclysmic strike by mine workers at Matadi and the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, a relative stability and calm fell upon the Congo, lasting for a decade. Belgium, understanding these dynamics, proposed a “Belgian-Congolese Community” reform initiative; however, it ultimately proved fruitless as most Belgians were unable to summon any empathy for the Congolese perspective.

In the post-war period, there was a relative freedom in the region, with Kinshasa becoming “a city of fashion, elegance and coquetry;" there was also a vibrant musical culture developing as well as clubs and associations. The enlightened men (women were excluded) who embraced these developments were known as évolués.

In 1955 an article by Belga press writer Jef Van Bilsen called “A Thirty Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa” was published in the magazine of the Flemish Catholic Workers’ Association, De Gids. It basically blindsided the colonials and threw more tinder on an already smoldering unrest in the region. Next the founding of the political party Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958 gave rise to the charismatic Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. And finally, there was Jan. 4, 1959, the day on which Van Reybrouck says “everything changes,” when over 20,000 Congolese gathering at the Stade Roi Baudouin (named after the Belgian’s puppet King Baudouin) demanded independence for their country following a soccer match.

Riots and fires in Leopoldville soon ensued, and Lumumba, Joseph Kasavubu, and other Congolese opposition leaders were imprisoned for a short time, even through Kasavubu had actively preached peaceful resistance and civil disobedience.

In April of 1959, Lumumba convened a meeting of the country’s eight political parties in order to combine forces, resulting in Congo’s first congress, and in January of 1960, 150 men (including Lumumba) gathered at the Palais de Congrès in Brussels where Belgium had granted Congo numerous political concessions but also exposed fissures in the Congolese political opposition.

May of 1960 saw the election of Joseph Kasavubu as the Congo’s first president, with Lumumba his prime minister. Between this year and 1965, notes Van Reybrouck, there “was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong.” There were invasions by the Belgian army and United Nations forces, an exodus out of the country by Belgian nationals, and a military mutiny – and that was just for starters. Lumumba responded by installing his ally Victor Lundula as the head of the army and named as his deputy former journalist Joseph Désiré Mobutu. Thus began a five-year series of attempts by the Congolese government to contain unrest, which included violence against Belgians. 

Frustrated by a UN Security Council Resolution which the Kasavubu administration thought didn’t go far enough in sanctioning the Belgians, Lumumba sent an ill-fated telegram to Moscow which was immediately leaked to the CIA and began to cause concerns in Washington. Van Reybrouck suggests that this was less political brinkmanship than just outright panic. But as a consequence, US President Dwight Eisenhower refused to meet with him and US Deputy Secretary of State C. Douglas Dillon cited Lumumba’s “irrational, almost psychotic personality.” At this point, having alienated the US, the UN, and even his own president, Lumumba was seemingly supported only by the Soviet Union.

But Lumumba’s fortunes plummeted even further when, following the South Kasai region’s secession, he ordered what UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjold termed a genocide. Not long afterward, Kasavubu removed him from office. President Eisenhower even ordered the CIA to “liquidate” Lumumba: “In true James Bond style, [Lumumba] was to be poisoned with a tube of hyper-toxic toothpaste.” In January of 1962, Lumumba was arrested by Mobutu and murdered by Katangan forces. Revolutionary fever gripped the country. The Congo was even visited by Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, although he left after only seven months, having decided that a revolution would be unworkable.

By 1965, Mobutu, who had replaced Lumumba as Congo’s prime minister, had overthrown President Kasavubu’s government and, with the arrival of 1971, declared the country to be known as Zaire. The first decade of Mobutu’s presidency had been “electric,” in the words of Congo writer Vincent Lombume. He declared Lumumba a national hero, a savvy political maneuver that neutralized the still simmering opposition from Lumumba’s followers. He also lavished largesse on the army, both reinforcing loyalty and modernizing the institution.

The first five years of Mobutu’s leadership featured massacres, executions, and torture, but he also managed to deliver “bread and circuses” to the Congolese masses. He even invited the Apollo 11 astronauts to Zaire, and in 1974, the country hosted a boxing match between heavyweights Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, known popularly as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Mobutu also reformed higher education by consolidating the country’s three universities into one entity.

However, Mobutu was also clearly an admirer of Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung and required all Congolese men to disregard Western clothing and don the “abacost," a high-necked outfit based on Mao’s own garment. And, in another nod toward totalitarianism, he banned Western music in favor of Zairian, constructed state-endorsed monuments around the countryside, and produced telecasts praising the “dear leader” in addition to other state-sponsored propaganda. Mobutu himself became increasingly isolated, concerned more with protecting his own interests than the nation’s.

Mobutu’s political descent began in the 1970s, when he spent money recklessly and selfishly, at one point printing so much that he found himself having to print twice as much just so he could pay the printer. A currency crisis in 1979 that produced staggering inflation was seemingly inevitable, as were charges of corruption and public anger over the cutting back of public services. 

Between 1990 and the 1997 – the last year of his reign – Mobutu held on to power based perhaps exclusively on his cunning and recalcitrance. It was the death throes of a dictator taking the country down with him as he fell. He crushed student protests with the army he was slowly losing control of. And in February of 1992, another catastrophic event saw Mobutu crushing a protest in Kinshasa, the March of Hope led by the charismatic priest Abbé José Mpundu. In August of that same year, the Congo’s Sovereign National Conference nominated Étienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union Sacrée de l’Opposition as the country’s new prime minister in a transitional government.

The 1997 ascension to the presidency of Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL) spelled the end of Mobutu’s leadership. With no money, no foreign aid, and no functioning army, the country was collapsing. Kabila defeated Mobutu in the first three “Congo wars” and Mobutu subsequently fled for Europe.

Kabila’s feckless leadership was defined by alienation from the AFDL, the democratic opposition, and the press (which he had effectively silenced). And he did himself no favors with the UN by refusing to allow them in the country to investigate the mass extermination of Hutu refugees from the Rwandan civil war. Van Reybrouck described Kabila as “no longer the voice of a sly fox, but of a clodhopper.”

The Second Congo War (1998-2003) was marked chiefly by a Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of the Congo in the wake of the Rwandan genocide that put them in control of half of the country’s territory. During this period, Rwanda and Uganda engaged in a pillaging of the Congo’s vast natural resources, often at the point of a gun. Gold, diamonds, tin, niobium, and tantalum, as well as coltan (the mineral used in cell phone production) were excavated in huge tonnages by Congolese who typically worked in horrible conditions for no pay.

Right behind the Rwandans and Ugandans in this ill-gotten harvest were shady arms dealers, crooked businessmen, multinational companies, and shadowy intermediaries. But another horrific byproduct of this rush to plunder was the wholesale killing of elephants for their ivory tusks. On one reservation, over 3,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory.

Following the murder of Kabila in 2001, his son Joseph became president. Though at the time he seemed feeble and relatively young (29 years old), he began an important reform movement that helped oust Rwanda and Uganda from the Congo region by way of a series of 2002 peace talks. But, as Van Reybrouck cautions, “today, Rwanda displays all the qualities of a blossoming military dictatorship, while neighboring Congo remains huge, sluggish and weak, and unable to deal with the problems of the day.” 

Soon after, Kabila, almost predictably, fell into a pattern of violence against political opponents, but still managed to triumph (58 percent to 42 percent) in the voting over his main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba,  in the country’s 2006 election. Kabila had the distinction of being the first democratically elected president of the Congo since Joseph Kasavubu.

In 2007, with the arrival of the world financial crisis, European companies moved out of the Congo in droves and were being replaced by Chinese ones with virtually unlimited funds at their disposal. In September of that year, China signed a “mega-deal” with Congo that sealed a joint-venture with three Chinese state-owned enterprises that gave Congo a 32% share to China’s 68%. The enterprise would be allowed to excavate 10 million metric tons of copper and 600,000 metric tons of cobalt in Katanga. The reaction from the West (including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) was, understandably, panicked.

Van Reybrouck puts this Sino-Congolese agreement in perspective with those of its Western counterparts in perhaps his most compelling passage:

“[T]he generous trade relations that China maintains with Zimbabwe and Sudan demonstrate that for Beijing, human rights are no sacred criterion.… [F]or China, commercial interests currently take precedence over humanitarian ones.… [T]his sounds opportunistic, but it is no more or less opportunistic than the way France, Belgium and the United States kept Mobutu in the saddle in the 1980s. Among western regimes, respect for human rights dates only from the 1990s”.

Another interesting current phenomenon is the exodus of Congolese to the Chinese city of Guangzhou. On any given day, the length of the queue in front of the Chinese consulate in Kinshasa resembles what one might see at a rock concert. For many, escape is the only option.

Overall, the Congo, in Van Reybrouck’s eyes, is a story of plunder, exploitation, violence and corruption at its highest levels. But it is also one of human resiliency in the face of constant struggles. Van Reybrouck befriended and interviewed hundreds of ordinary Congolese – the musicians, writers, storytellers, merchants, and countless others who demonstrate in a very human way the unshakable belief that their country will prosper again.

If there were one area I wished Van Reybrouck had examined, it would be the AIDS crisis in the Congo that, since 1981, has claimed nearly 30 million Africans. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta had estimated that by 1985, the incidence of AIDS in Kinshasa was between fifteen and thirty times greater than in the U.S.

But all told, "Congo" is a remarkable work of research, with over sixty pages of footnotes and sources. Van Reybrouck has woven a narrative that stands admirably among some recently published works on the ravages of colonial occupations, such as Julia Flynn Siler’s chronicle of the overthrow of the Hawaiian royal family, "Lost Kingdom;" Gregg Jones’ "Honor in the Dust," about the U.S. incursion into the Philippines during the Spanish American War; and Evan Thomas’ brilliant "The War Lovers," about Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and the American involvement in Cuba during that same conflict. And certainly, it joins Adam Hochschild’s "King Leopold’s Ghost" as a monumental contribution to the annals of Congo scholarship.

Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.

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