Congo (ex-Zaïre) - A country looted by warlords and imperialist companies

Jan/Feb 2004

Officially the war is over in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre. Theoretically, in 2002 all foreign troops left the country - both those from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, which supported the government's side, and those from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, which were on the anti-government side. And the new transitional government is supposed to prepare the ground for elections within two years. This government was formed last June, following an agreement brokered by South Africa, between Joseph Kabila's government, the political opposition and the main components of the armed rebellion. This agreement is supposed to end the bloody war which has already cost the population three million dead since it started, in 1996.

However, with the exception of the capital and its immediate surroundings, Congo is still controlled by armed gangs which, regardless of their alliances or rivalries, share a common feature - they all feed on the looting of their respective fiefdoms, with the complicity of large industrial companies. In addition some regions of Congo are faced with the bloody mayhem caused by the warlords' whipping up of ethnic divisions to further their political interests and trafficking.

It is obviously no coincidence if the worst massacres have affected mineral-rich regions - with huge reserves of gold, diamonds, oil and precious minerals such as cobalt, coltan (from which tantalum, now widely used in mobile phones and other lightweight hi-tech equipment, is extracted), etc.. Since its colonisation at the end of the 19th century, the Congo and its enormous natural resources have always been a magnet for the profiteers.

A heavy colonial past

Congo's misfortunes began in the 1880s. While Britain, France and Germany embarked on the "scramble for Africa", king Leopold II of Belgium played on the rivalries between the three main powers to carve out of central Africa a gigantic personal empire - 2.4m square kilometres, that is 80 times the size of Belgium. Under the cover of alleged humanitarian aims, he proceeded to lay his hand on Congo's natural wealth. The population was reduced to forced labour in order to collect first ivory and, subsequently, the gum available from the rubber trees, which grew naturally in the tropical forests. Those who resisted this treatment were subjected to torture and mutilation. Within just a few years, the king of Belgium was able to build a huge fortune as a result, while Belgium, French, British and US companies, which had hurried over to take their share of the loot, piled up vast profits. During this barbaric drive, however, an estimated ten million Africans died.

The Congo and the rest of Africa inherited their present under-development from this colonial past. Colonial borders were drawn to reflect the relationship of forces and bargaining positions between the rival colonial powers. These borders cut across national and ethnic groups, resulting in large-scale movements of population. Besides, the colonial powers often whipped up tribal and ethnic differences in order to strengthen their domination. When they finally withdrew, they left these tensions behind them, thereby turning Africa into a powder keg. After it became independent, in 1960, the Congo carried on paying a high price for this colonial past.

However, today's situation originates more directly in the events which shook the small neighbouring Rwanda, in 1994. At the time, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), an armed militia formed by exile Rwandan Tutsis with the political and military backing of Uganda, the US and Britain, launched a sweeping offensive against the Rwandan dictatorship of Habyarimana. In retaliation, following the dictator's death, the regime's strong men formed an alliance with extremist Hutus and launched a wave of massacres against Tutsis and the moderate Hutu opposition. This did not stop the RPF's march to power and its leader, Paul Kagame, soon replaced Habyarimana in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Subsequently, the remains of Habyarimana's army, regime and allies fled to eastern Congo under the protection of the French and Congolese armies (Mobutu was still in power in Congo). It was the resulting flow of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees into Congo which was instrumental in destabilising the entire region.

The Hutu militias, which had not been disarmed, were able to use their rear bases in Congo to launch raids against the new Rwandan regime which was able, as a result, to justify launching counter-offensives in eastern Congo, particularly in the Kivu region, under the pretext of protecting its borders and hunting down the criminals responsible for the Tutsi genocide.

Civil war is no obstacle for big business

Until the early 1990s, Mobutu's dictatorship had been able to rely on the total backing (and military aid) of the US, France and Belgium, in exchange for helping these countries' companies to loot the Congo's mineral resources. However, the excesses of Mobutu's regime and its wear and tear, were beginning to make the issue of his succession increasingly urgent. The opportunity for his replacement came in October 1996, when the Banyamulenge, an ethnic group closely related to the Rwandan Tutsis staged an uprising in eastern Congo. As a long-standing opponent of Mobutu, Laurent-Désiré Kabila had used the opportunity offered by the weakening of the Congo's central power to build himself a fiefdom in the Kivu region. By pushing himself to the leadership of the uprising, in the name of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (AFDL), he was able to rely on an armed machinery which he so far lacked. Moreover, he was able to benefit from the active support of US imperialism, since the latter supplied the insurgents with weapons and ammunition through the Ugandan and Rwandan armies.

Within seven months, L-D Kabila swept out the last remains of Mobutu's regime and seized power. When he entered Kinshasa, the Congo's capital, in May 1997, he was accompanied by Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers. At the time, of course, there was no question of L-D Kabila counter-posing "Congolese patriots" to "Rwandan invaders" and "Tutsi lice" as he was to do later on.

Mining companies from the US, Canada, Britain and South Africa did not wait until Mobutu's downfall to claim their share of the Congo's natural resources. In order to finance its war, the AFDL forces and their allies needed large funds. The big companies used this opportunity to win the best possible contracts for the exploitation of gold, copper, tin, cobalt, coltan, uranium, niobium, cassiterite, etc.. Thus, a subsidiary of the Canadian group Lundin claimed the right to mine copper and cobalt at Tenke Funguruma in the Katanga province, while another Canadian company, Barrick Gold set its eyes on the Kilo-Moto gold mines. Yet another Canadian group, Banro Resources, bought Sominki (the Kivu Mining Company) and its large tin and coltan reserves. As to American Mineral Fields, just one month before Kabila's troops entered Kinshasa, in April 1997, it offered the rebels $50m in exchange for three mining and processing contracts. As it turned out later, however, these companies, which were comparatively small fry in the world of international mining, were only fronts for much larger companies which were probably not too keen to allow their names to be mentioned.

At this stage, the main losers in the race for the Congo's mining resources were the French companies. They had been involved in the region for a long time already. But as the French government had chosen to support first Habyarimana in Rwanda and then Mobutu in the Congo, French companies were temporarily sidelined by their anglo-American rivals.

The second rebellion

Even today, it is still difficult to tell who actually initiated the war which broke out 15 months after L-D Kabila came to power. The odds are that Kabila's decision to send home the Rwandan and Ugandan troops which had helped him to seize power, played a role in precipitating events. As a result of Kabila ending de facto his past alliance with Rwanda and Uganda, a new rebellion instigated by these two countries broke out in the Kivu region, in August 1998.

With the help of troops from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, the two main rebel groups - the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC) and the Rassemblement Démocratique du Congo (RDC) - made rapid progress and occupied all the country's richest provinces one after the other. Within days, the rebel forces came close to Kinshasa. L-D Kabila requested the military assistance of SADC, the Southern Africa's Development Community which the Congo had just joined, to repel this foreign invasion. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia obliged immediately and their interventions stopped the rebel forces and their foreign allies from gaining any more ground.

However, neither side was able to win a decisive victory. As a result the Congo settled into a chronic state of war while the country was split between the two camps. The western and southern parts of the country remained in the hands of the government and its allies, while northern and eastern Congo were controlled by the rebel forces and their godfathers. In fact this latter part was itself divided into three distinct areas - one was controlled by the MLC and its ally, Uganda, another by a faction of the RDC also allied to Uganda and the last one by another faction of the RDC linked to Rwanda. The only common ground shared by these three factions was the way in which they were looting the country's natural wealth with the interested help of their foreign minders.

In this conflict, each one of the countries involved had its own agenda. The Tutsi-dominated regimes in Rwanda and Burundi invoked the need to protect their countries and the Congolese Tutsis against the Hutu militias based in eastern Congo. But in fact, their use of security or humanitarian concerns merely concealed a more mundane appetite. The lasting military occupation of a large area of the Congo alongside their own borders provided Rwanda, Uganda and, although to a lesser extent, Burundi, with permanent and secure access to significant resources (precious wood, agricultural production, ivory, gold, diamonds) as well as to huge unexploited reserves of strategic minerals such as coltan and cassiterite. So, for instance, the Rwandan army did not just hunt down Hutu militias in Kivu. It also spent a whole month airlifting to Kigali all the coltan stockpiled by the Kivu mining company that it could find.

Uganda was in a similar situation to its Rwandan allies. For a long time, president Museveni's regime had been faced with a rebellion which operated from rear bases located in north-eastern Congo. But again, securing Uganda's borders was not the only reason for Museveni's military intervention. Looting the Congo's mineral resources was also a convenient way to give Uganda's economy some breathing space and reduce the burden of its debt. While the leaders of the Ugandan occupation army never forgot to line their own pockets, they also provided their country's economy with foreign currencies, by exporting large quantities of gold and diamonds from their occupation zone in the Congo and by imposing heavy taxes on every product which entered this zone. General Kazini, who had become Uganda's strong man in the Congo, went as far as to create a new province - known as Kibali-Ituri - whose territory coincided more or less with the Kilo-Moto gold field. Meanwhile, the Victoria group, which had been set up by some of Museveni's close allies, became the western companies' preferred partner in coffee, diamond and gold trade. In June 2000, it was this Victoria group's refusal to concede a share of this lucrative trade to Rwanda, which led to a bloody battle for the town of Kisangani - the regional centre for illegal diamond trade - between Ugandan and Rwandan troops.

Angola was faced with the long-standing Unita rebellion, whose rear bases were in south-western Congo. But by intervening militarily in Congo, the aim of the Angolan regime was not just to cut Unita's supply lines and, more specifically, its access to Congolese diamonds. The Angolan president Dos Santos also wanted to secure his control over the oil-rich Cabinda enclave, which was threatened by the Cabinda Liberation Front and by remnants of Mobutu's former army which had taken refuge there.

As to Zimbabwe, its military intervention was portrayed by president Mugabe as a matter of pan-African solidarity. But of course, it had different motives. The breakdown of Congo raised the question of who was going to replace Mobutu and his regime as the region's policeman. Among the possible contenders were South Africa, Angola and, although to a lesser extent the smaller Rwanda, due to their military power. Being in competition with South Africa both politically and economically, Zimbabwe could not remain on the sidelines in this contest. At the same time, Mugabe was pursuing economic motives. Due to its size, the Congo could develop into a huge market for Zimbabwe's industry, as well a providing it with raw material it did not have. It was no coincidence if, in addition to defending Kinshasa, the main thrust of Zimbabwe's military effort was in the mineral-rich areas of Lubumbashi and southern Katanga, thereby preventing the RDC forces from taking control of Mbuji-Mayi, the capital of the diamond-rich province of western Kasai.

L-D Kabila signed many contracts with Zimbabwean companies, which were all controlled by army officers and Mugabe's close allies. In addition, Zimbabwe took over control of Gécamines, the largest state mining company in the Congo. However, by laying its hands on this huge mineral wealth, Zimbabwe was interfering with Western and South African mining interests. The West response was swift. Shortly after Zimbabwe's military intervention, the World Bank suspended virtually all the loans which had been promised to finance the country's land reform and the IMF hardened its demands on Zimbabwe.

A damning report

By 2000, the looting of the Congo had become so blatant that the UN set up an enquiry into its operation and beneficiaries. The final report of this enquiry was so explosive that only members of the Security Council were allowed to see its most sensitive section. However, even censored as it was, the rest of the report shed a strong enough light on the smuggling networks which financed the warlords' activities in the Congo.

Concerning the issue of the so-called "blood diamonds", the report exposed the role played by multinational companies, such as the London-based South-African giant De Beers, which turn a blind eye on the origins of their supplies while pretending that they would never trade in "war stones." In fact, in addition to De Beers, no fewer than 10 UK-based companies were named and shamed for having violated the OECD guidelines on mineral exports from African warn zones - not to mention another 3 companies based in British tax havens. In addition, two Belgian companies were also mentioned in this report for getting their supplies directly from the Congo. These were Sierra Gem Diamonds and Triple A Diamonds, both owned by rich Lebanese families and both with respectable headquarters in Antwerp, the world's largest trading centre for uncut diamonds. Israeli diamond traders were also exposed by this report, in particular Dan Gertier, a nephew of the founder of the Tel Aviv stock exchange, whose company, IDI Diamonds, was granted the exclusive right to export Congolese diamonds (from the government's side) by L-D Kabila in 2000. In addition, together with Chaim Leibowitz, a big donor of Bush's Republican Party, Gertier controls the exports of the state-owned Bakwanga mining company.

A previous report had already exposed the extensive smuggling of rare minerals, stressing that this could only have taken place with the help of international companies. According to this report's estimates, 3,000 tons of cassiterite and between 1,000 and 1,500 tons of coltan had been airlifted from the Kivu region by the Rwandan army between November 1998 and April 1999. This large-scale operation had been carried out, according to the report's euphemistic formulation, with the "passive complicity" of Sabena (the now defunct state-owned Belgium airway company) and a transport subsidiary of the French group Bolloré.

Such facts should not come as a surprise, of course. The capitalists are quite capable of adapting to changing circumstances, including the bloody wars which plague Africa and other parts of the world, in order to carry on with their looting. They know how to manipulate local warlords - and, if need be, use mercenaries - to do the dirty job on the ground, in order to get the cheapest possible raw materials and ensure that their business goes on blossoming regardless of (if not thanks to) the massacres.

Peace accords fail to stop massacres

The year 2000 saw a major turn in the Congolese political situation. US imperialism finally realised that L-D Kabila was not the docile replacement for Mobutu that had been expected. From then onwards, he became Public Enemy number one. On 16 January 2001, L-D Kabila was shot by one of his personal bodyguards. His son, Joseph Kabila, returned hastily to the Congo, at the request of his father's former allies.

Given the number of African states involved, the war in the Congo threatened the political stability of a large part of the African continent. To this extent, the imperialist powers were concerned about its continuation and possible extension. Under pressure from the US and its main mouthpiece in the region, the South-African government, Joseph Kabila embarked on an "inter-Congolese dialogue". After protracted negotiations, this resulted in the Sun City accord, in 2002, followed by the Pretoria accord, both signed in South Africa. According to these agreements, Kabila was to share political power with the different rebel groups and opposition parties and to prepare the country for a general election to be held within two years.

On the basis of these agreements, foreign troops left the country during the year 2002. However, this did not mean an end to the war itself. Kabila's government remained confronted with the exactions of armed gangs operating in various parts of the country, which were all more or less manipulated by neighbouring states. At the same time, contrary to the pledge made by Kabila in the peace accords in exchange for the withdrawal of the Rwandan army, his regime was proving incapable of disarming the Hutu militia operating in Kivu. Besides, Kabila was proving just as impotent in his attempts to stop ethnic conflicts in eastern Congo - just as impotent as the UN forces deployed in the area in order to disarm the various ethnic militias.

In fact, in the Ituri province, a conflict between Lendu and Hema militias was still raging by the end of 2003. These armed gangs are supported by Uganda and Rwanda respectively, and their on-going war has already claimed 50,000 victims over the past years. Likewise, in southern Kivu, Hutu militias have recently launched raids, forcing the local population to run for their lives and burning down their villages.

Many regions still escape the government's authority: it is one thing for the rebel leaders to sign a peace agreement and quite another for them readily to give up their fiefdoms and the profits they derive from them. Jean-Pierre Bemba, a businessman and a leading figure of the MLC, is a case in point. Under Mobutu, his main claim to fame was to be the son of the local bosses' leading spokesman in Kinshasa. After L-D Kabila took over from Mobutu, Bemba fell from grace. He re-emerged in 1998, in Kisangani, under the protection of the Ugandan army, where he launched the MLC. Using military force, he carved out a huge fiefdom for himself in northern Congo. It was larger than Germany and included the rich agricultural province of Equateur. Then he proceeded to plunder his new territory in partnership with the Ugandan general Kazini. Once the towns' and banks' coffers were emptied, the pair organised the looting of the forest and agricultural resources (particularly the stocks of coffee, which represent 60% of the Congo's production) as well as the gold and diamond fields around Kisangani. At the same time Bemba established a system of taxes and duties for his sole benefit and imposed low production prices on farmers so as to be able to make a larger profit on exports out of his fiefdom - aptly nicknamed "Bembaland". Meanwhile, Bemba buys the loyal support of his soldiers by encouraging them to get their "payment" directly from the "liberated" populations. As a result, this "Bembaland" has experienced a frightening increase of poverty.

The increased destitution of the population is not confined to "Bembaland" and other similar fiefdoms. In every part of the country, the clock has been pushed back many decades into the past by the destruction and looting carried out by the armed gangs -whether "regular" armies or warlords' forces, on whichever side of the conflict. Besides. deaths are not just caused by bullets and machetes. Hunger, diseases, the lack of basic healthcare, medicines and infrastructure, are causing many more deaths. According to one medical NGO, 60% of all children do not even make it to their 5th birthday in some districts of eastern Congo. The rate of schooling, which was one of the highest in that part of Africa, has fallen to abysmal levels - to the point where, in a diamond-rich area like eastern Kasai, 80% of children are now deprived of any education at all. The social catastrophe caused by this on-going war was illustrated by a Congolese priest explaining to the Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman that his congregation was now requesting to have mass at night because most of them no longer had any clothes to put on!

A summary of Africa's recent evolution

The states which were set up by the colonial powers were designed so that imperialism could preserve its control over the former colonies' economies, in return for crumbs which were thrown contemptuously at the local political personnel. However, several of these states - whether open dictatorships or simply authoritarian regimes - have been so much eroded by corruption that today they are in a process of total decomposition, despite the support of the former colonial powers.

Belgian imperialism, which was much weaker than its French and British rivals, failed right from the beginning in the Congo. As a result, its process of decolonisation led to the collapse of any form of state authority until the unity of the country was forcibly restored in the form of Zaire and Mobutu's dictatorship established with the help of French and US imperialism.

However, today, it is not just in the Congo that cracks are appearing in the state machinery and threatening this machinery with outright decomposition. This is true as well in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Burundi. Not to mention Somalia, where there is no longer anything that can be remotely considered as a central state machinery, or Ivory Coast, which may well already be going down the same road.

These protracted and sterile internal wars represent a catastrophe for the populations of these countries, even more drastic than the poverty in which they already live. But while the populations are paying with their blood for the rival existence of the warring factions, imperialist companies manage to use these circumstances to step up no less drastically the scale of their looting in these countries. Indeed, the decomposition of the state machineries offers imperialist companies some advantages. It is more expensive for a multinational to buy a bureaucracy based on a central state, than to buy the services of a local warlord, thereby turning his troops into a private police force - a police force which, in addition, assumes the right of life and death over the population and never hesitates to use it. As long as these militias see to it that raw materials and other precious minerals keep flowing towards the West's respectable multinationals, through smuggling networks and front companies, why should these multinationals and their political representatives in government object to such trafficking? This is a particularly barbaric form taken today by imperialist domination, but it is an integral part of this domination.

Contrary to so many lies floated about today, including by so-called "academic experts" of African society, the wave of barbarism which is engulfing a whole section of Africa today is not a revival of past tribal wars nor of any kind of "traditions" inherited from a distant past. This wave of barbarism is a direct by-product of capitalism and the profit economy. Its triggers and mechanisms are not to be found in the depths of the Ituri forests, but in the boardrooms of the big companies, in New York, London and Paris.