Since 1996, 6 million Congolese have been killed in a series of invasions and violent conflicts often instigated by armies and militias from neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, which are both U.S. allies. The battles have centered on access to Congo’s vast mineral deposits. Congo has never really been allowed to control its own destiny, save for the brief leadership of the visionary Lumumba in 1960. But Lumumba’s tenure and life were cut horribly short with the help of the CIA just months after he was democratically elected, only to be replaced by a Western backed dictator, Mobutu, who remained in power with U.S. backing for three decades. Even then, the stakes centered around Congo’s mineral wealth.
Maurice Carney, the co-founder and executive director of Friends of the Congo, in an interview said “Congo has been at the center of the unfolding of the drama ... as it relates to the geostrategic pursuit to control the riches of the African continent.” He thinks the media fail to adequately cover Congo’s conflict because “if you look at Darfur, the bogeymen were the Arabs, the Muslims and the Chinese. In Congo, the bogeyman is the West. From the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, to the imposition of Mobutu on the Congolese people, to the backing of the invasion of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda, the West is complicit.” In fact, Carney said, “The United States has been on the wrong side of history [in the Congo] from day one.”
U.S. policy on Congo also includes propping up Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. With respect to Kagame especially, despite the fact that several multinational bodies like the International Criminal Court have warned the Rwandan president that he could face prosecution for crimes in the Congo, “the U.S. has run diplomatic and political interference to protect its allies,” according to Carney. According to Carney, Congo’s Kabila government “lacks legitimacy among its people.” Because of that, different groups, even from outside Congo, simply enter the land and claim precious minerals. Congo’s borders are porous, even leading to serious questions of who exactly are defined as citizens.
“Militia groups terrorize villages, particularly the women,” Carney said. He hesitated, adding, “I can’t even say they ‘rape’ the women. They will inflict a form of sexual terrorism on the women, destroy their reproductive systems, humiliate them by raping them in front of their husbands and their children, or even force the children to rape their mother.” Such unspeakable horror has led entire villages to be physically and psychologically destroyed and displaced. The invading militias then have easier access to the mineral resources such as gold, coltan or tin under the land where the villagers once lived.
Coltan, one of Congo’s most sought-after minerals, is used in the making of tantalum capacitors, which are ubiquitous in today’s electronic devices. Gold, tin and tungsten are also traded by armed militias for profit. Carney paraphrased Museveni, who likened Congo to a “banana plantation,” meaning that “everybody goes in and grabs what they want.” The systematic pillaging of minerals without proper enforcement of environmental regulations has resulted in serious environmental devastation. For example, the mining laws of the Congo are written by the World Bank and are written in such a way as to benefit private corporations; the forestry laws are also written by the World Bank.” So, Carney concluded, “you have these multinational institutions having undue influence in the Congo.” Carney lamented that “in a sovereign nation, the government through its laws is supposed to protect the environment.” But multinational corporations, taking advantage of Congo’s weak government, are “exploiting the resources of the Congo to the point where it destroys the environment. It’s not just a question of local Congolese engagement, but it’s a global collaboration that winds up depleting and affecting the second lung of the world.”
Global oil company Soco International is planning a major drilling operation in Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to endangered gorillas famously studied by Dian Fossey, author of “Gorillas in the Mist.” Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site. Despite legal challenges by environmental groups, Soco is moving forward with its pre-exploration development. Another undertaking, called the Grand Inga Hydroelectric Project, is a massive dam slated for the lower end of the Congo River in the DRC. It would be the largest dam project on the river. Campaigners with International Rivers warns that the project is expected to have “huge ecological impacts ... affecting local agricultural lands and natural environments; and may cause huge methane emissions that will contribute to global warming. The effect of reduced flow in the Congo River may cause loss of biodiversity and a shift in the dominant species.”
Congo’s own social movements are attempting to organize for justice and peace. “Young people throughout the country are organizing to transform the society,” Carney said. “They believe there is a fundamental change that is needed—a new society where leaders represent the interests of the people.” Like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the American civil rights era, Congo’s youth are “going into communities and rural areas, speaking with pastors, educating their peers, training people about the responsibility and the role of Congolese as citizens, letting people know about the geostrategic game that is being played, letting people know what is at stake in the Congo.” Carney’s eyes lit up about Congo’s dynamic youth activists, who cite the slogan “I do whatever is necessary.”Congolese activists are also harnessing the very technological tools containing the minerals for which their land is being ravaged in order to strengthen their work. American and Canadian students have been sending BlackBerry phones, laptop computers and digital cameras through groups like Friends of the Congo so that Congolese activists can communicate with like-minded people in other parts of the country and beyond. Carney said this sort of solidarity is crucial for young people to be able “to broaden their vision of the world, tap into different ideas, engage in dialogue and exchange in a way that’s going to empower them.” Most importantly, Carney said, “By virtue of them being able to connect with young people outside the country, it lets them know they’re not alone.”