Chaos in Congo Suits Many Parties Just Fine

From: rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU
Date: Sun Apr 20 2003 - 05:22:08 EDT

Chaos in Congo Suits Many Parties Just Fine

April 20, 2003

As in the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't
bark in the night, sometimes silence says more than words.
About one of the great tragedies of today's world, the
silence is telling indeed. In Congo, according to an
International Rescue Committee report released earlier this
month, at least 3.3 million people have lost their lives in
four and a half years of civil war. They have perished in
combat, in massacres of civilians (the most recent occurred
on April 3) and, most of all, in the disease and famine
that strike when millions of desperately poor people are
forced to flee their homes.

This number does not include the estimated 2.8 million
Congolese who have H.I.V. or AIDS, some of it spread
through mass rapes by marauding bands of soldiers. Nor does
it encompass the misery of having to live for years in
refugee camps that turn into fields of mud during the rainy

The war has been marked by a series of ineffective peace
agreements among three major factions, one of them the
national government in Kinshasa, and several smaller
groups. And a token force of United Nations observers is
now on the scene.

But Congo's separation into rival segments continues, and
last week one faction boycotted talks that are supposed to
form a power-sharing government. Few Americans, however,
seem to care about stopping a conflict with a death toll
larger than any since World War II. Why?

American interest in Africa is erratic, but there is a
larger reason that few countries have put much effort into
ending this war. Simply, Congo's current situation -
Balkanized, occupied by rival armies, with no functioning
central government - suits many people just fine. Some are
heads of Congo's warring factions, some are political and
military leaders of neighboring countries, and some are
corporations dependent on the country's resources. The
combination is deadly.

To begin with, the warlords of most of Congo's factions are
happy to divide up its vast treasure of mineral wealth
while spending little on public services. The few schools
open are mainly run by the Roman Catholic Church.

The continuing turmoil also suits the various countries
nearby, above all Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe, whose troops
have long propped up one or another side in the conflict.
In return, they have received a stream of timber, gold,
diamonds, copper, cobalt and columbium-tantalum, or coltan,
a valuable mineral used in cellphones, computers and many
other electronic devices. At its peak price a few years
ago, coltan was selling for $350 a pound.

Such riches have made the war self-supporting, with profits
to spare. Despairing Congolese say they would be better off
if they were not so rich.

Finally, the Balkanization and war suit the amazing variety
of corporations - large and small, American, African and
European - that profit from the river of mineral wealth
without having to worry about high taxes, and that prefer a
cash-in-suitcases economy to a highly regulated one.

An exhaustive report to the United Nations Security Council
last year detailed the dozens of companies now making money
from Congo's conflict, based everywhere from Ohio to
Johannesburg to Antwerp to Kazakhstan. As a result, neither
the United States nor any other nation now seems to have
much interest in seeing a strong Congolese central
government keep profits from the country's patrimony - the
word the White House uses about Iraq's oil - mostly at

When Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first and last democratically
chosen leader, threatened to do just that after taking
office in 1960, the Eisenhower administration secretly
sought his overthrow and assassination. Emboldened,
Congolese and Belgians then carried out the job.

Congo's current disorder grows directly out of a long,
unhappy history. Ethnic groups speaking more than 200
different languages live in the territory. For centuries,
it served as raiding grounds for the Atlantic slave trade
and the equally deadly slave trade from the east coast of
Africa to the Islamic world.

When the colonial era began, the land became the privately
owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium. His army turned
much of the male population into forced laborers, working
many to death. First the laborers gathered ivory - Joseph
Conrad gave an unforgettable image of this in "Heart of
Darkness" - and then a still more lucrative crop, wild

During Leopold's rule and its immediate aftermath, the
territory's population was slashed roughly in half. Belgian
state colonialism followed; it was less brutal and more
orderly, but still the profits flowed overseas.

In 1965, five years after independence, Joseph Mobutu
seized power in a military coup, encouraged by Washington.
He renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko and his country Zaire,
and ruled as a dictator for 32 years, receiving more than
$1 billion in American aid and repeatedly being welcomed at
the White House. Meanwhile he looted the national treasury
of an estimated $4 billion. Small wonder that his ravaged
country has been having a hard time ever since. It has not
helped that in the 1990's the United States supplied more
than $100 million in arms and military training to six of
the seven African countries that have been involved in the
fighting of the Congo war.

Even in a magical world where great powers always had good
intentions, no outside intervention - whether by American,
European, African or United Nations forces - would be
likely to solve Congo's problems. "Nation building" by
outsiders is inherently arrogant and risky, and there are
few success stories. More than 28,000 NATO-led troops are
currently keeping the peace in Kosovo; Congo's population
is more than 25 times as large as Kosovo's, and its land
area more than 200 times bigger.

THERE are other problems as well. In Africa, loyalty to the
extended clan or ethnic group is often far stronger than to
the nation-state. These divisions have allowed Congo's
plunderers to profit so much for so long. In the immediate
future, factional leaders, generals and politicians from
surrounding countries, and various Western companies are
likely to continue making money.

What hope is there for an end to Congo's misery? The United
States made one surprising step forward earlier this month
when Congress approved American participation in an
international agreement not to trade in "conflict diamonds"
- the gems coming from anarchic, war-torn areas like Congo.
More than 50 other countries have already signed on. The
pact will be hard to enforce - but so was the ban on the
Atlantic slave trade in its early years. And if conflict
diamonds can be made taboo, why not conflict gold or
conflict coltan?

Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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