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Extreme Stories: Understanding The Conflict In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo

Extreme Stories: Understanding The Conflict In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has long been one of the most dangerous places on Earth, but its current war is one of the least reported.

The conflict in the east of the country has been raging for years: though how long exactly is difficult to say, as the situation is so complex that it is difficult to discern when one war ended and another began.


Regardless of the length of the conflict, the characteristics of the war read like something straight out of Beasts of No Nation. There are myriad horrendous stories of child soldiers, war diamonds and minerals, bitter fights for control of resources, rape as a weapon and genocide.

Actor and investigative journalist Ross Kemp, who travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of his documentary series, Extreme World, told LADbible about the conflict.

The present reality of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) cannot be understood without discussing colonialism and the economic domination of Europeans.

The ethnic conflicts, for example, cannot be explained without mentioning the Berlin Conference of 1885, where white European colonists - no African was invited - divided the continent between themselves for their own interests. When we speak of ethnic violence in the Congo, in particular the conflict that straddles the border between the DRC and Rwanda, it is vital to know that the border itself is a purely European construction.


The political history of the independent Congo - or Zaire, as it was known for 30 years - is intrinsically linked to the interests of foreign powers. Congolese independence was not willingly granted by the Belgians, and as soon as the first democratically-elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, took office his government was faced with a Belgian-backed uprising. He appealed for help from the United Nations, then the United States and finally the Soviet Union.

Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically-elected prime minister of Congo. (Credit: PA)

One could write reams about the immediate post-independence period in the Congo, but suffice to say that the combination of an anti-colonial African leader and the Soviet Union as not one that the Americans were going to let slide, and by 1965, the United States and the Belgians had conspired to get their man, Mobutu Sese Seko into the Presidency. Both the Belgians and the Americans later admitted to having had Lumumba assassinated.

The dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko was harsh, kleptocratic and corrupt. The Americans were more than willing to let it continue - it was a bulwark against communism, as all the best dictatorships were - and allowed the flow of resources out of the country to continue. It took until 1997 for Sese Seko to be overthrown by a second strongman, Laurent-Desire Kabila, the father of the current President Joseph Kabila.

Kabila came to power amid the ongoing genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. Hutus and Tutsis, who were the two ethnic groups involved in the Rwandan genocide, exist in large numbers in the Kivu region of Eastern Congo - there are round two million refugees - and the major players are still aligned largely along ethnic lines.

Current DCR President Joseph Kabila pictured with Tony Blair in 2001 (Credit: PA)

If the political history of the DRC is that of colonialism and stoked ethnic conflict, then the economic history can go a long way to explaining the reasons why.

Again, we must return to the Berlin Conference. The current nation of the DRC was claimed by Leopold, King of the Belgians, who managed to convince his fellow Europeans that he had philanthropic and humanitarian intentions in the "dark heart" of Africa. Unsurprisingly, he didn't.

The Congo Free State, as Leopold's Congolese colony was known, was a harsh regime even by the brutal standards of European colonialism. The regime essentially turned the whole of the Congo into a huge rubber plantation and its some 30 million people into indentured slaves, with only one customer for their goods: Leopold's government.

The people endured terror - anyone who refused to work in the plantations or resisted was killed - and famine, as the planting of rubber trees overrode growing food. Mutilation was common, with workers and their families having hands amputated if they failed to meet quotas. Between a million and 15 million people are thought to have died.

Credit: PA

The Congo terror is worth mentioning because the current battle in the DRC has very similar stimuli. Congo has the world's largest deposits of coltan, a base mineral from which laptop and smartphone components are constructed. It retails for $120 a kilogram and the coltan mines, which are found in Kivu, are heavily contested between different factions. Control the mines, control the flow of money, use the money to buy guns to better protect the mines. The flow of money and resources out of the DRC is constant, the ability of Congolese people to grow economically is stunted and the conditions for conflict are further deepened.

The situation in the eastern DRC has become so embedded that it seems impossible for any resolution to be possible. As long as there is a market for the conflict minerals, there will be a conflict to control the supply. Without the minerals, however, there are no jobs. There has long been justified outcry over the mining of coltan in Congo, particularly involving child labour, but without the mines there would be little economic activity of any kind: until an alternative economic driver is found, mining will continue regardless of the consequences. What was once rubber is now coltan.

It can be very easy to see conflict in Africa as never-ending, uber complex, cyclical and self-destructive. With a little context, the strands can be tied together but the struggle then becomes the acknowledgement for Europeans of the complicit guilt in the hardship of Africans.

The more Europeans know about the internal conflicts of Africa, the more difficult and problematic it seems. The easiest answer is to paint Africans as naturally inclined towards ethnic violence, but to do so ignores the central role of Europeans in creating and furthering conflict. The simplest solution is to just ignore it - but ignoring it does not make it go away: as long as the Congo is under-reported, it will remain as dangerous as it is today.

Ross Kemp: Extreme World continues on Sunday 23rd July at 9pm on Sky1 and NOW TV

Words: Mike Meehall Wood

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: ross kemp


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