The Left must talk – and act – about the Congo

web004This article first appeared on Phil Hearse’s site Crisis and Revolt.

Once again the militias backed by Rwanda and Uganda are on the march in the eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu and Orientale. Once again thousands of civilians are fleeing before them, leaving their homes with their few belongings, not knowing when or if they will be able to go back home. Compared with many items on the TV news bulletins this is a giant drama, the continuation of a massive tragedy in which up to 6 million people have died in the last 20 years. If this had happened in a European country it would have been central news on the TV nightly: indeed probably it would get a lot more media coverage here if the Democratic Republic of Congo were an English-speaking, not French-speaking, country.

A lot of the coverage that does happen hints at the role of madly brutal war lords and their rapacious armies, an African ‘heart of darkness’ with unspeakable atrocities, mass murder, the most systematic use of rape as a weapon of war since World War Two and the brutalisation of child soldiers. What’s missing – except in the publications of some third-world orientated NGOs and human rights organisations, is any systematic explanation of what is happening and who is behind it all. And the Left is hardly immune from this lack of interest or explanation.

For Marxists the truth of the Congo is hardly surprising. Eastern Congo is the source of some of the world’s most precious minerals, vital for the production of a whole range of products. The brutalised militias are the specific form of political/military control of the region, which guarantees that a massive part of the mineral wealth of the Congo is stolen, ultimately on behalf of Western mineral corporations: and this is part of the wider theft of resources across African that keeps millions in poverty.

What’s happening now?

In April 2012 hundreds of troops from the M-23 militia crossed over from Rwanda and last autumn drove the Congolese army out of the strategic border town of Goma. The M-23 army is composed mainly of ethnic Tutsis who deserted from the Congolese national army, and are now led, organised and commanded by officers from the Rwandan national army – ie from a country that is itself Tutsi dominated. The M-23 is also backed by Uganda which has its own operation further north in Orientale province.

After the total failure of UN peace keeping operations in the past, 3000 UN troops have been sent to the region, but few observers expect them to intervene in a decisive way.

The UN says that 70,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the last two months alone and that the M-23 has caused hundreds of civilian casualties. Since April 2012 up to one million people have been displaced from their homes.

Apart from trying to capture of control the mineral resources, the armies prey on the local populations. Armed groups plunder money, food and whatever other resources they can find. “Preying on people” says Elodie Martel “has become an extractive industry”. Extraction comes with endless amounts of violence, rape and the theft of children to become child soldiers.

But the M-23 is just one of 25 armed factions operating in North and South Kivu. The Kivus have been the centre of fighting because it’s there that tin, diamonds, uranium, gold and coltan – vital for electronics components – have been found. Since Rwanda became directly involved in the eastern Congo its international sales of precious minerals have shot up – with no evidence of domestic production of any of these things. The same is true of Uganda. Thus the Rwandan and Ugandan governments are key ‘recyclers’ of blood diamonds and other blood minerals that escape attempts to impose controls on their sale. These governments remain heavily supported by the West, and the United States has provided training and other support to the Rwandan military.

New gold rush

The situation has been complicated by the discovery of vast gold reserves in nearby Orientale province. Imperialist extraction of this resource is more open and direct: companies listed in London, such as AngloGold Ashanti and Randgold, are at the forefront to exploit this new resource. Just one mine at Kibali – controlled by AngloGold – is thought to contain a gigantic 311,000kg of gold.

The whole area to contain £20bn worth of gold, at a time when proven supplies in South Africa are dwindling rapidly and where the world demand for gold is skyrocketing. This is a function of the flight to gold caused by the slump since 2008 (China has boosted its gold reserves in that time from 600 tons to 3000 tons); and an explosion in the demand for gold from the new middle classes in India and China.

Until now there have tens of thousands of small scale prospectors in Orientale, but the transnational corporations are trying to push out the poor individuals miners panning streams for gold and take control. More and more of the region is being allocated to the multinationals  as ‘concessions’ from the Congolese government and this starts the process of pushing out the small-time producers.Rebel militias are recruiting in the region to fight for control, or at least a share of the big corporations’ profits.

The heart of the matter

Any ‘heart of darkness’-type interpretation of the persistent conflict and genocide falls at the first hurdle: far from being irrational, the action of the armed militias is entirely rational. The armed groups are a business with vast profits for their leaders and at least employment for their rank and file. It is a business tolerated by the West because big business needs the Congo minerals. Genocide is the specific form of imperialist control of eastern Congo. The form of control used to be different.

After the Congo became  independent in 1960 its radical anti-imperialist president Patrice Lumumba was overthrown and assassinated in a Western backed coup. This ushered in the genocidal-kleptomaniac general Mobutu Seke Soso, who kept the Congo safe for imperialism while depositing countless billions in Swiss bank accounts as his reward. Under his rule major mineral concessions were handed out to American corporations like American Mineral Fields and Bechtel.

When his rule became untenable a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila and backed by Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea came to power. Sensing the way the wind was blowing the United States backed Kabila’s armed rebellion and march to Kinshasa. But within a year Kabila’s alliance broke up, including vitally the governments of Rwanda and Uganda breaking with him. This and revolts in the Congolese army, laid the basis for the new rebels movements in the eastern provinces and the opening of the Congolese multi-sided ‘war’ that lasted until 2003, in which millions died.

Right from the beginning of the Kabila rebellion in 1997 there were human rights abuses. Troops in the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army used their incursion into the Congo to hunt down the Hutu interahamwe militia, the people mainly responsible for the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda. They also systematically persecuted the Hutu civilians who fled across the border with the interahamwe, fearing persecution from the new Tutsi government. The scene was set for the degeneration of the eastern region into a charnel house in which DRC government soldiers were every bit as responsible for the hell inflicted on the civilian population as were the ‘rebel’ militias.

Western companies were far from shy about having direct links with the rebel groups. In 2001 Citibank gave a $5mn loan to Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (CRD), a loan doubtless sanctioned by the US government.

The rape epidemic

Mass violence including unspeakable acts of mutilation and other cruelty are of course routinely used by the militias to maintain control through fear. But rape and other sexual violence has reached an enormous scale in the Congo. Peter Eichstaedt explains it in the following way:

“How did the situation get this bad? Most of the rapists are government soldiers or militia fighters under the control of either Tutsi or Hutu fighters….Some perpetrators are the homegrown Mai-Mai militias, and still others are Congolese police, said to be worse than the criminals they’re supposed to control. Some rapists are cattle and goat traders who roam the region….Rape is a tactic intended to destroy communities suspected of being enemies of the militias, and now civilians are committing these acts, the result of total social breakdown brought on by war.”(Consuming the Congo, P Eichstaedt, Laurence Hill books 2011).

Women explained to Eichstaedt that the situation is compounded by the social stigma that raped women face. One told him that often husbands throw raped wives out of the household and that rape victims are often ostracised by their own families. The trauma of the violence and the ostracism is all too often worsened by the rape victim becoming infected by HIV which the militias spread rapidly.

The stigma of faced by rape victims leads to family member often pressurising the victims to keep quiet. This reinforces the culture of impunity. In any case, reporting a rape to the police is a joke in any area controlled or contested by militias: the victim risks being raped by the police or retribution by the militias.

Doubtless a culture where misogyny is ingrained – partially as a result of 90 years of Belgian imperialist rule – helps explain the rape epidemic. But the proximate cause is the violence and social dislocation brought on by war. Attempts to explain the Congo events as uniquely awful or as part of some African ‘heart of darkness’ can’t explain why the biggest events of mass rape took place in Europe and Russia during World War 2.  They key to it is war and the impunity enjoyed by nearly every army.

Interviewed by Open Democracy, Julienne Lusenge explained the depth of misogyny in contemporary Congolese culture:

“Today there are customs which prevent women from eating meat, drinking milk, eating eggs and speaking in front of people. There is an article in the Family Code that say that a marriage is not legitimate and cannot be legally recognised if it has not been registered by the state. So you could have lived with a man for 40 years but if he wants to throw you out and you haven’t had your marriage registered then you will have no right to contest this. This is common. We work with women to help them to talk to their husbands and ask them to register the marriage. And of course we are working to get rid of that article from the Family Code. This is the same Family Code that says that you can marry a girl who is 14 years of age, and which contains an article that says that a married woman is basically a minor. At the age of 55 today I can’t own any property. I can’t own a house, I can’t even own a dog or a car. First I have to ask my husband for permission. He can then sign to say, yes she has bought it. So we’re working to get rid of all that from our Family Code.”

She also explained the risks for women in speaking out:

“If women speak out about what is going on in my region, if they come to public meetings and raise their hands they get called prostitutes, they are considered ‘bad’ women. There are those who talk to our husbands and try to win them round psychologically by saying, ‘hey mind your woman, why do you let her speak out and leave all the time? That’s not a wife, why don’t you get a proper wife?’ Some women lose their husband and their home because of their work.

Then there are the women who are attacked by the armed groups and security forces because of our work accompanying victims of war. We are the ones who denounce it when women are raped, and so people come to rape us to punish us for this work. Some women are cut by machetes or knives. On 4th November 2009 a colleague of mine was completely cut by a machete. She had bullets in different parts of her body and was very badly mutilated.

“In other cases it’s the husband that they attack for not controlling you. In one case a man’s eye was very badly damaged and we had to take him to get urgent help. They were telling him, ‘tell your wife to stop bringing evidence against that war lord who has committed a lot of atrocities in the east of the country’. Your family can turn against you for putting them in danger.” (interview linked here

Doubtless a culture where misogyny is ingrained – partially as a result of 90 years of Belgian imperialist rule – helps explain the rape epidemic. But the proximate cause is the violence and social dislocation brought on by war. Attempts to explain the Congo events as uniquely awful or as part of some African ‘heart of darkness’ can’t explain why the biggest events of mass rape took place in Europe and Russia during World War 2.  They key to it is war and the impunity enjoyed by nearly every army.

Efforts at control

In 2010 the US Congress passed the Dodd-Frank act about regulating the financial sector after the 2008 crash; as an add-on to that act as a result of lobbying by NGOs complex regulations about certificating minerals from Central Africa were passed. But these regulations have been largely circumvented or ignored. With or without certification the minerals still get to the multinational corporations. As Montague and Berrigan put it:

“Today the United States claims that it has no interest in the DRC other than the peaceful resolution to the current war. Yet US businessmen and politicians are still going to extreme lengths to gain and preserve sole access to the DRC’s mineral resources. And to protect these economic interests, the US government continues to provide millions of dollars in arms and military training to known human-rights abusers and undemocratic regimes.”  (The Business of War in the Congo –

However as a result of growing international concern the United Nations ahs deployed 3000 ‘peacekeepers’ in the region of Goma. It remains to be seen whether they will be more willing than previous UN forces to intervene and defend civilians.

….and the Left

Because of the lack of news reporting, much of what happens in the eastern Congo remains hidden from Western view. While NGOs like Oxfam do good work on the ground aiding thousands, the left must look to political solutions and developing campaigning objectives. For a start the Left should advocate:

·         Stop military aid and political support to countries backing militias in the Congo – Rwanda and Uganda

·         An audit of the activities of British companies in the Kivus and Orientale. No collaboration with the genocidal militias. An end to blood minerals! Stop the theft of Congo’s resources. An end to the dispossession of Orientale gold miners. Enforce basic standards of pay, health and safety and working conditions for all employees including the British and US multinationals.

·         International action for force the DRC, Rwandan and Ugandan government to act against sexual violence in the DRC.


History and factual background

International campaign to stop rape and gender violence in conflict


Conflict minerals


Genocide in the Congo

1 Comment

  1. Its true, the left needs to wake up from their deep slumber and get involved to stop this madness. We’ve always argued that the root cause of Congo genocide is the capitalists greed and disregard for Human Rights. Its Congo blood that the global 1% are feeding on and we have to stop this. Thus, they consider Congo to be their broken ATM machine that spits out money for them.

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