Congo: Western intervention behind bloodbath

Tony Iltis interviewed on Iranian television

By Tony Iltis

November 7, 2008 -- Despite Western media and politicians having largely ignored a decade of genocidal warfare that has cost 6 million lives, the recent upsurge in fighting in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has drawn not only media attention, but visits to the region by the British and French foreign ministers and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

The current round of fighting in North Kivu province, which began on October 26 with an offensive by the Rwandan-backed rebel forces of General Laurent Nkunda, is indeed a humanitarian catastrophe — 200,000 people have been displaced, many not for the first time.

Refugee camps have been burned. There has been widespread looting, rape and murder by both government troops and Nkunda’s rebels, as well as by other militias involved in the fighting.

United Nations “peacekeeping” forces, who have been deployed in the eastern DRC since 2000, have warned that they will engage the rebels if they attempt to take the provincial capital, Goma. However, on October 27, civilians attacked the UN’s Goma compound, accusing the UN troops of failing to protect them from the fighting.

On October 29, Nkunda declared a unilateral ceasefire, denying any intention of taking Goma. However, retreating government troops indulged in a two-day violent rampage through the city.

On November 6, Nkunda carried out a brutal crackdown against the town of Kiwanja after it was briefly taken from his rebels by local militias currently in alliance with the government.

European politicians have begun echoing media calls for a Western military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

However, this ignores that the UN presence since 2000 has been worse than ineffective — there have been several scandals concerning UN soldiers’ involvement in sexual exploitation, including trading food-aid for sex with minors.

Colonial legacy

Furthermore, these calls are based on a simplistic interpretation of the violence as ethnic or tribal conflict.

In fact, this brutal multi-sided conflict, involving shifting alliances between a bewildering array of armed factions as well as both government and opposition forces from seven neighbouring countries, is the product of continual Western intervention since the 1880s.

The current boundaries of the DRC were arbitrarily created at the 1885 Berlin Congress, at which the European imperialist powers literally carved up Africa.

This congress gave the “Congo Free State” to Belgium’s King Leopold as a private commercial enterprise.

The wholesale enslavement of the population to produce rubber and ivory left millions of Congolese dead, but made the Belgian royal dynasty’s fortune.

In 1960, Patrice Lumumba led the DRC to independence with the promise that the era of exploitation by Western powers was over.

However, Belgium and the US colluded in his overthrow and murder and established the brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in power.

Resistance by pro-Lumumba forces continued, but by the time Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara led a small Cuban military mission to them in 1965, they were little more than remnants.

Guevara withdrew the Cubans after concluding that the remants’ leader, Laurent-Desire Kabila, was more interested in timber and ivory smuggling than waging a liberation struggle.

Mobutu renamed the country Zaire and set about making his fortune, in part through plundering his country’s mineral resources and pocketing World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans, but also through acting as a conduit for US covert wars and insurgencies against a number of neighbouring countries.

The most significant of these was in Angola, where the US supported an invasion by South Africa in an attempt to stop the coming to power of the progressive MPLA after liberation from Portugal in 1975.

When this was thwarted by the intervention of Cuban internationalist volunteers, Zaire became the base for the brutal CIA-led UNITA forces for the next 15 years.


The overthrow of Mobutu, and the current war, was triggered by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the overthrow of the French-backed “Hutu-power” regime responsible. With French support, Mobutu allowed the army and militias of the overthrown regime to regroup in Zaire.

However, the new Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame countered by arming the Banyamulenge Tutsis, Congolese of the same ethnicity as the Tutsis who were the victims of the Rwandan genocide.

With the end of the Cold War, the Mobutu regime had outlived its usefulness to the US, who made no attempt to save it when, in 1996, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola invaded in support of an insurrection by a loose coalition that united the Banyamulenge militias with Kabila’s forces, as well as other armed groups.

In fact, by this time the US was giving military training to the Kagame regime in Rwanda.

Furthermore, behind Kabila’s insurrection, which took the capital, Kinshasa, in May 1997, stood Western mining interests.

According to the July 2006 Le Monde diplomatique, Kabila’s invasion, and initial administration, were directly funded by a consortium of the US-based Mineral Fields, Australian company Russel Resources and the Zimbabwe-based Ridgepointe Overseas.

However in 1998, Kabila tried to re-negotiate the deals made with these companies, which brought him into conflict with Rwanda and Uganda and their allied militias in the east of the country (which reverted to the name DRC when Mobutu fell).

Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Sudan came to Kabila’s aid. This was the beginning of the current war.

The genocidal methods of all parties led to a proliferation of armed militias, with many groups originating as local defensive formations but becoming predatory. Ethnic and tribal divisions multiplied.

Mining interests

In this environment the Western mineral companies adopted new methods. Rather than trying to obtain large-scale mining concessions from the non-existent central government, they set up mineral processing operations that bought ores off local suppliers.

These local suppliers were the various contending militias. The mineral trade has thus provided the various armed factions with both a means of buying weapons and profits for which to fight.

Fuelling this has been a byproduct of the IT boom in the West: an explosion in demand for a metal called coltan that is used in the manufacture of mobile phones and personal computers.

Between 2000 and 2007, the price of coltan increased eightfold. The coltan rush led to a falling out between Rwanda and Uganda, as entrepreneurs in both countries tried to maximise their involvement in the trade.

This in turn led to splits in their Congolese proxies and further escalation of the violence.

In 2001, Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguards and replaced by his son Joseph Kabila, who in 2003 signed a peace agreement that left the DRC as a loose collection of four warlord fiefdoms in a state of armed truce, with violence periodically erupting between them.

Conflict between smaller militias at the local level has never ceased. Neither have depredations by the remnants of the Rwandan “Hutu-power” forces.

The current offensive by Nkunda is allegedly to defend the Banyamulenge Tutsis from these forces, however it is actually driven by the demands of his Rwandan backers for coltan.

Because coltan-containing ores are suited to labour intensive, small-scale mining operations, the coltan boom gave the West little interest in stability in the DRC.

However, according to Le Monde diplomatique, cobalt, uranium and other minerals that require more capital-intensive, large-scale mining operations, are now becoming more profitable than coltan — giving the West an incentive to impose some sort of order.

This may explain why the bloodshed in the DRC has finally become a major news story in the West, accompanied by calls for a “humanitarian” intervention.

However, what African-American revolutionary Malcolm X said in 1964 remains true today: “The basic cause of most of the trouble in the Congo right now is the intervention of outsiders — the fighting that is going on over the mineral wealth of the Congo and over the strategic position that the Congo represents on the African continent.

“And in order to justify it, they are … trying to make it appear that the people are savages.”

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.]