Democratic Republic of Congo

Mark Dummett’s BBC story about ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates the lasting effects of imperialism on that nation.  A Belgian colony until 1960, Congo was exploited for its resources and rife with some of the most egregious violence an imperial power ever inflicted on its colonial subjects.  That violence and poverty did not end with independence; rather, it intensified and the Congolese made the practice their own.  As Dummett states, Belgium’s rule has left a cycle of corruption and violence from which the nation has never recovered.

Belgian rule over the Congo region began in 1885, when King Leopold II was given the region at the Berlin Conference, at which the major European powers divided Africa among themselves for the purpose of colonization and exploiting its vast natural resources.  Claiming personal ownership of the huge region, Leopold claimed “philanthropic” reasons; as Dummett says, “He claimed he was doing it to protect the ‘natives’ from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists” (Dummett).  Despite this guise, the ambitious Leopold (who thought colonies would enhance his small nation’s international status) actually made the ironically-named “Congo Free State” his personal plantation, using forced labor to harvest the abundant rubber (and later minerals).

While Leopold and other Europeans made vast profits, the native peoples suffered deeply.  Between 1885 and 1908 (when the Belgian government began ruling the colony in response to international protests), roughly ten million Congolese –half of the population – died from disease or violence at the hands of their rulers (Dummett, Hochschild 233).  Whites’ treatment of the Congolese was generally brutal and arbitrary; Belgian soldiers and plantation agents frequently cut off natives’ hands (and gathered them in baskets, as surviving photographs show), burned villages and enslaved the inhabitants, killed workers who failed to gather enough rubber, doled out harsh punishments for minor or even imaginary offenses, and stole virtually anything of value.  They also created the Force Publique, a brutal police force/army run by white officers and black enlisted men.  They frequently killed and mutilated native Congolese who resisted forced labor (and frequently the innocent as well), establishing a practice of black violence against blacks that persists today.  Whatever justice existed was reserved for whites; Belgians and other Europeans were never punished for killing or mistreating Africans, while blacks were killed for slight or imagined transgressions.

The rest of the world was not unaware of Belgian misdeeds, which amounted to a brutal form of slavery in all but name.  In 1890, African-American lawyer and minister George Washington Williams published first an open letter to Leopold, then a detailed report on human-rights violations.  Despite its wide distribution and a brief furor over its findings, the Belgian government denied any wrongdoing and Williams died before he could escalate his campaign further (Hochschild 109-114).  In 1904, British diplomat Roger Casement and businessman Edmund Morel launched a highly visible international campaign to reveal the scope of Belgium brutality, which led to the Belgian government running the colony instead of Leopold.  Nonetheless, their efforts did little to end brutality and racism there, and Belgium was habitually dismissive of any foreign suggestions that they alter their social and economic system (Wikipedia).

Like other colonial powers, Belgium irreparably changed the Congo region.  According to political scientist Thomas Sowell, “The breakup of empires seldom, if ever, restores the world that existed before conquest” (Sowell 19).  In the case of Congo, the aftermath of imperialism included a decimated population accustomed to violence and intimidation, political chaos, widespread poverty (even deeper than existed in the colonial era), decaying infrastructures, and vast political corruption.  According to author Adam Hochschild, this is a direct inheritance from Belgian rule; despite international pressure, Belgium never treated the native Congolese humanely or justly, but as a virtually enslaved work force and as racial inferiors.       The Congolese simply adopted this practice as their own.

As brutally as the Belgians ruled, Hochschild claims they were hardly an aberration among the imperial powers; “the sad truth is that the men who carried [the work] out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa” (Hochschild 283).  European rulers generally relied on forced labor, cultural and political subjugation, and outright brutality, and they killed native peoples in large numbers.  For example, in 1904, the colonial rulers of German Southwest Africa slaughtered 60,000 of the 80,000 Herero people as revenge for the killing of 123 whites (Sowell 116-119).

When Congo finally gained its independence, it was poorly prepared to handle its own affairs – mainly by the rulers’ design.  Like other imperial powers, Belgium generally kept its grip by keeping the natives servile, whether that involved direct brutality or other means of subjugation.  Empires often relied on natives for labor and support but also prevented them from advancing too high in the colonial hierarchy, lest they voiced their discontent and threatened to rebel.  Even when independence came, whites refused to cede their authority; Belgian officers still led the Congolese army shortly after independence, and a Belgian general dismissed this fact by claiming that “things won’t change just because of independence” (Wikipedia).  Clearly, the former imperial rulers saw no reason to relinquish their authority.

Imperial rulers imposed throughout the world (and certainly in Congo) also used cultural means to subjugate the natives.  According to political scientist Thomas Sowell, “The culture of the conquered peoples has sometimes been targeted for extermination, even when the people themselves are not, but are urged or forced toward adoption of the conqueror’s language, technology, and way of life. . . . “ (Sowell 15)  In Congo, cultural subjugation has left a long-lasting legacy by disrupting native traditions and leaving the country without a sizeable, well-developed professional or leadership class.  Very few native Congolese had received even a high-school education, and by 1960, says Hochschild, “there were fewer than thirty African university graduates.  There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists, or physicians . . . [and] of some five thousand management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans” (Hochschild 301).  The only Congolese natives in a position to rule the nation were those closest to the former colonial masters – particularly members of the Force Publique like Mobutu Sese Seko.

Another legacy of colonial rule has been the absence of democracy in Congo.  Without a class capable of ruling the nation honestly and efficiently, Congo never genuinely escaped Western control, particularly by Belgium and now the United States, with whom the Belgian government had built close ties since 1940.  In 1960, the Cold War was well underway and was being waged in newly independent nations in Africa and Asia, and Congo (like others) quickly became a bone of contention between the West and the Soviets.  Throughout what became the Third World, the two superpowers were jockeying for influence over newly-created nations, and the United States tended to sympathize with former imperial powers who wanted to maintain at least indirect control over their former possessions.  (Vietnam is an extreme example of this; the United States initially supported French efforts to keep its former colony, then tried and failed to assert itself as the new imperial power.)

Freely elected president Patrice Lumumba wanted Congo free from foreign domination, trying to prevent it from remaining “an economic colony of Europe” (Hochschild 301).  Realizing that the West would not grant his demands and that Belgium was trying to keep control of the mineral-rich Katanga region (where many Europeans still lived), the left-leaning Lumumba sought assistance from the Soviet Union.  The United States, deeming Lumumba a “mad dog,” decided to eliminate him as a threat (Hochschild 302).  A group of pro-Western Congolese soldiers, supposedly with CIA, Belgian, and French help, captured, tortured, and assassinated him in 1961.  After four years of fighting between United Nations and Katangan forces for control of the nation, the United States convinced Belgium to surrender its claim to Katanga, and Army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) declared himself president after a 1965 coup.

Mobutu, a former sergeant in the Force Publique (Belgium’s colonial security force, part police and part military), ruled much like Leopold had, basically pocketing the country’s vast wealth and wielding virtually absolute power, which he used arbitrarily and brutally against the Congolese people.  Despite his own brutality and widespread theft from his own people, Mobutu (supposedly one of the soldiers who killed Lumumba) was kept in power for thirty-two years with billions of dollars in American and European (mainly French and Belgian) aid (Helmreich 15-41).  “For its heavy investment,” Hochschild writes, “the United States and its allies got a regime that was reliably anti-Communist and a secure staging area for CIA and French military operations, but Mobutu brought his country little except a change of name, in 1971, to Zaire” (Hochschild 303).

Indeed, Congo’s domination by foreign powers has never really ended.  The United States and France have long provided it with aid, and as late as the mid-1980s, Belgium was investing large sums in the country despite its rampant corruption and instability.  According to sociologist Ludo De Witte, Congo’s “discontent and poverty did not yet represent a threat to the regime, and as long as this continued, Brussels was not worried. . . . Twenty years after Mobutu came to power Brussels was still enthusiastically working to back up the dictatorship” (De Witte 170).  Despite widespread knowledge of how drastic conditions in Congo were, the West willingly perpetuated the problems it had created.

Some of Mobutu’s actions as ruler match those of Leopold, who ruled Congo brutally and more like a totalitarian dictator than the ruler of a democratic nation, enriching himself along the way.  As Dummett writes:

‘Legalized robbery enforced by violence,’ as Leopold’s reign was described at the time, has remained, more or less, the template by which Congo’s rulers have governed ever since.  Meanwhile Congo’s soldiers have never moved away from the role allocated to them by Leopold – as a force to coerce, torment and rape an unarmed civilian population.” (Dummett)


In addition, Mobutu was one of the world’s worst examples of “kleptocracy,” plundering Congo much like Leopold had done.  He nationalized many of the nation’s major industries, but in truth the profits went directly to him, not into the nation’s coffers or to those industries’ workers.  Before his overthrow in 1997, he accumulated roughly $4 billion (Hochschild 303), much of it from foreign aid or from the Western corporate interests that continued to operate in the country.  The nation, meanwhile, decayed swiftly and steadily; wealth was still unfairly distributed (indeed, the nation was poorer in 1990 than it was in 1960), soldiers were allowed to do virtually anything they chose, schools and hospitals declined from lack of government support, and the nation’s infrastructure fell steeply into disrepair.

More importantly, says Dummett, the legacy of Leopold’s violence against the Congolese has never vanished; it has merely turned into political and ethnic violence.  The country’s military has long repressed civilians, brutalizing them at random and extinguishing any form of dissent, as it had in 1966-67’s uprisings and 1977-78’s conflict in the Shaba region (Wikipedia).  Also, the Congolese government has long practiced ethnic violence (not unlike the Belgians themselves).  In 1994, Mobutu had supported the Hutu massacres of Tutsi in Rwanda and tried to force Tutsi refugees in Congo to leave; the result was a 1996-1997 rebellion that forced Mobutu out of power.  Also, over three million people throughout Congo have died since 1999 in various ethnic conflicts (Human Rights Watch 1), often as the result of widespread massacres and random violence not unlike what the Belgians practiced under Leopold’s direct rule.

Congo has not overcome the legacy of Western imperialism because it has never really ended.  The nation has always been dominated by Western economic interests and Mobutu’s long, brutal reign was sustained by Western financial and military assistance.  The United States, Belgium, and France long supported Mobutu because he was anti-Communist and turned a blind eye to even his most egregious acts of corruption and brutality.  Though Mobutu is long out of power, Congo is still in vast disarray and squalor, and the legacy of Belgian rule remains clear.  The nation is even poorer now than it was under colonial rule, with a decaying infrastructure, meager health care, poorly supported schools, and an abysmal record for human rights.  Dummett’s article on King Leopold’s legacy is thus not surprising, considering how it has never really vanished but has only changed shape, with the country now brutalizing itself with the Western powers’ support.


Anonymous.  “Congo Crisis.”  Wikipedia.  23 July 2005.  <>.

______.  Ituri: “Covered in Blood:” Ethnically Targeted Violence In Northeastern DR Congo.  New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003.

De Witte, Ludo.  The Assassination of Lumumba.  London: Verso, 2001.

Dummett, Mark.  “King Leopold’s Legacy of DR Congo Violence.”  BBC News.  BBC.  24 February 2004.  <>.

Helmreich, Jonathan E.  United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo, 1940-1960.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Hochschild, Adam.  King Leopold’s Ghost.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.


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