The Democratic Republic of the Congo: A history of exploitation and extraction

Along the river Congo, at the heart of the continent, is Africa’s largest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Media images portray a state constantly engulfed in one crisis or another, an ungovernable land mass exploited by corrupt elites to the detriment of its people. Some have gone further, calling the DRC a failed state, or even a non-state. While a failed state typology should always be questioned, as it has been when it comes to the DRC, that is not the purpose of this article.

The history of the DRC is the history of human development. From the advent of the Atlantic slave trade to the modern day, the DRC has fuelled our consumer habits and globalisation. It is important that when we see reports of the ‘crisis’ in the DRC, we understand the role it plays and has played at various points in human history.

In theory, the DRC should be the wealthiest state in the world. Whenever the developed world has needed a resource, the DRC has had it. However, at every stage of this discovery there have been factors working against this vast country which means that each resource desired by outside powers has not been used to the

Prior to its modern day boundaries, the DRC was known by colonial explorers as the Congo region. This area, which straddled modern day DRC, Angola and Gabon was ruled by the Kingdom of the Kongo, which had existed since the late 1300’s. In 1482 the Kingdom was visited by Portuguese explorers, starting the region’s long and turbulent relationship with Europe and the West.

The first resource provided by the Congo region was slaves. Known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, many are aware of the horrors of the middle passage and the sheer numbers who died enroute to the ‘new world’. It is estimated that almost half of the people who were enslaved and sent across the Atlantic came from the Congo region.  This is the first of many examples of the Congo having the ‘resources’ that the great powers of the time needed for their own development. Slaves worked the plantations of the Americas which produced great wealth for the Europeans and the newly independent United States.

As Europe belatedly began to realise that the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was an abhorrent act against innocent people, the pursuit of saving Africa through a mission of civilisation took hold. This resulted in the colonial take-over of Africa with which we are all too familiar. The initial colonial experience in the DRC was markedly different to other countries. The area that was to become today’s DRC was in the possession of one man, rather than a state.

King Leopold of Belgium hoodwinked the vast majority of Europe into thinking he was on a mission to help “civilise” the people of the Congo through his newly found colony the Congo Free State. He worked alongside the famous explorer Henry Stanley to chart his private colony in 1885.

From 1885 onwards, Leopold ran the Congo Free State less as an overseas territory and more as a factory. Those living in the Congo Free State at the time were treated as if they were not even human. The state operated as one giant forced labour camp, where anyone who did not conform was brutally murdered. Women were raped and villages were burnt down at the hands of the Free State administration. It was a free state in name only.

During this period, the great resources the Congo had were rubber and ivory. Leopold and his companions worked the local people to death in order to obtain as much rubber and ivory as possible to ship back to Europe. Extraction was the order of the day, and Leopold was completely disinterested in investing any of the money he made back into the colony during his rule. Even after 1908, when Leopold was forced to hand over the colony to the Belgian state, the forced labour and resource extraction continued. It’s estimated that around 10 million people died during what is rightly being recognised as a genocide.

Independence for the DRC was a messy affair and forebode what was to come during the late 1900’s.  Belgium had long treated the people of the Congo like children, restricting their access to any political roles within the government. However, during the late 1950’s an independence movement began to emerge, inspired by movements in other African states. Two leaders of this movement were Joseph Kasavabu and Patrice Lumumba. In 1959 anti-European riots scared the Belgians into action, and by January 1960 they were willing to allow a slow transition to independence. However, the slow pace of change caused further unrest. Pressure on the Belgians to relinquish control of the state intensified, so by June 30th they had left and handed over control. Kasvabu became its first President, with Lumumba becoming the Prime Minister.

As the first part of this story shows, pre-independence DRC was characterised by slavery and the exploitation of people. Slaves for use in the Americas and then rubber and ivory were exploited by Europeans to generate wealth for themselves. By independence the Congo appeared to be exiting a nightmare outside of its control. However, as the second half of DRC history will show, exploitation and extraction from the DRC continued throughout the post-independent period up to the modern day.


Featured image | Uele River, DRC | Julien Harneis | Flickr

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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