Albion Monitor /Commentary

Zaire is Dead, Long Live ...

by Alexander Cockburn

The first political The first political speech I ever gave was in support of Patrice Lumumba, first president of a Congo that had previously been a Belgian colony. This was in 1961. Soon thereafter, I saw my first police riot, when a couple thousand of us demonstrated outside the Belgian Embassy in London, Lumumba having been murdered with the connivance of the western powers and the direct assistance of the CIA station in Kinshasa. By 1964, these same Western powers had settled on the man they stoutly supported for the next 30-odd years, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Joseph Conrad set his "Heart of Darkness" in the Congo, and for many westerners in the late 19th century, the Congo, virtually a private fiefdom of King Leopold of the Belgians, represented the ne plus ultra of colonial tyranny. Mark Twain was a leader of American agitation against Leopold and wrote a savage essay, "King Leopold's Soliloquy." In England, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle matched Twain in vituperation, with his tract "The Crime of the Congo."

There was sound reason for this fury. It's been reckoned that the number of Congolese killed by Leopold may have run as high as 5 million. And even if this figure is somewhat exaggerated, the victims probably exceeded the number of Armenians killed by the Turks after the First World War. Leopold's agents set quotas on Congolese villages for ivory and rubber, and if these were not met, the soldiers killed all males and often the entire population of the village. To keep an accurate tally, the victims' right hands were severed, smoked to preserve them against the tropical climate and sent back for administrative tally, and to ensure the bullets weren't being wasted. Those who like to wax sentimental about the benefits of the white man's empire in Africa usually pass up the chance to include Leopold's Congo in their benign assessment.

The outrage expressed by Twain, Conan Doyle, Roger Casement and the others against the Congo of King Leopold contrasts markedly with the relative indifference of Western intellectuals to the 33-year tyranny presided over by Mobutu. By the end of the '60s, most of them had discounted earlier optimism about "post-colonial" Africa. The one western intellectual who did care and who traveled incognito to Africa to organize the guerrilla struggle against Mobutu was Che Guevara, and within a few years, he had been hunted down and killed by those same sponsors of Lumumba's death.

Guevara knew all about long marches, but he surely could not have imagined that the march against Mobutu would take over a generation, and perhaps he would have been surprised that Laurent Kabila, who fought at his side in the Congo in 1965, had the sinew to stay the course. Nor would Guevara have relished the irony that Kabila's triumphant entry into Kinshasa this week could only have occurred with the collapse of Soviet communism. In the Cold War period, France and the United States would have sent troops to prop up their man. It's true they sent mercenaries, mumbled threats against Rwanda and Angola for backing Kabila, and tried for a brokered transition, but neither France nor the United States quite had the stomach for straightforward military intervention.

Perhaps the Clinton administration simply felt that Kabila and his young comrades running the Democratic Republic of the Congo have no option but, sooner rather than later, to rattle the begging bowl. As Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Reagan era, put it so smugly: "We and our friends control the keys to the clubs and the treasuries that Kabila will need to tap if he is going to rebuild the country."

At least Crocker is being straightforward here about the power of capital, with a crude frankness far preferable to the revolting piety with which this fervent apologist for Mobutu now calls for speedy democratic elections. Those who forgave the 33 years of blood-stained kleptocracy should now exercise a little patience.

But the eternal verities of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the western clubs and treasuries notwithstanding, central Africa has entered a new phase. Kabila reached Kinshasa courtesy of advice and military backing from Uganda, Rwanda and perhaps above all Angola, whose leaders grew up amid the savaged hopes, horrible bloodlettings and western interventions that followed the murder of Lumumba and the descent of the region into darkness. These leaders, presided over by Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, are edging their region into a new era for which -- amid all due cautions and fears-for-the-worst -- those of us who had such expectations for Africa 35 years ago can say once again that history is on a decent line of march, out of darkness and into hope, a sedate and chastened hope, it's true, but hope nonetheless.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 1, 1997 (

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