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YESTERDAY Parliament debated one of the most serious crises in the world but one barely touched on by most of the media, namely the human rights and political problems of the African Great Lakes region.
In just one country, the statistics are truly shocking. Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, resulted in “2.9 million internally displaced people, currently living in camps or with host families in the DRC as well as extensive suffering through human rights abuses committed by armed groups, the DRC armed forces and police. Over 60 per cent of this figure comes from just two regions of the DRC, North and South Kivu.”
Tragically, beyond that there are hundreds of thousands who have died either directly in conflict, at the hands of militia forces or the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Burundi.
Investigations agree that the long-running war in DRC, which sucked in the armed forces of nine countries and officially ended with a peace agreement in 2003, led to the greatest loss of life in any postwar conflict — up to five million deaths due to violence and social collapse.
As if all this misery is not enough, I think it’s important to put it into a historical context.
All the countries concerned in the African Great Lakes region were deeply affected by European colonialism and slavery when millions of black Africans were forcibly transported to the Caribbean and America, and to a lesser extent Indian Ocean colonies like Mauritius, in order to provide plantation workforces and create vast wealth for the colonial masters.
Colonialism also made many people in Europe very wealthy from the exploitation of the natural resources and the forest products such as timber and rubber. The scramble for Africa was given some kind of “rational” context in 1884 when the Congress of Berlin gave Bismarck the authority to draw lines on the map marking today’s borders.
The Congo was awarded not to Belgium, but to its head of state King Leopold, who never visited his colony but set up a grotesque system of exploitation of people to drag out mineral resources, timber and
rubber for his own personal aggrandisement.
He was an obsessive collector of artifacts, animals and plants, the result of which can still be seen in the African Museum in Brussels.
While all colonial exploitation is brutal and grotesque, Leopold was even more aggressive than his European neighbours in the way in which the Congo was pillaged, causing the deaths of up to ten million people — half the population.
The Congo became a colony of Belgium in 1908 and eventually achieved independence in 1960 and the iconic Patrice Lumumba became its first Prime Minister. Other counties in the region achieved their independence at around the same time.
Sadly, Lumumba did not survive long in office. A victim of cold war politics, he was killed and succeeded as prime minister by the pro-US Moise Tshombe.
In turn Tshombe was succeeded in 1965 by Mobutu Sese Seko, whose Western-backed dictatorship survived until 1997.
The resources of the country continued to be exploited with the sideshow of incredible wealth being siphoned off by the president and certain army officers.
In the context of the debate in parliament yesterday, I wanted to highlight the human rights abuses that continue in the Congo, which became the DRC in 1997 following the overthrow of Mobutu.
The abuse of women by militia groups in the east of the Congo has become legendary, where rape is a weapon of war, as thousands of women have been brutally treated and often killed either by insurgent forces or by troops loyal to the DRC government.
The recruitment of child soldiers and the abuse of forest peoples are also well documented and ongoing.
The conflict in eastern DRC, while nominally conducted between the Congolese forces and militia groups, has its origins in neighboring Rwanda’s military intervention and the enormous financial power of mineral companies who can easily, through proxy forces, finance armed groups to ensure their cheap exploitation of resources.
The last election in the DRC in 2011 was a deeply flawed process and it’s still unclear if there will be a change in the constitution to allow Joseph Kabila to continue as president despite the end of his allotted two terms.
Neighbouring Burundi, while it has effectively welcomed back those who fled to Tanzania during the civil war of the 1990s, maintains draconian laws against freedom of expression.
In Uganda, President Museveni is one of the continent’s longest-surviving leaders, and he too seeks to stay in office well beyond his allotted time. Despite much support from the West, Uganda has introduced the most draconian anti-gay laws anywhere in the world, threatening homosexuals with the death penalty.
The appalling human rights position across the region is challenged by very brave people in all of the countries concerned, but it is Western companies that are making huge profits today from the minerals
of the DRC and neighbouring
To make sense of all the contradictions that exist within the region and the need for solidarity with those fighting for justice in Africa, Liberation has organised an all-day conference on Africa on November 15 in central London.
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