Eleven African countries have signed a new peace agreement in Addis Ababa determined to end the persistent conflict that has blighted the development of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades. The agreement has been welcomed with caution, with international observers fully appreciative of the challenges involved in bringing peace to a vast nation with unsecured borders, factional and ethnic division, a desperate economy and a bitter colonial legacy.
It is difficult to imagine a time when DR Congo was relatively secure and stable. Under colonisation – first as the Congo Free State (1885-1908), a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, and then as the Belgian Congo (1908-1960) – the country was mercilessly plundered by European overlords notoriously brutal in their character.
On gaining independence, Patrice Lumumba was elected as the country’s first democratic Prime Minister, only to be imprisoned and executed within twelve weeks of his coming to power (with the support of the former Belgian colonial authorities and the US government).
What followed over the course of the next six years has come to be known as the Congo Crisis. A variety of factions sought to take control of the country, including Belgian-backed Katangan separatists and a patchwork of communist groups supported by regional leftist mercenaries. The group which won out, however, was the American-backed faction led by Joseph Mobutu. When Mobutu took head office in November 1965 he orchestrated a ruthless purge of all his remaining opponents and centralised power around himself, using fierce rhetoric and a carefully-designed cult of personality to give credence to his populist rule.
Mobutu’s rule (from 1965 until shortly before his death in 1997) is widely acknowledged as one of the most corrupt and brutal dictatorships in African history, a continent renowned for its kleptomaniacal leaders. Renaming the country Zaire in 1971, adopting the African name Sese Seko, and frequently sporting his trademark leopard-skin hat at as a way to distance the Congolese from their colonial past, Mobutu’s premiership was as bizarre as it was frightening.
Nevertheless, British Foreign Office documents suggest that Mobutu’s rule could have turned out very differently and that, indeed, it had made a promising start. A diplomatic cable dated August 1968 declares Mobutu “as good a Head of State as can be found in the Congo”. It goes on to mention his success in ousting his final internal rivals, including Rwandan mercenaries who even today cause constant security threats to the DR Congo with their incursions across the eastern border.
In conclusion, the report states that “the Congo is sufficiently stable to honour large-scale commercial commitments”. This is the crux of the matter, today as it was then. DR Congo is an enormously resource-rich country, with vast mineral deposits, potential for hydroelectric power development and fertile agricultural land. Without taking a too cynical viewpoint, international mediators want peace for the DR Congo as much for themselves as the Congolese people.
Despite the optimism of the British report, the illusion of stability under Mobutu soon melted away as he began to horde wealth for himself and plunged his people into a miserable existence of poverty and fear. As the British author acknowledged, support for Mobutu in 1965 had been based on the premise that DR Congo would “return in time to some form of orthodox democracy adapted to Bantu needs…There was, however, some disillusionment on this score when a few weeks later Mobutu announced that the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies had been dissolved and that he would rule by decree for a period of five years”.
It is often necessary for an undeveloped, post-colonial country to experience a period of authoritarian rule in order to put in place the economic framework needed for development. This has been seen in many East Asian countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, where democracy has gradually followed strongman rule. Unfortunately, this pattern of development was never likely under Mobutu. Whilst he provided the short-term stability necessary to implement the economic changes that would revolutionise his country, he was ultimately uninterested in anyone’s fate but his own.
Mobutu’s overthrow in May 1997, just months before his death, came too late. DR Congo was already riven by regional factions, each determined to take advantage of the lawlessness that had pervaded vast swathes of the country outside the capital Kinshasa.
It is a case, therefore, of what might have been. DR Congo could have been a shining light for the world’s least developed continent. Now, it is arguably its most troubling security dilemma, a monster that has sucked in participants from neighbouring countries and created wretched living conditions for a traumatised and uneducated population ruled by the law of the gun.
It will be a miracle if the latest peace agreement succeeds. Even today, rival factions clashed on the Congo’s eastern border. The omens are not good.