• Ben M.


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Strewn by enormous tracts of rainforest and accented by cascading rivers and smoldering volcanoes, the Democratic Republic of Congo (otherwise known as DRC or Congo) is thick with wildlife. One can find both mountain and lowland gorillas, bonobos, forest elephants, as well as 1000 species of birds and 400 species of fish. DRC, formerly known as the country Zaire, should not be confused with the the Republic of Congo; the capital of DRC is Kinshasa while the capital of Congo is Brazzaville. DRC would otherwise be a tourist haven, if not for the inexorable damage done by European (Portuguese and Belgian) colonialism. The history of DRC is sad, mournful, tragic; it seems to be one of those circumstances where verbiage can never adequately express the destruction done to this state and its people.

Having traveled to 22 out of the 54 countries in Africa, I’ve seen first-hand the long term effects of European colonialism on these beautiful lands. DRC is the world’s largest producer of cobalt ore and one of the planet’s largest producers of diamonds and copper. Cobalt is used primarily for lithium ion batteries but also various alloys and gives a blue color to glass and ceramics. Regrettably, the inherent proliferation of these minerals, is the catalyst to a multitude of the issues that the Democratic Republic of Congo faces. In order to fully understand DRC’s tragic story, one must go back to 1482, when the Portuguese first arrived.

In 1482, a man named Diogo Cao (also known as Diego Cao) who was a Portuguese explorer, sailed approximately 8000 kilometers from Portugal down the West African coast. He arrived at the mouth of the River Kongo (typically spelled with a K as opposed to the country), where he discovered an influential king. When the Kongo king converted to Christianity at the behest of the Portuguese King, King Joāo II, his son took the name Afonso. When the king died and King Afonso took the throne, the main Portuguese vendibles were ivory, copper, and slaves. King Afonso, who reigned from 1506 until 1543, responded to Portuguese requests for slaves by attacking other villages. Eventually, 4,000,000 slaves were shipped to the U.S., Brazil, and parts of the Caribbean. This was the beginning of political and economic turmoil which has never subsided.

It would be very difficult to ascribe in detail the full political history in one blog post, but major events that occurred between 1959 and 1965 are another instrument to the current condition of DRC. On January 4, 1959, protests in Leopoldville, operated by a group called ABAKO (Alliance des Bakongo) and led by a man named Joseph Kasa-Vubu, turned into rioting which contained extreme violence and destruction. Leopoldville was the precursor to Kinshasa, the current capital; the riots lasted three full days. The riots were quelled by the notorious Force Publique, the colonial army at the time, using equally violent methods. This rioting caused the Belgian government to realize they could not control the whole Congo, as it is a large country and the local people were clamoring for independence. As a result of the riots, Congolese and Belgian leaders held a conference where it was decided to hold elections on May 22, 1960.

The elections culminated in a man named Patrice Lumumba being named Prime Minister and Joseph Vasa-Kubu being elected President. The country then took the name Republic of Congo, while the Middle Congo (a French colony) also called itself Republic of Congo. One was based in Leopoldville, the other Brazzaville, hence the origination of DRC and ROC. In 1960, there was a mutiny by soldiers of the Congolese military; on July 11, 1960, Katanga State seceded from the rest of the country, led by Moise Tshombe. Katanga was easily the wealthiest part of Congo, as the mines there produce copper, diamonds, uranium, and gold. The U.N. sent 20,000 troops into Congo to protect the Europeans who lived there, while the mining companies brought in a plethora of mercenaries. The USSR offered to send weapons and advisors to the Congolese government; the U.N. forces were ordered to bar any weapons shipments into Congo. On September 14, 1960, Joseph Mobutu had the Prime Minister Lumumba arrested and sent to Elizabethville. Sometime after January 17, 1961, Lumumba was executed via firing squad by Belgian mercenaries. His body was then cut up and dissolved in acid.

On the 13th of September 1961, forces called the Katanga Gendarmerie, comprised of foreign mercenaries and Katangese tribal peoples, attacked an Irish Army unit that was detailed to a town called Jadotville, as part of the United Nations army. The mercenary army was acting on behalf of the mining companies and engaged in ferocious waves of fighting with soldiers from A Company, 35th Bn of the Irish Army. The rebels and mercenaries had roughly 3000-5000 troops, while the Irish Army unit strength was 155 men. The commander, Pat Quinlan, was well regarded in his attempts to leads his men against terrific odds; the Irish company suffered no losses but after six days of fighting, had to surrender when Swedish and Indian reinforcements could not reach Jadotville. The Irish soldiers were held hostage for one month although none were harmed. It is believed that the Katanga government hoped to trade them for favors, but eventually they were swapped for Katanga prisoners in the hands of the Congolese government.

There is a very good movie called Siege of Jadotville on Netflix, with Jamie Dornan from Fifty Shades of Gray, who plays the Irish Commandant Pat Quinlan. Insurgence and chaos plagued the country until 1965 when Joseph Mobutu who was now a general, named himself President. He was re-elected for a seven year term in 1970; he would rename the country Zaire in 1971. Congo underwent several wars caused by the conflict in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis; eventually Congo would have a new President named Laurent-Desire Kabila, who in May 1997 renamed the country Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 by one of his bodyguards, who was in turn killed by other bodyguards. His son Joseph then took over and President. In 2011, Kabila appeared to have lost the election to his opponent Etienne Tshisekedi but would refuse to step down. On 30 December 2018, a new President, Felix Tshisekedi, was finally elected.

Tourism generally flourishes in most parts of Africa, but in the Congo it is quite uncommon. DRC currently ranks 176 on the Human Development Index, a listing created by the United Nations Development Program. Centuries of corruption, colonialism, and political instability have made it quite an unsafe place to visit. The Second Congo War is most responsible for the current levels of high violence; there are roughly 4.5 million displaced refugees in eastern Congo. When the genocide against the Hutus by the Tutsis began in 1994 (Rwanda), refugees flooded into DRC and formed armed groups to fight against the Tutsis. Eventually, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe would enter into the fray on behalf of DRC, against Rwanda and Uganda, who backed the Tutsi rebels. The opportunities for tourism are vast though, which provide immeasurable tangible benefits to the Congolese government.

Virunga National Park is one of the oldest National Parks in Africa, formed in 1925, and shares its borders with Rwanda and Uganda. There are two active volcanoes for which you can get trekking permits, Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. The areas near the border are known to be extremely dangerous though, after the Second Congo War ended 80 staff members of the park were killed in interactions with armed rebel groups. In 2018, a British were couple abducted along the border with a park ranger who was killed although the Brits were released. The park was then closed until 2019.

DRC has not seen peace since 1960 and the human rights violations that have occurred there are atrocious. Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, stated, “there is a need to take advantage of the change that has taken place in the Congo, however tragic that has been in its coming.” The government has vast challenges in trying to completely overhaul the administration, as there are parts of the country they do not control. Most of the population lives in abject poverty even though the country has extreme wealth in minerals and the second largest rainforest. Over 80% of it’s people do not have access to safe water. I’ve loved Africa for many years and regrettably do not see any coming resolution to the sad situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo or a way to improve it’s tourism industry.

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