Dictators'ghosts haunt Congo vote! Can Congo reclaim its history this time?
Source:Source: Reuters, 07 Apr 2006
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG, April 7 (Reuters) - American writer Adam Hochschild sees the ghosts of dictators past haunting the Democratic Republic of Congo as the former Belgian colony prepares for its first democratic elections in 40 years.
The author of the critically acclaimed "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa," is not optimistic about the future of a country that has been pillaged and brutalised for decades.
"The legacy of King Leopold very much lives on in the Congo. Here is a country which since colonial times probably experienced the worst bloodshed of any territory in Africa," Hochschild said.
"There was a very rapacious forced labour system there... The Congo, like most of Africa but to a greater degree, experienced government as an organised system of plunder. That's not a good basis on which to build democratic institutions," he told Reuters during a visit to Johannesburg.
In "King Leopold's Ghost", Hochschild details the Belgian monarch's genocidal activities in his African fiefdom, which he seized in the 1880s with an eye on its rubber and ivory.
The labour system enforced there saw company agents cut the hands off villagers as they terrorised locals into meeting their rubber quotas. As many as 10 million people out of a population of 20 million are believed to have died in Congo under Leopold.
The atrocities led to the first major human rights crusade of the 20th century. However, Congo, sadly, has never made much progress in human rights.
"There has been the tradition of loyalty to a strong-man ruler. Mobutu was the classic model of the kleptocratic dictator," said Hochschild, referring to the man who ruled the nation, then named Zaire, until his overthrow in 1997.
"And when you have people like that running a country, establishing the political culture, it's again as it was in King Leopold's day: government as an organised system of plunder."
Hochschild said resource-rich Congo was a prime example of the "commodities curse" that has afflicted many African states.
"Congolese friends have often said to me that we wouldn't be in such dire straits if we weren't so rich," Hochschild said.
"They have coltan, uranium, gold, almost any mineral you can think of. But being well endowed with a natural resource is no guarantee of a nation's wealth," he said.
From the thick gold veins of South Africa to West Africa's vast offshore oil reserves, Africa has abundant natural wealth. In many countries the wealth generated has lined the pockets of an elite few with little trickling down to the masses.
Many African economies are heavily dependent on commodities, raising the stakes in the game for those who control them or wish to, often with disastrous consequences.
Rubber and timber drew the ruthless Leopold to Congo while its minerals were a magnet for several neighbouring countries who invaded in 1998.
That war lasted until 2003 and killed 5 millions while its mineral and timber wealth were looted by invading armies.
Hochschild said that global treaties such as one designed to stamp out trade in so-called conflict diamonds should be given more teeth and extended to other valuable resources.
"Why not conflict coltan? Or conflict timber?" he asked.
Coltan is a vital component in the production of cell phones.
Such a move would draw on the legacy of past human rights movements, such as the 18th-century British consumer boycott of slave-grown sugar from the West Indies.
That is the subject of Hochschild's latest book, "Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."
Hochschild points out that slavery was not simply based on Western exploitation of Africans.
"You have the heritage of indigenous slavery. Most of Africa south of the Sahara, with some exceptions, were slave societies. This is why the European and American sea captains sailing down the coast of Africa could easily find slaves to buy," he said.
"When this gets embedded into a culture it is not a good foundation for democracy," he said.
A chronicler of human rights movements which often had modest roots, Hochschild said individuals could make huge differences in the course of history.
"Imagine how the history of South Africa over the last dozen years would have been different if Nelson Mandela had not existed," he said.
Still, the problems in some places are so deep-seated there is little an individual can do.
One such place is Congo, a vast territory with a shattered infrastructure, thick jungles and roving militias.
The presence of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers -- the global body's largest such force -- illustrates the volatility of the country before the parliamentary and presidential elections due later this year.
"Could a very strong individual like that (Mandela) make a difference in the Congo? I hate to say it but I
don't think so. It's a much more difficult situation there than in South Africa," Hochschild said.
"South Africa at least had...strong civic organisations in townships, labour unions and church groups. There was a real civil society. I don't see that in the Congo. I think they're going to have a much harder time of it."
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