Tuesday, June 18

“Since we met you 500 years ago, look at us; we’ve given everything you’re still taking. In exchange for that, we have got nothing. Nothing! And you know it.” – Ama Atta Aidoo is a Ghanaian author, playwright, feminist, politician, and academic.

Only a vampire will take all your possessions, and then come for the blood in your veins. – Yemzy

Congo’s Vast Riches – Above and Below Ground

Spanning 1.6 million square kilometres, the Congo Basin rainforest blankets an area so vast it could contain 16 States the size of New York. This ecological wonderworld harbours over 10,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species, and endangered wildlife like the mighty mountain gorilla.

The Congo provides 70% of the world’s cobalt. It is essential for the batteries powering smartphones and laptops. It supplies 10% of copper used widely in construction and wiring. And it holds 80% of coltan reserves. The mineral that enables advanced electronics, from iPhones to Xboxes to MRI scanners. Congo’s mineral deposits are a significant source of heat-resistant jet engine parts, avionics systems, and aerospace innovation.

However, “The Congo is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman or a girl.” – Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

An Illuminating Journey Through Congo’s History

In this 3-part series, join me on an illuminating discovery through the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) history, from Kingdom to colony, dictatorship to humanitarian crisis.

In Part 1, we will trace the rise and fall of the ancient Kongo kingdom and King Leopold II’s brutal exploits. Leopold holds the enviable title of being one of Europe’s most barbaric rulers. He killed more people in the Congo than the most brutal King Ivan “The Terrible” of Russia did in Europe. King Leopold II is Belgium’s proud legacy.

Part 2 explores the fleeting euphoria of independence in 1960. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba and its rapid descent into authoritarianism and kleptocracy under the fierce Mobutu Sese Seko. We will examine how despotism, nepotism and neglect of primary institutions set the stage for what we see today.

Finally, Part 3 connects the past to Congo’s contemporary humanitarian crises. We will hold a lens to Mobutu’s overthrow. The Rwandan genocide’s spillover. The rise of destabilizing militia groups and the role of conflict minerals in the ongoing suffering.

Join me as we rediscover how Congo’s promise links to our collective future. For when Congo prospers, we all do.


The Glorious Kingdom of Kongo

By 1390, Lukeni lua Nimi, the first King and founder of the Kongo Kingdom, united several small but powerful Bantu-speaking kingdoms south of the Congo River. The powerful state covered parts of present-day Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa and Gabon.

Oral tradition speaks of the people’s intelligence, hospitality, piety, and prosperity. They traded in ivory, copper, cattle hides, and gold. This is captured in the account by Girolamo da Montesarchi, an Italian Capuchin missionary who spent 20 years in the region from 1650 to 1670.

Kongo had a sophisticated political structure headed by a monarch and supported by provincial governors and nobles. The capital housed skilled artisans crafting elaborate sculptures and treasures. Its formidable army enabled military dominance and expansion. The Kongo Kingdom challenges perceptions of pre-colonial Africa.

Europe Arrives – Promise and Peril
However, the course of the Kongo Kingdom’s history took a significant turn when it crossed paths with Europe. This encounter marked a new chapter in Kongo’s story. It altered its trajectory forever. Diogo Cão, a Portuguese, was one of those many Europeans who travelled to places outside of Europe.

When they find land inhabited by non-Europeans, they label it DISCOVERED “. Remember that guy called Christopher Columbus? He said he “DISCOVERED” America. Forget the Native Americans. Diogo Cão was one of those Europeans. This fateful encounter marked the dawn of a new era that would irreversibly transform the storied Kingdom. The Portuguese established trade relations with the Kongo and introduced Christianity to the region. King Nzinga a Nkuwu was the first king to convert to Christianity. He took the name João I in 1491. His son, Mvemba a Nzinga, became Afonso I. Also, a devout Christian. They forged strong ties with Portugal.

Sometimes, Africans are naively accommodating to foreigners. This encounter brought Kongo into Europe’s expanding trade network. The inability to resist Western encroachment would contribute to Kongo’s undoing.

Over time, relations between Kongo and Portugal deteriorated as commerce morphed into exploitation. Portuguese thirst for slaves destabilized the Kingdom through raiding and unchecked exports. Meanwhile, Kongo faced internal rifts between Christian converts and traditionalists.

The Jagas Strike – Precipitating Decline

Amidst this turmoil rode the Jagas – their origins are unknown. It was evident throughout the region that they were ferocious mercenaries who terrorized Central Africa in the 16th century. In 1568, these warriors ravaged the capital, accelerating Kongo’s decline.

Belgium’s Imperial Ambitions – Leopold II’s Congo.

Meanwhile, Napoleon the Great was defeated in Europe at the Battle of Waterloo. The 1815 Congress of Vienna merged Belgium with the Netherlands. But the Belgian Revolution of 1830 soon split them, with Leopold I becoming King of an independent Belgium.

Yet Leopold I’s son, Leopold II, ambition exceeded his father’s. Soon, he set his colonial sights on the Congo Basin as his prize.

So, Leopold II masterfully orchestrated the 1884 Berlin Conference. To secure local cooperation, Leopold II’s envoy, Henry Stanley, swindled tribal chiefs through dubious treaties. To appear benevolent, Leopold touted his “International African Association” – a humanitarian guise for his profit-driven scheme.

At Berlin’s end, Africa was divided like a colonial pizza. King Leopold II had schemed to an enormous private colony called Congo Free State.

What drove this overt imperialism? Two aims emerged: First, to augment Belgian prestige and influence as a new country among European giants like France and Britain. Second, to exploit Africa’s natural riches – ivory, rubber, and minerals galore for Europe.

Leopold’s Atrocities – Dark “Civilizing” Mission

Africans were not fellow humans to elevate but resources to extract. We were pawns in Leopold’s insatiable colonial game. Under the banner of profit, his agents swarmed Congo like ravenous locusts, plundering rubber and harvesting hands with monstrous excitement.

Why sever hands? First, to punish workers who missed rubber harvest quotas. Second, to intimidate Congolese into obedience by turning towns into grotesque galleries of severed limbs. Third, to satisfy the sadistic racism of his men.

Leopold amassed unimaginable wealth through forced labour and systematic violence. His policies devastated the Congolese population, with estimates of 10-15 million lives ruthlessly sacrificed.

Tiger’s Roar

After 23 exploitative years, he accomplished his goals. (1885-1908)

  1. To augment Belgian prestige and influence – Before Leopold II, Belgium was a small neutral. At the 1885 Berlin Conference, he portrayed Belgium as uniquely qualified to “civilize” the Congo. His fellow Europeans gave him the nod. Belgium obtained a vast private colony 80 times its size. Overnight, tiny Belgium gained an African territory ten times larger than imperial rivals Britain or Germany. The human murders were necessary to transform Belgium into an admired imperial power.
  2. Urban renewal – King Leopold II financed his bold vision for Belgium through Congo’s exploitation. In 1905, Antwerp Central Station became one of Europe’s most impressive terminals. The station was funded with the blood wealth of our Congolese ancestors.

Independence to Despotism – Mobutu’s Congo

Leopold’s rule left scars across the Congo. Traditional ways of life were ravaged, creating instability ripe for tyrants to exploit. But his darkest reverberations were psychological. Generations emerged from Leopold’s shadow, permanently scarred by the normalization of brutality. Too many inherited his autocratic instincts, confusing power with the license to plunder.

So when independence arrived, it allowed the strongman to rule. Not democracy. Foreign interference enabled dictators to paint themselves as saviours. Citizens were exploited; corruption is a way of life.

So post-independence “liberators” like Mobutu Sese Seko and the Kabila Family readily slipped into despotism. They consolidated control, siphoning mineral wealth into personal coffers. The Congolese people remained trapped in Leopold’s web, weaved by native spiders.

The Congo crisis, although multifaceted, is rooted in Leopold’s brutal foundations. He set the tune, and they all dance to it – to this day.

In Part II, we trace the road from colony to dictatorship. Only by facing the past can Congo forge a better future.

What do you think?

  1. Would the iPhone in your pocket exist without the sacrifice of Congolese miners? Are our hands clean if they hold conflict minerals?
  2. If Congo’s trillions of resources had stayed with its people, could the nation be a superpower today?
  3. Can a nation ever heal from scars so deep and systematic? Is true reconciliation possible after such atrocities?
  4. If your family lived in Leopold’s horrors for generations, would you stay hopeful for the future?
  5. What if Africa controlled its resources on its own terms – would the world order look different today?
  6. The Kingdom of Kongo was highly advanced – so how did it fall into colonial grasp so quickly? What weaknesses were exploited?
  7. Had the Kingdom of Kongo not welcomed Portuguese traders so openly, could it have maintained independence longer?
  8. Had Kongo rulers resisted conversion to Christianity, could they have preserved more traditional culture and autonomy?

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