Useful Notes: Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DR Congo is the second largest country in Africa and has the most natural resources. The Congo River is home to a vast ecosystem of fish. The Kivu region has diamonds. Katanga is home to large supplies of copper and provided the uranium for the bombs dropped in Japan. The troubled eastern region has gold and metals used in electronics. It is home to several unique species including the okapi and bonobo. It has the second largest rain forest in the world.

Originally the Congo Free State, the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo has essentially gone from suck to suck. In precolonial times, it was the site of three kingdoms: The Kongo Kingdom, the Luba Kingdom, and the Lunda Kingdom, which were civilized societies and had an established rule of law. All of this flew out the window when Europeans came along. The Kongo Kingdom fell to the Portuguese slave trade and the Luba and Lunda kingdoms collapsed due to Zanzibar slave traders. Henry Morton Stanley's expedition to Africa to find Dr. Livingston only made matters worse. News of the source of the Congo River and the riches of Africa caught the attention of King Leopold II of Belgium . He hired Stanley to carve out a piece of the African Cake for Belgium. This began the Scramble for Africa. When the Berlin Conference was held, Leopold successfully acquired the entire country for himself. Not for Belgium, for himself. He essentially owned and ruled the entire area without oversight or accountability and... well, let's just say there were no picnics to be had. Under the exploitative rule of King Leopold II, the local population essentially became slaves to provide enough rubber to finance whatever Leopold wanted at the time. If they failed to meet the quota, the Congolese had their hands chopped off, among other things. It created an international scandal (which inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now was eventually based) that forced Belgium to annex the Congo Free State as the Belgian Congo from Leopold in 1908. While this was agreed to be better than Leopold, it was still very harsh—Belgian colonial officials were not known for their sympathy to the locals. While they did govern with a somewhat lighter hand and had a fair bit of success turning the Congo into a "model colony" with proper infrastructure and education, they were also probably the most blatant racists of all the various colonial powers short of the genocidal. They made a point of distinguishing between groups of their colonial subjects even when the distinctions did not previously exist or meant something else entirely (the worst example being the changes to the differentiation between Hutu and Tutsi in neighboring Rwanda, but this happened in the Congo, as well).

After gaining independence on June 30, 1960, the country soon started falling apart. Belgian troops in the province of Katanga encouraged a secession that threatened to tear the country apart. This became known as the Congo Crisis, where the country was split into four regions. The Congo Crisis lead to the death of the Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was a socialist and openly friendly to the Soviet Union; it should come as little surprise that Lumumba's death came about after two unsuccessful assassination attempts by the CIA. His death was sponsored and requested by the Belgian and American governments. (The Soviets for their part named their "Peoples' Friendship University"—the university in Moscow catering to international students, particularly from the developing world—after him.note ) This conflict is infamous for being the one that killed Dag Hammarskjold, known as one of the best UN Secretary-Generals of all time, when his plane crashed in Zambia en route to negotiating a peace settlement. Conspiracy theories are abound.

After the takeover by Joseph Mobutu, the country would remain intact and Mobutu would later take control of the country for life in 1965. He renamed the country Zaire in 1971 and began Africanizing everything—including himself, changing his name to Mobutu Sese Seko. During his rule, Zaire's economy went into the toilet due to his unparalleled corruption. Mobutu remained in power until 1997 when troops from Rwanda and Uganda backed rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila and overthrew him. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. The First and Second Congo War took place during this time. Also known as the Great War of Africa, it was the bloodiest conflict since World War II with around four million deaths (mostly from disease and starvation). Kabila was killed in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila. The conflict ended in 2002, but the country's eastern region still sees much bloodshed on a daily basis. In 2006, the country held their first elections since gaining independence.

The only time the Democratic Republic of Congo is ever mentioned in Western media is when TV shows mention how infrequently the Democratic Republic of Congo is mentioned in Western media, which is to say it is commonly used as an example of Western indifference to African tragedies (without getting into any of the specifics of said tragedies). This gives it just enough exposure to be identified as a place that's not getting enough exposure.

Thus it forms the stereotypical image of African troubles with all its common tropes potholed in the preceding description.

If you've read this far and somehow still aren't convinced the DRC is a Crapsack World, try Googling descriptions of the civil war there, including war rape.

If you want to see the lighter side of the country, the DR Congo pioneered a genre of soul music called Soukous or African Rumba [1] that spread throughout Africa in the 50s through the eighties, and even for a time found in London and Paris discos. It suffered from the war, but remains relatively popular in the DRC. More recently, the Congolese band Konono n1 has gained worldwide popularity among indie music circles, creating and popularizing a genre sometimes known as "Congotronics", which is essentially traditional Congolese music played with homemade electronic instruments and amplification. It's about as trippy as you'd expect.

Tropes Are:

  • An Arm and a Leg: The punishment for collecting enough rubber was having your arm chopped off.
  • Big Bad:
    • King Leopold in the colonial period.
    • Mobutu in the "Zaire" period.
      • Big Bad Ensemble: All the different militias that have ravaged the country in the post-Zaire period
  • Blessed with Suck: Like many African countries, the DRC has many natural resources. But this wealth has made it a battleground and a target for world powers, and has brought the Congolese untold misery.
  • China Takes Over the World: Recently, China has invested billions of dollars in mining Congo's resources. It remains to be seen if this will benefit the Congolese in the long run.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The city of Gbadolite, Mobutu's birthplace, was known as the "Versailles of the Jungle". It had electric power, plumbing, and a large palace that Mobutu used for vacation. It seemed lovely, until you remember it was built off of public corruption.
  • Crapsack World: You don't say?
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The overthrow of Belgian rule in 1960 was replaced by Mobutu, who was as exploitative and murderous as King Leopold, short of the whole "chopping off the hands" thing. And the overthrow of Mobutu was replaced by Kabila, who's government is also plagued by repression and corruption.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Decades of corruption and mismanagement had left Mobutu's army, the Zairian Armed Forces, (FAZ), unpaid and weak. When Kabila rose up against Mobutu, the FAZ completely fell apart, forcing Mobutu into exile.
  • Not So Different: Mobutu was very anti-communist, and often supported anti-communist militias during the Cold War. However, his economies involved his government takeover of private businesses, which were than given to his allies, who promptly mismanaged them.
  • Riches to Rags: The Belgian Congo was a prosperous colony, even if few Congolese were able to benefit from it. Mobutu pretty much wrecked it with his corruption.
  • Slave Race: The Congolese were pretty much this under Leopold's rule. Even under the less brutal Belgian rule, they were little more than a workforce for the Belgian colonists.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: King Leopold II is remembered as a barbarous tyrant to the Congolese. But in Belgium, he is still thought off as a productive ruler who invested his wealth into his kingdom.

List of what little exposure the DR Congo gets

The Congolese flag
The sky blue field symbolizes (the still-elusive) peace, crossed by a diagonal stripe colored red with the (much-shed) blood of the fallen throughout the country's turbulent history; its yellow fimbriations symbolize wealth; and the golden star at the canton symbolizes hopes for a better future.

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