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|Posted April 21, 2003|
|Chaos in Congo Suits Many Parties Just Fine|
By ADAM HOCHSCHILD
AS Chaos in Congo Suits Many Pas in the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't bark in the night, sometimes silence says more than words. About one of the great tragedies of today's world, the silence is telling indeed. In Congo, according to an International Rescue Committee report released earlier this month, at least 3.3 million people have lost their lives in four and a half years of civil war. They have perished in combat, in massacres of civilians (the most recent occurred on April 3) and, most of all, in the disease and famine that strike when millions of desperately poor people are forced to flee their homes.
This number does not include the estimated 2.8 million Congolese who have H.I.V. or AIDS, some of it spread through mass rapes by marauding bands of soldiers. Nor does it encompass the misery of having to live for years in refugee camps that turn into fields of mud during the rainy season.
The war has been marked by a series of ineffective peace agreements among three major factions, one of them the national government in Kinshasa, and several smaller groups. And a token force of United Nations observers is now on the scene.
But Congo's separation into rival segments continues, and last week one faction boycotted talks that are supposed to form a power-sharing government. Few Americans, however, seem to care about stopping a conflict with a death toll larger than any since World War II. Why?
American interest in Africa is erratic, but there is a larger reason that few countries have put much effort into ending this war. Simply, Congo's current situation Balkanized, occupied by rival armies, with no functioning central government suits many people just fine. Some are heads of Congo's warring factions, some are political and military leaders of neighboring countries, and some are corporations dependent on the country's resources. The combination is deadly.
To begin with, the warlords of most of Congo's factions are happy to divide up its vast treasure of mineral wealth while spending little on public services. The few schools open are mainly run by the Roman Catholic Church.
The continuing turmoil also suits the various countries nearby, above all Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe, whose troops have long propped up one or another side in the conflict. In return, they have received a stream of timber, gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and columbium-tantalum, or coltan, a valuable mineral used in cellphones, computers and many other electronic devices. At its peak price a few years ago, coltan was selling for $350 a pound.
Such riches have made the war self-supporting, with profits to spare. Despairing Congolese say they would be better off if they were not so rich.
Finally, the Balkanization and war suit the amazing variety of corporations large and small, American, African and European that profit from the river of mineral wealth without having to worry about high taxes, and that prefer a cash-in-suitcases economy to a highly regulated one.
An exhaustive report to the United Nations Security Council last year detailed the dozens of companies now making money from Congo's conflict, based everywhere from Ohio to Johannesburg to Antwerp to Kazakhstan. As a result, neither the United States nor any other nation now seems to have much interest in seeing a strong Congolese central government keep profits from the country's patrimony the word the White House uses about Iraq's oil mostly at home.
When Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first and last democratically chosen leader, threatened to do just that after taking office in 1960, the Eisenhower administration secretly sought his overthrow and assassination. Emboldened, Congolese and Belgians then carried out the job.
|African neighbors and mining interests profit from uneding war.|
Congo's current disorder grows directly out of a long, unhappy history. Ethnic groups speaking more than 200 different languages live in the territory. For centuries, it served as raiding grounds for the Atlantic slave trade and the equally deadly slave trade from the east coast of Africa to the Islamic world.
When the colonial era began, the land became the privately owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium. His army turned much of the male population into forced laborers, working many to death. First the laborers gathered ivory Joseph Conrad gave an unforgettable image of this in "Heart of Darkness" and then a still more lucrative crop, wild rubber.
During Leopold's rule and its immediate aftermath, the territory's population was slashed roughly in half. Belgian state colonialism followed; it was less brutal and more orderly, but still the profits flowed overseas.
In 1965, five years after independence, Joseph Mobutu seized power in a military coup, encouraged by Washington. He renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko and his country Zaire, and ruled as a dictator for 32 years, receiving more than $1 billion in American aid and repeatedly being welcomed at the White House. Meanwhile he looted the national treasury of an estimated $4 billion. Small wonder that his ravaged country has been having a hard time ever since. It has not helped that in the 1990's the United States supplied more than $100 million in arms and military training to six of the seven African countries that have been involved in the fighting of the Congo war.
Even in a magical world where great powers always had good intentions, no outside intervention whether by American, European, African or United Nations forces would be likely to solve Congo's problems. "Nation building" by outsiders is inherently arrogant and risky, and there are few success stories. More than 28,000 NATO-led troops are currently keeping the peace in Kosovo; Congo's population is more than 25 times as large as Kosovo's, and its land area more than 200 times bigger.
THERE are other problems as well. In Africa, loyalty to the extended clan or ethnic group is often far stronger than to the nation-state. These divisions have allowed Congo's plunderers to profit so much for so long. In the immediate future, factional leaders, generals and politicians from surrounding countries, and various Western companies are likely to continue making money.
What hope is there for an end to Congo's misery? The United States made one surprising step forward earlier this month when Congress approved American participation in an international agreement not to trade in "conflict diamonds" the gems coming from anarchic, war-torn areas like Congo. More than 50 other countries have already signed on. The pact will be hard to enforce but so was the ban on the Atlantic slave trade in its early years. And if conflict diamonds can be made taboo, why not conflict gold or conflict coltan? Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, April 20, 2003.
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