Dictators’ ghosts haunt Congo vote, says author
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (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 brutalized 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,”
“There was a very rapacious forced labor system there…
The Congo, like most of Africa but to a greater degree,
experienced government as an organized 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 labor system enforced there saw company agents cut the
hands off villagers as they terrorized 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
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 organized system of
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
“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 neighboring countries
who invaded after a rebellion broke out in 1998.
That war lasted until 2003 and killed 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
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 organizations in
townships, labor 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.”