Congo's Tragedy and Western Complicity
by Rahul Mahajan
www.zmag.org, January 24, 2006
The latest issue of the Lancet, the well-known
British medical journal, contains a shocking report on mortality
in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between April and July 2004,
a multinational team of researchers carried out an exhaustive
survey of 19,500 households in randomly selected clusters, leaving
out the roughly 10% of the country where violence was too great.
They conclude that excess mortality in
Congo, a nation of 64 million people, is 38,000 per month -- this
excess measured with respect to the baseline of sub-Saharan Africa's
already staggeringly high crude mortality rate of 1.5 per 1000
per month. This dwarfs the sanctions on Iraq, where the excess
mortality was 5-10,000 per month and was also calculated with
respect to a baseline of much lower mortality.
Ever since the overthrow of Mobutu's kleptocratic
regime in 1997, Congo has been wracked by violence. Starting in
1998, it was the site of what is sometimes called Africa's First
World War, a civil war that involved eight other nations -- Rwanda,
Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan, and Libya -- as
well as numerous indigenous armed groups. That war officially
ended in 2002, with an estimated death toll of 3.3 million.
Although the continuing violence is at
a much lower level than before, it is still the cause of most
of this excess mortality. Excess mortality in the eastern provinces,
where violence was concentrated and where it continues, was about
three times that in the western. Over half of these deaths are
due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and easily treated respiratory
At 450,000 excess dead per year, this
constitutes one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world.
Unfortunately, it gets virtually no attention -- unlike the all-important
"war on Christmas," which garnered 58 spots on Fox News
in the course of a single week.
Part of the reason activists haven't really
talked about Congo is that there are no easy solutions to offer.
With the sanctions on Iraq, the remedy was very simple -- remove
the sanctions and allow Iraqis to use their oil revenues to rebuild
the country -- but here it's hard to know what to say.
The West has benefited from the plunder
carried out by Uganda and Rwanda in eastern Congo. The mining
of coltan, an ore that provides tantalum, a key element in so-called
"pinhead capacitors" used in cell phones, was a major
source of profits to those armies and a major reason for their
continued operations -- of course, they received mere pennies
for every dollar the cell-phone makers made.
Human Rights Watch has chronicled and
denounced the links between the international mining conglomerate
Anglo American and the brutal Nationalist and Integrationist Front,
an armed group that controls much of the gold mining in the Ituri
The West is, of course, also responsible
for the brutal history of Congo that led up to this. Belgium essentially
turned the entire country into a massive slavery and forced labor
plantation, killing an estimated 10 million in the process. After
independence, Belgium and the United States collaborated in the
assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a leader who held out genuine
hope to the people of Congo, and his replacement by the tyrannical
and corrupt Mobutu.
After doing so much to create Congo's
problems, the West has no interest in trying to fix them. There
is no imperialist imperative to control the country; why should
there be when resources flow freely without requiring any trouble
on the part of the West? The UN peacekeeping force was recently
increased to 16,700, or one person per 60 square miles, but in
2004 the UN was only able to raise half of the funds allocated
for them. Nobody is pushing to get control there any more than
they were in Liberia or than they are in Darfur.
The left has been very reticent to try
to address such questions, out of fear that any call for humanitarian
intervention will serve imperialist ends. This abdication is not
only morally questionable, it is strategically unsound; indeed,
the absence of a sensible way to deal with such problems helps
to feed the kind of human rights imperialism that the left is
(rightly) so afraid of.
The international community must devise
a way of dealing with such problems, and the left must be involved
in that devising. Any such method must in turn obey the twin principles
of not increasing Western influence and holding the West at least
financially if not morally accountable for what it has done. Easier
said than done, but right now nobody is even saying it.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, "Full
Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond," covers
U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction,
the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush
imperial policies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.