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From Kimpa Vita to Lumumba to the women of Panzi

With the DR Congo crisis presenting a complex mosaic of conflict, war, violence, rivalries, alliances, and competing interests, Jacques Depelchin reviews the background behind the country’s ongoing troubles and explores broader areas of responsibility. As the DRC seemingly destructs and self-destructs, the author asks whether people’s willingness to continue consuming mineral resources extracted from the country should more properly be situated in a tradition of Western peoples’ enjoying comforts at the expense of African populations dating at least as far back as the triangular Atlantic trade and subsequent colonial period. A fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the DRC’s history and Western history at large would reveal, Depelchin contends, an established practice of ‘doing away’ with figures deemed threatening to those in power, a practice of marginalisation that will ultimately have to be effectively tackled if future crimes against humanity are to be averted.

As events unfold in the DRC the usual questions are being asked: who is responsible for the current war within the war which never really ended in 2003 and its ensuing humanitarian crisis?

In the pages of one of the most respected dailies of Kinshasa (Le Potentiel) well-known philosophers have offered conflicting ways of looking at, and analysing, the conflict. Who is General Nkunda, and why has he said that this time around that he will not stop in Goma (threatening to go all the way to Kinshasa)? What is the Rwandan government up to, besides pretending, disingenuously, that it has nothing to do with it? Why the Congolese army is unable (or is it unwillingness?) to defeat Nkunda’s army? Does Nkunda take his orders from Kigali? Or from Kinshasa? Why has the AU remained so silent? Who is this current crisis going to benefit? Is this the prelude of the final and complete return of Mobutism without Mobutu? What is the UN (and its acolytes in the EU and NATO) up to? Given the resignation of the military head of the peace-keeping mission in the DRC, one has to wonder whether he found himself in the same position as General Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda in 1994. Then the pressure on him from the UN bureaucrats to resign was only prevented (according to Dallaire himself)(1) by his second in command, a Ghanaian officer, who prevailed on his boss not to give up.

The connection between cheap resources like coltan, gold, cassiterite, the warring factions and the war must be factored in any attempt to make sense of the current carnage. Yet trying to answer all these questions could take volumes and will not help understand why and how the DRC has arrived at such a point of destruction and self-destruction. There is among most analysts deep-seated reluctance to look at the visible and invisible legacies of a history that has been, in the main, genocidal and predatory. And not just from 1994.(2)

Looking for the usual culprits at the highest levels of governments and/or multinational corporations should not ignore those of us who do consume the latters’ goods. Why don’t consumers of computers and cell phones feel compelled not to purchase items that are the result of a well-known criminal process traceable from the extraction of coltan from the eastern DRC? Is their attitude different from that of previous generations enjoying the comforts provided by the triangular Atlantic trade and then, later, by colonial occupations? The visible crimes against humanity today have their roots in the refusal to look at the current triumphant economic system as part of the problem. It is not enough to rant against the usual culprits, be they foreign regional leaders and their international supporters. The process that brought the current political leadership to power in the DRC can be traced to, at least, the conditions and circumstances under which independence was achieved in 1960.

As can be seen by the recent unfolding, so-called, financial crisis, the reluctance to go back in time to the root of the problem is deeply ingrained. It took a long time for pundits and experts alike to mention 1929, and it is still taboo to mention the word depression. Yet history, one should know now, is not unlike nature: it unfolds with warts and all, good and bad, regardless of what historians may wish to edit out. While it is fairly easy to rage and rant against the current cast of regional, national and international leaders for their unrelenting determination to ‘do away with the DR Congo’, and enrich themselves in the process, a mixture of fear and shame seems to stand in the way of going further back in time in our history. Shame of understanding that we should never have allowed Patrice Emery Lumumba to be overthrown, assassinated and disposed of in an acid bath. Lumumba’s elimination was meant to be exemplary in its terrorising effect on the Congolese people. In the subsequent decades, everything was done to ensure that no political leadership inspired by emancipatory politics emerge. And it seems to have worked far beyond the expectations of its sponsors.

In three years time, on 17 January 2011, it will be the 50th anniversary of the ‘success’ of doing away with Lumumba. The same mentality has been at work trying to balkanise the DRC. Like Lumumba’s body, they would like to dissolve it. As with Lumumba, as with colonial rule and slavery earlier, the process of doing away with persons, groups or even a country which refuses to conform, the recipe, in Africa and beyond has been the same: do away with it. How many Congolese know of Kimpa Vita being burnt at the stake on 2 June 1706, simply for having denounced the Kongo king for allowing slave raiding. In turn Capuchin missionaries denounced her for being a heretic. That was two centuries before Simon Kimbangu’s resistance against economic, political and religious colonialism. Imprisoned in 1921, he died in prison in 1951. Done away with.

The same dominant mentality led to the erasure of Yugoslavia from the map. Similar processes are going on in various parts of the planet. The targets may not necessarily be access to cheap resources, but at the core, the doing away with objective is to target people whose will to be free refuses to bend to the dogma of a fundamentalist ideology rooted in the notion that economic liberty must be defended at all cost and regardless of the genocidal sequences left in its path.

For those who might falter in the belief that capitalism is the ‘best economic system man has invented’, they should read the lead article of The Economist (18 October 2008) titled [email protected] or comment online at

(1) See the documentary on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, made by Frontline:
(2) See, for example, Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost.
(3) See Louis Sala-Molins, Le code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Presses Universitaires de France. Paris, 2002). Obviously, we are not referring to academics, but even there, knowing and doing something about it are two different things.
(4) See the article by Pierre Nora ‘Liberté pour l’histoire’ and Christiane Taubira’s response ‘Mémoire, histoire et droit’, respectively in Le Monde of October 10 and 15, 2008.
(5) After Lumumba’s assassination, a process of what could be called ideological cleansing led to the doing away of anyone who was considered a Lumumbist. It included people who came from the same region as his birth place.