Fear of emancipatory history in the DRC: From Kimpa Vita to Lumumba to the women of Panzi By Jeacques Depelchin

Patrice Lumumba à l’hôtel de ville de Montréal, 29 juillet 1960 en présence du maire Sarto Fournier (Photo credit: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

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 ‘Capitalism at bay’. Unsurprisingly, the subtitle is ‘What went wrong and, rather more importantly for the future, what did not.’ At the end of the very first paragraph, one reads ‘Ever since [one hundred and sixty five years ago] The Economist has been on the side of economic liberty.’ Economic liberty has obviously worked wonders for those who fashioned and benefited most from it, starting all the way from slavery. In all of its subsequent manifestations and so-called self-corrections, those who most benefited, have maintained their grip on how it should be run, while allowing a few more into the privileged circle.
The prizing of economic liberty over everything else has taken such a toll that it does keep at bay those who might wish to calculate its costs. Could it be that the fear might stem

from what might be found? The calculation of human suffering is impossible. In the case of Africa, humanitarianism has been used to alleviate the conscience of those who swear and live by the fruits of economic liberty. As has been seen with the so-called financial crisis, the dominant mindset shall always find ways of extracting profits even where it might be thought impossible. The financial engineering acrobatics that has brought about the current crisis has been used before against segments of humanity that had been ruled out of humanity. How many Africans, for example, know that from 1685 to 1848 France applied Le Code Noir as the legal tool for how to treat Africans.(3) The abolition of slavery did not change the habits which had been ingrained in the populace which benefited from slavery. It would be more appropriate to speak of the modernisation of slavery. The financial engineers of those times, with the help of the steam engine, figured that more money could be made by abolition slavery and, to boot, give themselves moral accolades for putting an end to something that was not morally sustainable. It never entered the minds of most abolitionists that those they called slaves saw themselves as part of humanity.
France passed the Taubira law in 2001. The law stated that slavery was a crime against humanity. Given what happened at the UN Conference Against Racism and Intolerance in August and September 2001, France’s acceptance of naming slavery a crime against humanity was certainly a positive step, but, ever since, a backlash has been brewing and broke out in the open with historian Pierre Nora’s blunt reaction against the law.(4)
This detour may seem irrelevant to what is going on in eastern DRC. It is not, because it reveals how difficult it is to transform a mindset borne from genocidal sequences (wiping out of indigenous populations in the Caribbean and the Americans followed by hunting for slaves in Africa). Segments of humanity benefited immensely from slavery and the slave trade. In the case of Haiti, France and its allies went even further and insisted on payment of compensation to the slave owners and plantation owners. Such compensation was paid from 1825 through 1946. When President Aristide insisted that such payment should be given back, France, including some of its most well-known liberal voices, balked. They then did everything to do away with President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Luckily, unlike Toussaint L’Ouverture and Lumumba, he survived. But among those who kept calling for his return, like Lovinsky Jean-Pierre, the doing away machine went to work. He ‘disappeared’ in August 2007. His crime was fearlessness and fidelity to the truth process of bringing about a change in the situation.(5)
The lessons of what happens when trespassing (e.g. genocide) of humanity and its living principles are broken have still not been learned. The corrections, whether at Nüremberg or in South Africa, have always been far below what was being called for. The same happened with the Rwanda genocide of 1994. To this day, the unfolding of feminicide (destroying women at their most vulnerable and intimate) in the eastern DRC, the collateral maiming and killing of children, are the direct continuation of a refusal to attend to what happened, at all levels, inside and outside Africa. And, of course, this refusal is, in turn, connected to the wider and deeper refusal to face crimes against humanity where and when they happen. The result can be observed today, almost like a spectacle. The inventory of atrocities committed seems endless both in terms of numbers and intensity.

The pattern of ‘doing away with’ is not peculiar to the DRC. There continues to be a deliberate ‘doing away with’ people like the pygmies, immigrants, women, children, handicapped people, workers, poor, peasants. On a larger and deeper scale, the spectacle of ‘doing away with’ the planet is unfolding with impunity. By calling it a financial crisis, the leadership of the most advanced economies, defined, by the same token, those who must come to the table to discuss how to get out of it. According to the defenders of economic liberty über alles, those who have been at the receiving end of its ravages over the centuries must be kept out of the discussion.

In the conference that is being called in Nairobi, there will be nobody representing the women who were raped beyond description, and no one will represent the children. The NGOs present there will follow the protocol dictated by the modernisers of the Berlin Conference. Then it was about carving up the continent between those who made themselves count. The mindset at work in Berlin in 1884–85, with regard to Africa, has not changed. Some day it will, because it has to, if humanity is going to survive.

* Jacques Depelchin is a committed intellectual, academic, and activist for peace, democracy, transparency and pro-people politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

(1) See the documentary on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, made by Frontline: www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/
(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.

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