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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Erasing Congo at the stroke of a pen By Jacques Depelchin

Ota Benga AllianceErasing Congo at the stroke of a pen By Jacques Depelchin

Estimate of territory held by factions in June 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has been written in response to There is no Congo, written by Jeffrey Herbst (provost of University in Ohio) and Greg Mills (director of the Johannesburg-basedBrenthurst Foundation). [2]

With a stroke of the pen, two academics, Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst (MH) have offered their solution to the problems affecting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Just pretend that it does not exist. In the process they offer us a short cut version of what they describe as lying at the origins of its troubles, but they go further than the 1885 Berlin Conference did. Their exercise is the crowning touch of a long history of predation they claim to be denouncing. In the end one should understand their solution to serve more the interests of those they associate with than the average Congolese person. MH illustrate how the history of the victors gets to be written. But, one does have to ask, which kind of victory is this, which seeks to maim, torture or kill every victim while training – consciously and/or unconsciously – every one to become a vulture?


As one reads the essay, one is not sure what is worse: Their contempt for an area which is home for more than 60 million people, or their way of shortcutting history to serve their objective. Their objective is clearly in line with the earlier piece written by Herman Cohen[3]. In both cases, history mattered little except for twisting it so as to serve their central motive: Change the borders of the DRC, split it among its surrounding countries and in the process promote market predatory economics as the solution to everything. In both cases, the central idea is to promote the interests of Rwanda, which has been anointed as the best manager/protector of global corporate mining/predatory ventures in Central Africa.

When speaking of Rwanda’s interests, they identify them under the label of security and not predation, but given the genocide, security could be misunderstood as the security of the victims of genocide. To be sure it is that, but also much more: Securitise, eternalise profits. The term predation is generally used for the bad guys, i.e. the Congolese themselves and their external allies who remain unnamed (but who have been named in at least two UN reports). It is clear that the Rwandans and the country’s ruling clique have become the chosen people of those who, since the Berlin Conference, continue to determine the conditions under which Africa and Africans must exist or not exist. Doing so with the help of Africans seems to have become the best way to soften the full impact of predation.


The authors would of course claim that all they are offering is a conceptual/theoretical framework for looking at the DRC, one which will provide the ground for their solution, a final one. In Herman Cohen’s case, this idea meant focusing on forgetting the long history that has brought the DRC into this quasi non-existing state. Their solution stems from the same kind of mindset which led to the Berlin Conference in 1885, but they seem unable to see the similarity. As often occurs with processes of conquest, they would like to operate on a tabula rasa, one that, one could pretend, is starting from zero, as if history has never meant anything. This solution is going much further than the previous ones: Negate the history of the Congolese people, negate their existence, wipe them off the map. In one bold stroke, pretend that the Congolese never existed. In short, it could also be looked at as a suggestion for going back to the drawing board favored by the Nazis and which led to the Second World War.

MH’s essay is the product of a typical mindset, one which draws its inspiration from European–US based perception that their interventionism in African and world affairs has always been for the good of everybody. At least that is the pretension. But, just as typically, the piece is one that is illustrative of the direction in which the above mindset has been heading: Get rid of segments of humanity which they view as the source of dysfunctionality. That is what they mean when they suggest that the way to think forward about the DRC is through the lenses of ‘order and development’. Rwanda and its allies will be called upon to intervene in a process that will bring security on the one hand, and order and development on the other. The Congolese will be expected to lie down, and submit. Failing to do so will bring down the wrath of the militarised wing of this theoretical proposal.

This is a variation of what the Western allies of Israel have been pushing in Palestine/Gaza.[4] As the so-called financial crisis unfolds, there will be increasing temptations among the major powers to push for solutions that would remove or discount those people considered dispensable. The process of determining who those people are has been under way for quite a while. Names and labels will change, but the objective will not: Ignore the voices of those who see themselves as part of humanity, but who refuse to be treated as if they are not part of it. Ignore the voices of those who question the definition of the current crisis as a financial one. This so-called financial crisis is much more than that, even though its appearance seems to tell otherwise. Intense focus on the financial side of the equation prevents everyone from looking at other aspects, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, automatically gives a free hand to those who have appointed themselves as the only ones who know, i.e. the very ones who are eager to make sure that we do not look at their responsibility in the building, and, unfolding of, the crisis itself.[5]

As long as the predatory system could feed on the DRC as it is, no one called for its disappearance, even if the very process itself was eating away at the core of its substance, its people. MH are so fixated on the negation of the Congolese people and their history that they seem to be unaware of the consequences of their call for getting rid of an entity which, according to them, has become too costly. But again, the entity is much more than its name – the nation-state. That there is no state in the common sense of the word in the Congo has been known for a long time.[6] How everything was done to make the DRC what it is today has a history which the authors chose to ignore and only recount parts of it. At the same time, they are not interested in showing how predation worked from slavery (not mentioned) through the Leopoldian, colonial and neo-colonial regimes. That is the way predation priests like to recount history – selectively. It is not unlike the story of Haiti: The objective is to make the victims responsible for their own situation, while at the same time extracting from them (or their land) what was thought to be due. In the case of Haiti, enslaved Africans did something which should be celebrated by humanity as the birth of a new era. Instead, they were forced to pay compensation for what the slave masters and the plantation owners ‘lost’. How France got away with compensation is still beyond comprehension, but it has been evaluated at €20 billion.

But, as seen through the passing of a law calling slavery a crime against humanity (Loi Taubira, May 2001), some within the (French) financial and political establishment in the 21st century, seem to have begun to understand that a massive criminal wrong had been committed on Africans, for centuries. However, given what was done to President Aristide in 2004, it is equally clear that the same establishment is not willing to face the full consequences called for by the passing of the law. At the time of his ousting, President Aristide had been calling for restitution (of the above €20 billion),which is not the same thing as reparations. France’s participation in the ousting of Aristide (along with the support of Canada and the US, among others) sought to make sure that it regained the moral high ground without having to pay for it. And at the same time it made sure that Haiti pass through the IMF and the World Bank solutions for its reconstruction, i.e. let the institutions in charge of maintaining predatory rules get Haiti back on track. This would ensure that Haiti continued begging to the West and retained its label of ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’, while, at the same time, the same West (and their Haitian elite allies)[7] shall continue to demonstrate its humanitarian side through charity, as they understood it.


When the history of the Holocaust is denied as it is, unfortunately and regularly, by the negationists, uproar and outrage follow, as they should.[9] But when the history of Africa and Africans is recounted while ignoring huge chunks of it, it seems to bother no one, including the political leadership in Africa where, one would think, the uproar might be the loudest. Why? Here, one could only raise questions. Some of them follow.[10]

Could it be that, for so long, Africans having counted for nothing[11], in the eyes of the leaders of the world (used to be called the Free World) that they (the Africans) have come to believe that they do not count? And that the only way they think they will count is through a behaviour that is approved by those who decide who counts and who does not. Since the day of the overthrow of slavery in Haiti, the beneficiaries of the most predatory system ever invented by humanity have ensured that only they and those committed to maintaining this system will benefit from it. Long before the Mobutus of yesterday, there were Mobutus who had been more than willing to sell their own relatives in order to become wealthy and powerful in the eyes of those who, back then, were treating Africans as though they did not exist as human beings. Given this kind of precedent and given that in some legal systems slaves came to be known as three-fifths of humans, it looks as if MH are offering to treat Congolese as less than three-fifths.
The authors might consider this an unfair assumption. Yet the unstated logic of their argument can only lead any Congolese toward one conclusion. One has to presume that, from where they stand, they have completely assimilated the rules put in place on how to decide who counts and who does not. Whether they are aware of it or not, MH are refining the rationalisation for increased predation on those who have endured it the most.

One of the authors, Greg Mills, works in South Africa. It is more than 10 years since the end of apartheid, and yet, in that land, one can see the ANC (African National Congress) police doing to South Africans, in particular to the shackdwellers (especially in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg)[12], exactly the same thing that was done to non-whites during the apartheid days. One would think that the entire power structure of South Africa would be outraged by this kind of treatment. No. So the predatory mindset is deeply imbedded, so deeply that to react against it is perceived as an anomaly. Yet, one has to ask, shouldn’t it be the normal thing to do, to rise up against the predatory mindset wherever and whenever it manifests itself?

Is it not the role of any part of humanity to protect all of its members without distinction? Didn’t the Second World War break out because someone dreamed of a final solution against people he considered responsible for all of the problems confronted by another group of people? When the DRC is wiped out, which one will be next? Somalia? Darfur? Madagascar? Sudan? The Niger Delta people? The San in Southern Africa? Chad? Central African Republic? The poorest of the poor in all of the African countries? Clearly the authors will balk and claim that this a complete misreading of their article. I would submit, however, that if MH were to re-read their own piece from the Congolese stand, they might even conclude that this response is mild in the extreme.

A long time ago, Cheikh Anta Diop, the late Senegalese archaeologist/historian/philosopher/linguist/nuclear physicist did argue for the elimination of colonial borders, but for him the argument was from the perspective of uniting against the predators, not for the purpose of carrying out their wishes. In the DRC, despite the wars, scholars have noted that the general sentiment within the population is for keeping the country united.[13] In the name of which kind of democracy would MH argue against the desires of the majority of Congolese people? Or could it be that as Fukuyama did for history, our writers have reached the point of finding democracy too cumbersome and would like to declare it obsolete?


Victors often run into difficulties with their victories. In the case of the DRC, doing everything in order to prevent Patrice Lumumba from actually governing at the time of Independence (30 June 1960) led not just to his assassination, but also to a self-propelling destruction of a country, which went beyond the wildest expectations of Lumumba’s enemies. Soon, the DRC will commemorate its 50th independence anniversary. Its political leadership sees its role as being defined by the very capitals Lumumba stated which, sooner or later, would stop writing the history of the DRC. Several US presidents received Mobutu as a ‘great friend of the US’. Mobutu’s posthumous press, however, is generally far from such adulatory praise. Indeed even MH have to show their low esteem of a man who once was lionised by the Western leaders and press.
The contempt of the writers, even though they might defend themselves against this, goes much deeper than they realise. As with many African histories written from an accounting perspective[14], there is a tendency to just pick on those bits and pieces which are convenient for the needs of the narrative at hand. In this instance, making the case for just ‘writing off’ an entity as if it were a piece of property whose losses were impacting too negatively on the performance of the larger operation. From an accounting perspective, one which Moïse Tshombe (Lumumba’s enemy and the secessionist leader of Katanga province who was also a businessman) and, later, Mobutu understood very well. Although formally a colony, the Belgian Congo had been treated by its owners and managers as a vast plantation, which is to say, from a mindset better suited to those who owned both slaves and plantations, and who had made their fortunes through slavery and the trading in slaves. More formalistic historians will balk at the suggestion that Belgium was involved in the slave trade. That is not the point. The point of this essay is to try and trace the mindset of members of humanity (i.e. MH) whose understanding of humanity has been framed, fostered by those who are eager to make sure that history, any history, is recounted from the perspective of the wealthiest segments of humanity. However, there are moments in history, as in fables, when the most powerful will be forced to beg for help from the weakest.
In a paragraph which starts with a crocodile tear – ‘Congo is rightly notorious for being one of the most pathological instances of the European division of Africa’ – MH end it with the sentence which reads as their reasoning for their own sentencing: ‘The country is the region’s vortex; when it has failed in the past, its neighbours have often gone down with it’. Therefore, better get rid of it. Given what the US financial banditry has done to the world, would the authors suggest that we should be thinking about getting rid of the US? If this sounds outlandish or any other adjective between that and madness, then I submit that any reasonable person might reach the same conclusion with regard to their suggestion about the DRC.
One would still have to explain how and why reasonable academics have arrived at such a conclusion. As a hypothesis for further thinking I would like to quote from two places in Aimé Césaire’s work. First from his poem ‘Batouque’ where he writes something which captures the current times:
‘When the world shall be a tower of silence
Where we shall be the prey and the vulture’
(Aimé Césaire. 1970. Batouque, in Les armes miraculeuses, Gallimard, Paris, p. 64)
And then from his tragedy, Et les chiens se taisaient (And the dogs kept quiet), in which one learns about what happens to rebels when they have gone beyond the limits set by the masters of the system (then slavery). At the very beginning of the play, the words come from the mouth of an echo. Let the words from the echo conclude this piece. Some readers might feel hurt. That is part of the price extracted by true healing:
‘Architecte aux yeux bleus
je te défie
prends garde à toi architecte car si meurt le Rebelle
ce ne sera pas sans avoir fait clair pour tous que tu es le
bâtisseur d’un monde de pestilence
architecte prends garde à toi
qui t’a sacré? En quelle nuit as-tu troqué le compas
contre le poignard?
architecte sourd aux choses clair comme l’arbre mais
fermé comme une cuirasse chacun de tes pas est une
conquête et une spoliation et un contresens et un
Bien sûr qu’il va quitter le monde le Rebelle ton monde
de viol où la victime est par ta grâce une brute et un
architecte Orcus sans porte et sans étoile sans source
et sans orient
architecte à la queue de paon au pas de cancer à la parole
bleue de champignon et d’acier prends garde à toi
(Aimé Césaire, (1970) Et les chiens se taisaient , in Les armes miraculeuses, Gallimard, Paris, p. 74)
Blue-eyed architect
I defy you
Beware architect, for should the rebel pass away
It will not be without having made clear for everyone that you are
The builder of a world of pestilence.
Architect beware yourself
Who ordained you? In which night did you exchange the compass
For the dagger?
Architect deaf to crystal clear things like a tree but
Closed up like an armour each of your steps is a
Conquest and a destruction and counter sensical and an
Of course he shall leave the world the Rebel your world
Of rape where the victim thanks to your graciousness is a brute and an
Impious one
Architect Orcus entryless, starless and sourceless
And clueless
Architect with a peacock tail with a cancerous amble madly in
Love with soft and steely words beware yourself
[Free translation, JD]

* Jacques Depelchin is CAPES Fellow (2007-9) (Brasil) and co-founder of the Otabenga Alliance

[1] ‘THEY’ stands for any of the following: bankers, financiers, the richest of the rich, academics in search of approval from those who consider themselves the crème de la crème of humanity. In his Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire had pointed out the close affinities between colonialism and Nazism. I am arguing that the mindset denounced by Aimé Césaire has grown more virulent today than it was then.
[2] Many thanks to Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, Erroll Henderson and Pauline Wynter for reading and commenting on a previous draft. This does not mean that they agree with the final version. Just as I was sending off this essay, the DRC minister for Communication and Media, and government’s spokesperson, Lambert Mende Omalanga had responded to the same article, but I was unable to locate a website source for it: ‘RDC: Les Prédateurs ont la dent dure.’ Try hinterland@yahoogroupes.fr
[3] See: New York Times, 16 December 2008. Later reasserted by President Sarkozy in a slightly modified version, but just as predatory in its intention.
[4] One should never forget that conquering processes have been at the birth of some of the most murderous roots of capitalism, and they have continued to be an integral part of its reproduction.
[5] Doing a tabula rasa of history has been one of the most important practices of the conquering mentality. The conqueror establishes where history begins. Before the conquest, by definition, there was no history worth remembering or recounting. One of the most recent theorisers of this way of looking at history is of course Francis Fukuyama. If history is erased, so is responsibility.
[6] In one of his essays on the DRC, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba went even further by pointing out that, in a sociological sense, there is no Congolese society because a society is one which is organised as a community for the purpose of taking care of itself, but Wamba does not go from there to then suggest that the solution would be to pretend that the Congolese people’s existence and framework for existing, the State, should be wiped off the map.
[7] See Open letter to Ban Ki-moon by Richard Morse,http://www.counterpunch.org/morse04012009.html
[8] For example, as has been revealed by the BBC (see by Mike Thomson, presenterhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7984436.stm) about how the allies wanted the liberation of Paris to appear as an ‘all white’ affair even though more than 60 per cent of the troops under the General de Gaulle’s command were from Africa. In this case, the allies were all in agreement to negate the contribution of the African soldiers. This information came to me as I was finalising this essay. Clearly it deserves better than finding itself in a footnote. History-fixing from the perspective of those who were ruled not to be winners is a work in progress. This call for a piece titled ‘The history of humanity is not an all white affair’.
[9] At the same time, without apologising for the negationists, it is high time to move away from the Holocaust as the sole standard of reference for human suffering, because its tacit acceptance has been, in part, the reason why historians have not been able to let go of the logic imposed by history as framed by victors.
[10] The list is much longer. For the purposes of this exercise, a suggestion will suffice. It would be an excellent exercise to begin to build a list of questions to be submitted to the current rulers on the continent, as we go through the next 15 years of 50th anniversary celebrations of independences (2010-2025).
[11] And proclaimed as ‘nothings’ or worse, providing one of the basis for slavery.
[12] See the DVD on Pambazukanews website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZWIZX_8ub8
[13] See Herbert Weiss ‘The Enduring Idea of the Congo: Public Attitudes, the Nation, and the State’, with Tatiana Carayannis, in Ricardo Laremont, ed., Borders, Nationalism, and the African State (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, 2004). My thanks to Erroll Henderson for this reference.
[14] MH might say that they are not historians. Maybe, but their piece, even if it is not history does seek to convey how they look at the DRC, during a span of years. Their reference to the Leopoldian ‘red rubber’ regime conveys disgust and horror. That reference is also emblematic of how they understand the relationship between the history of a state and the history of the people living in that geographical area. Surely, the history of the Congolese people goes much further back than the history of the Congo Free State as put together by the then king of Belgium.

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