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The Atlantic slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade (Photo credit: cool-art)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is haltingly stumbling away from the eleventh war since its Independence in June 1960. The question, which is on the mind of all the Congolese people, is whether this peace – finalized in April 2003 – shall hold; whether, this time, the politicians who agreed to work together in the transition government of national unity will really work for the benefit of all the Congolese. Given the way in which the agreement was reached, there are good reasons to be doubtful. Government partners continue to be suspicious of each other. There are still signs that some people are pursuing the war by other means.

It is obvious that in order to understand the nature and depth of the Congolese crisis, it is necessary to deepen both the space and time parameters beyond the usual regional and continental limits. In addition to others, which will be made clear below, the principal reason for expanding the geographical and historical horizon is that globalization as practiced today looks, at the risk of distortion, very much like the modernization of Atlantic Slavery. This is also in response to Edouard Glissant’s well known encouragement to "have a prophetic vision of the past" to which we could add "with an ancestral vision of the future". Only such an approach can really help us understand how and why, at so many turns of our collective history, we have not been able to take ourselves seriously and repair the effects and consequences of that Crime Against Humanity, as the UN Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and all forms of Intolerance (Durban, South Africa, August-September 2001) described Atlantic Slavery, the wiping out of Native Americans and other aboriginal populations.

From Atlantic and Oriental Slavery (as globalization was practiced then) to the current destruction observed in the DRC, in Africa, in the USA and many other places on the planet, we can learn more quickly from our specific histories if we approach them from a perspective which reveals the similarities: the search for resources be they slaves, rubber, diamonds, coltan, oil, timber, water or uranium shall always trigger conflicts. Conflicts and wars of conquest will erupt in order to access resources. The resulting violence will end with destruction. Conquering states, colonizing states, pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial, have been the central tools for carrying out these looting processes.
The search and thirst for the Congo’s resources is not a recent phenomenon. From the days of Atlantic Slavery, the Kongo Kingdom became one of the prized destinations of slave traders. As a result of the conflicts generated by the search for slaves, the area was devastated by what has been described by historians as Jagga invasions, military expeditions in search of slaves. Kimpa Vita, a heroin resister against the onslaught was burned (like Joan of Arc) for having denounced the Kings’ participation in the slave trade (1703), and the help of the Catholic Church.

As a result of the last war (1998-2003), there has been a tendency to downplay previous conflicts, which erupted in the Congo around the question of resources, from rebellions during the Slave Trade era to colonial and post-colonial rebellions.

Looking at the pattern of the history of the Congo, from the time of Atlantic slavery, it is obvious that the wealth (resources) of the country has been intimately connected to conflicts regardless of the historical period (before colonial occupation, during colonial rule or after). The use of violence and military force in order to secure and control access to these resources was crucial. When the country became Independent in 1960, in the thick of the Cold War, the US sought to ensure that the Congo stayed on the side of the West. For this alone, the US and its allies, Belgium (former colonial power), France and the others did all they could to make sure that the Congolese would only follow their dictates. Lumumba, the first and only elected Prime Minister, was overthrown within weeks of assuming power (September 4, 1960).

In order to seriously re-think the reconstruction of the DRC, it is crucial to look at the history of the country through a lens which allows us to see beyond our own borders. If we look at the DRC’s Independence in 1960: when Independence began to be discussed by academics like Van Bilsen in 1955, it was envisioned as a process which would take place over a 30 year period. The understanding most Belgians had of colonial rule was a benevolent, paternalist episode in which the Belgian King Leopold II had ‘sacrificed’ his fortune in order to bring civilization to the Heart of Africa. When Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost came out in 1998 in both English and French, the Belgian historical establishment and the average Belgian were shocked to learn that the truth was drastically different: what had happened could be described as a genocide. Accessing rubber at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th led to massive loss of human life among the Congolese.

The achievement of Independence in 1960 and (insult to injury) Lumumba’s speech at the Independence official ceremony, seeking to straighten the record, led to Lumumba and his acolytes being punished to such a degree that others were not encouraged. Not only was Lumumba killed, but his body and that of his companions had to be dissolved in acid. Later on, in Kisangani and in all the areas known to have been favourable to Lumumba, a witch-hunt was launched against all Lumumbists. Similarly, the successful armed struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola, in 1975 (around the time of the US defeat in Vietnam) extracted a heavy price in the form of a relentless policy of terrorism and destabilization against the governments in place in those countries, by the apartheid regime, hand in hand with the US. Most countries in Africa, around 1960, the so-called year of Independence, found themselves in a predicament: how to consolidate a victory in a most hostile context, one dominated by a determination on the part of former colonial powers not to accept the former colonies as equal partners.

As pointed out in critiques of development as a failure, scaffolding was put in place to build colonial rule, development and, before, slavery. The end of slavery, and colonial rule meant the removal of the scaffolding, but the building stayed on and served the primary purpose of reinforcing subjugation of one group by another. From Slavery through colonial occupation and Apartheid, the historical end of these oppressive regimes did not mean the end of the system. In fact, quite the opposite happened as has been shown by UN statistics about the deepening of poverty for the poorest people of the planet.

Through these common histories of ours, we have learned that changes can be transformative, politics do not have to be monopolized by politicians or state institutions. Emancipatory politics require that we remain faithful to the subject which has been fighting for the very same objectives we are still fighting today: a world freed from conquering warfare, a world driven by the concern for building sustained peace between people.

* Jacques Depelchin is with the Ota Benga International Alliance for Peace in the Congo.
* This is a summary of a presentation at the Symposium, Futures of Southern Africa, Windhoek, Namibia, Sept 15-17, 2003.

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